IMMOLATION “The End Is Near”
By Dr. Abner Mality
The strangest thing about talking to Immolation frontman Ross Dolan is how happy and easy going he sounds. Naturally, I didn’t expect his normal speaking voice to be anything like the demonic croak he uses with Immolation, but then I didn’t figure he’d spend so much of the interview laughing and shooting the breeze like any normal dude. You have to remember, Immolation performs some of the darkest and most suffocating death metal on the planet. And never more so than on their latest platter “Atonement”.
I found Ross in a laid back and talkative mood. The result was one of the most enjoyable chats I’ve had in a while, even though quite a bit of the talk referred to the self-destructive tendencies of mankind, the hypocrisies of religion and the general darkness of the death metal world. Immolation are at a good spot in their long career, with little pressure to change or warp their sound in any way.
So I think you’ll all enjoy the following epic interview, where the voice of doom speaks in cheerful tones…
WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: Would you say that “Atonement” is perhaps the darkest Immolation album?
ROSS DOLAN: Yeah, in my opinion, I think it is. It’s dark musically and lyrically. I think it’s a step above our other releases in that department. It’s also a very different kind of record, especially compared to the last one (“Kingdom of Conspiracy”) which was very aggressive and straightforward, in your face kind of record. This one has a lot of that, but it also has a lot of darker, slower, epic dark sections. It’s just a different type of record. But yeah, that’s always the goal, in our minds! (laughs)To create some thing dark, heavy and over the top.
WC: You’re not exactly known for doing cheerful stuff. But there’s not a ray of light on this one!
RD: (laughs uproariously) I got to tell Bob that. He’ll be so happy to hear you said that! He’ll get a kick out of that, that’s great! You know, I always bust his balls. There are some sections on the album that are just so frickin’ miserable sounding! I’m like, damn, kid! You must have been having a bad day when you wrote this one!
WC: Even the moments that aren’t crushingly heavy, the ones that are minor key, even those are grim and sepulchral.
RD: (laughs) Nice, nice! I gotta remember that. I’m gonna tell Bob that. “There’s not a ray of light on this record!” That’s a huge compliment!
WC: I just wrote the review for “Atonement” last night and I stuck that phrase in there…
RD: Oh ho ho, that’s awesome!
WC: As far as the title of the album goes, does it refer to humanity as a whole or is it more specific?
RD: No, you’re absolutely right and you’re the first person I’ve spoken to out of all these interviews who just came out and said that. That’s absolutely what it’s about. The album title means just that, it applies to humanity. There’s so many different aspects that we touch on topically with the lyrics of this record. There’s only two songs this time that touch on religion, for example. The title of the record doesn’t apply in a religious sense. It’s broader and it’s cool that you pointed that out. The song “Atonement” was specific, it was written about religious extremism and we had the title of that first because obviously it worked perfectly for us in a cynical kind of way. And our fans understand that. When we decided to use it for the album title itself, we knew it worked fine and it was right there in front of us all along because we already had it as a song title. We touch on so many of the darker sides of reality, the darker sides of humanity in all of these songs. I think all of our records from the very beginning are about that. We always talk about the darker side of our reality and whether it manifests itself through religion, which was what we focused on on our first records or on a bigger world scale looking at humanity in general, which is where we’ve been going since “Unholy Cult”. So yes, you are correct.
WC: You guys have been tough on God right from the start…
RD: Yeah, tough on religion I think, in general, if you know what I’m saying. To each his own, but we’ve always had very strong opinions about that. All of the guys in the band and so many people we know and are close with feel the same way. It was really about religion in general . We approached it from the standpoint that we were familiar with, going to Catholic high school and all that. We had a lot of ammunition and a lot of stuff in the closet to break out. (laughs) It’s something we felt strongly about and something we analyzed critically.
WC: Even though religion is seen in a negative light, it sure creates a lot of great imagery you can use, like the angel of death on the cover of the record.
RD: Oh, absolutely and we’ve always kind of done that. We’ve used those iconic religious images and symbols really to personify the good and evil in the world. On the newer records, we’ve kind of strayed away from that because we’ve said as much as we can possibly say without getting too redundant. Now we’re very selective about what we write about when we touch on the religious topics. We always have a couple of songs on every record that touch on that. You know, it’s some old ideas done in a new way. But since “Unholy Cult” we’ve kind of shifted into a broader scope.
WC: Not to be political, but the timing of this album is perfect because we are living in a dystopia. Because we are actually living inside it, we don’t realize it as much as we might. If you were to transplant somebody from the 1970’s to today, they’d be aghast.
RD: Yeah, you’re right and you touch on something that is very important. It is a slow burn and that’s why you don’t notice it. These things don’t happen overnight. It’s a slow, gradual burn and we’ve seen things take a wrong turn right after 9/11, you know. I’m just using that because even though things started earlier than that, a lot of the problems we’re seeing now started in the 70’s but it was a slow, slow burn to get to this point. I think 9/11 was more of a catalyst to move that forward. And here we are now. There’s so many different problems and horrible things going on all around the world. You can’t even say it’s just here in the US, it’s all around the world. And there’s so many factors that go into that, you know. I try to keep it light in the interviews because I don’t really like to get on huge political rants. I understand it, the fans don’t want to hear that shit, they don’t appreciate it. Some people said that our last album went in more of a political direction and I don’t see that at all. We used George Orwell’s “1984” as a kind of template to craft that record. Back when we wrote that record, everything we spoke about was very relevant. You’re right, it does kind of change the whole landscape of the world. And here we are, four years after that release and things have gotten worse. (chuckles) That’s why this new record will probably strike a chord with a lot of people and resonate really well because it’s real. There’s nothing we’re talking about on this record that isn’t happening or has happened. It is what it is. Politically, I don’t want to take any kind of political stance because I don’t want to get into that but I think everybody around the world knows there’s so much corruption in everything that’s happening now. There’s a deeper problem beneath the more obvious shit that’s on the surface. There’s a much deeper problem. You mentioned the timing of this album and I think you’re right. It gets right down to business with the first song. We touch on so many aspects of what’s wrong in the world in our eyes.
WC: Now we’re in the world of “alternative facts”…
RD: Oh yeah, I know! That was kind of funny. The funny thing is, these things apply to certain people but WE can’t get away with that! Until people understand all the nonsense that’s going on…and it’s all very divisive. If you see what’s going on in our country now, it’s such a shame. The country is so divided! And moreso because of this election which dragged on for two years. I was so tired of hearing it. But it’s one of those divisive forces that are constant in our world…that, religion, race. All this divisiveness really separates people and keeps them from focusing on what’s really going on, what the real problem is. It’s textbook…divide and conquer. Keep people bickering about nonsense and all the real insidious shit happens behind the scenes. The public usually doesn’t get a whiff of it until it’s already done.
WC: I see you brought back your old logo on this album. What made it the right time to do that?
RD: I think aesthetically it looks better on this cover than the newer logo. We mock up the album covers when they’re completed with both logos every time. A lot of times in the past the old logo just doesn’t work with the artwork. Sometimes it tramples on the artwork or it takes away from it or it just looks weird because you have to squeeze it into a smaller section of the artwork. It almost feels like you’re forcing it in there and it just doesn’t look right. With this album cover, we didn’t have any idea we’d be using the old logo until we had the finished piece. We had it mocked up again with both logos and the old logo was definitely the winner. It really just looked perfect. It gave it a more sinister vibe. We tried it with the new logo and I don’t know, the new logo didn’t add anything to the artwork. That was plain and simple why we used the old logo. It wasn’t like we had a master plan.
WC: To me the old logo is kind of like a shroud. (laughter) It seems to match the robe the angel on the cover is wearing. It’s one of the better covers you’ve done and you’ve had some great ones.
RD: I agree because in some ways it’s a nice nod to those earlier covers but at the same time it’s not a rip off of those earlier covers. I think it expresses exactly where we are right now with the band. Everything on that album cover illustrates what we’re speaking about. The whole tone of it reflects the tone of the world right now. It’s a sad commentary but unfortunately we don’t get to pick or choose. (laughs) It is what it is.
RD: Yeah! I think Par the artist did such a tremendous job with it. We were totally blown away. That cover was inspired by just four lines in the song “Atonement”. When we were trying to come up with concepts, Bob honed in on those lines and said what if we use this as a visual? It works because those lines really painted that picture when you read them. So we used that as a template and articulated all our ideas and sent them over to Par. What you see is what he sent back to us. We were just blown away. “Wow, this is really cool.” I’m glad that so far the fans are really happy with it, they like the fact that we used the old logo. The feedback is nice to hear.
WC: It looks just as cheerful as what’s inside!
RD: (laughs) Totally! I’m glad you said that because we actually have more artwork inside that hasn’t been revealed yet. We had another artist from Poland, Zbignew Bieleck, who did four pieces that are specific to four of the songs on the record. And these things are completely different style than the cover artwork. They’re very detailed line drawings in black and white. Wow, amazing, dude, wait until you see it. He killed it, man! It’s cool because they haven’t really teased any of that stuff yet so it’s still kind of hidden, secretive.
WC: When you recorded the album, did you do anything different from previous albums? Any special technique you used this time around?
RD: I think all in all the process is usually the same and it was this time with the exception of this time we spent a lot of time working on the drum tones, because that was one of the major bones we had to pick with the last record. We got a lot of flack for the drum sound on that. Zack, the guy who mixed and mastered our last few records, when we reached out to him to be part of this project, he wanted to address the same things we wanted to address. So we were all on the same page from the beginning. In retrospect, you can’t really say it’s anybody’s fault. You gotta realize that this is very difficult music to get right because there are so many things going on. Everything’s competing with everything else to be heard in the mix. It’s challenging for these guys to make sure everything shines. It’s especially difficult when you consider we’re working against deadlines.
That being said, we had extra time to craft these songs. That wasn’t specific to the studio, we started writing the record in early 2015 and we just hit some stumbling blocks along the way. We finally got in the studio in June of 2016. That was a year and a half process that we went through for the writing of this record, which is unheard of for us. Usually it’s a five month process. But there was some writer’s block along the way, Bob had to step away from it for a while to wait for that inspiration to come again. Our drummer Steve broke his ankle in September of 2015. It was really bad, it was broken in three places, he had to have surgery and have a rod put in his leg and a plate. It was an absolute nightmare for him. For six months he had to get physical therapy. All these things just kept pushing the record back but like I keep saying, the silver lining in that is we had so much time to really learn the songs, understand them, tweak them and really fine tune everything. When we got in the studio, we did 100% of what we could possibly do to make this as good as we wanted. (laughs) We had that time and it worked in our favor.
WC: Having broken ankles is especially bad for an extreme drummer.
RD: Oh yeah, he was out of the race for six or seven months. We had one real show during that time, the Oakland Deathfest, which was put together by the guys who do Maryland Deathfest. It was the first edition of that fest and we had to play it. We got Ronnie Palmer from Perdition’s Temple and formerly of Angelcorpse to fill in for that one show. He learned the songs in just a couple of weeks and did us a solid. He was playing with our old guitar player Bill in Perdition’s Temple. He graciously bailed our ass out at that show and did a really good job. We were very fortunate that we had a Plan B or otherwise we would have had to cancel the show. That was the first time ever we had to do something like that. Now Steve’s back and he’s 110% as you can hear on the record.
WC: What sort of early tour plans do you have for “Atonement”?
RD: We’re actually getting ready to roll out Sunday afternoon. We’re going out to Ohio to get Steve and then we start the tour on the 9th is Las Vegas, Nevada with the Cavalera Brothers, who are doing the “Return to Roots” tour over here again. That’s cool for us because anybody who’s into Immolation knows that early Sepultura was a huge influence on that band. The early stuff like “Bestial Devastation”, “Morbid Rites”, “Schizophrenia”. Those albums were just savage, you know. When we were just forming as a band, we were discovering Sepultura and we were like, wow, this stuff is savage, it’s barbaric, it’s over the top. It’s what we were looking for. That’s why this tour is really cool for us because these guys really were a huge inspiration on us, just like other bands of the time like Possessed. “Seven Churches” was a huge inspiration for us. The early Kreator and Destruction stuff like “Pleasure To Kill” and “Endless Pain” and “Infernal Overkill”, “Sentence of Death”…all of that early stuff, but also the bands that came out immediately after that. Sepultura was one of those bands for sure.
WC: You can have a meeting of the minds with the Cavalera boys.
RD: Yeah, it’s very cool. I met the guys way back in “Beneath the Remains” days and it’s gonna be cool to be on the stage with these guys every night and be on tour with them. Right after that tour, we go to Europe with Vader, that’s in April. Then we come back and do the Decibel Metal and Beer Fest in Philly on April 22nd. That’s the immediate plans right now. We’re probably going to hook up something over the summer and then hit it hard again at the end of the year. We want to get out there as much as we can with this record since we didn’t do a lot for “Kingdom of Conspiracy”.
WC: Since you’re one of the forefathers of American death metal, what would you say the current state of that scene is? Is it superior, inferior or just different?
RD: Obviously it’s different in some ways, especially for us, because when we started, the scene was very new and fresh. And also, a lot of people don’t understand that it was still pre-internet when we started, which is an insane concept for the younger fans. The internet was always part of their lives But we’re part of that unique generation that had one foot before and one foot after, you know?(laughs)
WC: The old paper zines were my inspiration. Even though I’m now on the internet, I still think with everything that I do, what would this look like if I did it on paper?
RD: It really speaks about the level of dedication necessary to do things in those days. Not to take anything away from the kids now, but like you brought up the fanzines. It was all word of mouth. You didn’t have the internet, but you had fanzines and you had tape trading. That’s how you discovered new bands. You’d find this sick looking photocopied black and white magazine with crazy artwork all over it. Every page was visually appealing and that’s what I loved so much about the old fanzines. It wasn’t like reading a book or even some magazines. It was really well done, with hand drawn pictures all over the place and flyers and ads. And you also had interviews and reviews of bands you may have heard of or bands that maybe you just looked at their logo and you’d go, these guys look ridiculously sick, you know?
WC: Those zines were the first place I heard of Immolation, the first place I heard of Sepultura. Here’s a band from Brazil. Brazil?!
RD: Yeah, we were the same way! We had no idea how vast the underground death metal scene was until we started getting letters and cassette tapes from bands and magazines from everywhere. South America, Canada, Russia, all over the States, eastern Europe. You name it, it was insane. We were overwhelmed by how huge this network of fans and bands was. Mind blowing! Now with the internet, you can probably multiply that by a million!(laughs) That’s one of the big differences. Back then, when it was smaller and fresher and in its infancy, a lot of the bands were very unique, very cutting edge and very identifiable. Every band had their own thing going on whereas now, obviously, you still have a lot of newer bands that shine, but there are so many more bands and it reaches so many more people. It’s so much to absorb. It’s overwhelming how many bands there are!
WC: I’d like to cover everything I get exposed to but it’s not literally possible anymore.
RD: Yeah, another big factor is that we’re not 17 or 18 year old kids anymore. We have families and a lot of responsibilities and jobs. Sometimes you just don’t have time. You miss those old days. I just had a buddy over and we just listened to CDs. I was playing him some stuff he never heard before He said, wow, that was awesome! I haven’t just sat down and just listened to tunes with friends in I don’t know how long. I said, I know, man, I miss it, it’s such a cool thing. It reminds me of when I was a teenager and sharing music with my buddies.
WC: I used to literally almost camp out to get certain albums. The release of a new Judas Priest album was a big deal. I used to go to the record store and ask, is it out yet? Nowadays, no big deal. I would probably be on Youtube even before getting in the store.
RD: Exactly. I remember that excitement. I remember certain albums specifically. The day I got them, where I got them. I remember taking the bus to the record store to get “Hell Awaits”. I remember the day it came out, I knew it was gonna be out that day. I got home from school, walked to the bus stop, take a public bus to the record store and I bought it and came home and then I actually went to my aunt’s house because she had a way better stereo than I had!(laughs) It was the same thing when “Ride The Lightning” came out or “Fistful of Metal” came out.
WC: Any new Venom album…
RD: Aw, man, I was all over that! I was fortunate because I grew up in Yonkers and you could literally take a bus and wind up in Times Square. We were lucky, we were right at ground zero of everything. But, that being said, we still had to travel sometimes to get some of the more obscure releases. It was like an event. We’d save up our money and there was a place in Long Island called Slipped Disc Records.
WC: Oh yes sir!
RD: Yeah, I think everybody back in the day remembered Slipped Disc. And it was such a fuckin’ great store! One of the best. It was a long car ride out there, so you actually had to have a buddy with a license to drive, you know?(laughs) We were 15, 16. It was about an hour and change to get there. We’d go on a Saturday and plan it out for a month. We’d go out there with whatever money we earned in our day jobs and we’d buy everything. You’d walk in and say oh man, they got this on vinyl! They got this on cassette, they got this on CD! They’d have everything. If you wanted Sepultura, they’d have everything they ever put out. Even singles! They had all the Maiden singles! And shirts! It was the only store where they had the first Mercyful Fate EP with the nun on the cross and they had a shirt of that. Wow, that was the only place I ever saw that shirt. A friend of mine got it and I was real jealous of him.
WC: If you could have dinner with any three people from history, who would they be?
RD: Huh! Very interesting question. I have to think about that one.
WC: Let’s come back to that one. What was the last release you picked up just because you wanted to hear it?
RD: Last release I got, I ordered a bunch of stuff on Amazon. I got the last Grotesque album. I got the new Ruinous from our guitar player but I didn’t actually order that one! (laughs) What else? The new Dr. Shrinker, which Rich sent me. Rich is super cool and I’m so glad they finally put out a full length that’s got some of the classics and newer stuff on it as well. That’s out on Dread Records.
WC: That Ruinous CD is a pretty grim offering.
RD: That’s a great CD, it’s got some pretty cool aspects to it. The bass is tremendous. It’s like early Voi Vod bass style, it’s really sick and kind of a nod to the old school.
WC: Any sort of Spinal Tap moment in your past that you could share with us?
RD: Oh yeah! I think every show with us is a Spinal Tap moment, you know what I’m saying? (laughs) We’ve had those moments like when they’re trying to get to the stage and get lost. Yeah, we’ve had that happen multiple times and sometimes even in small clubs. How the hell do you get to the stage? And you wind up in some different part of the building. What the hell?(laughs) You’re standing around with your guitar ready to go and feeling like a dipshit!
WC: Come up with your three people yet?
RD: Yeah! Since I’ve read up a lot on World War II history and my girlfriend is a history major. I would choose someone from that era. It might be Eisenhower, because of his role as the supreme commander of the Allied forces….what a psychological kind of mess that must have been for these guys who were running the show. It was a very unique point in history as far as the scope of that war goes. Not to take anything away from World War I, which was also a very terrible war but by the time they got to the start of World War II, there was so much technological advancement in the war machinery. I would lean to a figure like an Eisenhower or even an FDR who implemented a lot of social plans in this country. He was the only president who got elected for four terms. It would be cool to sit down and pick his brain. Those are two people I’d like to talk to. I had a lot of family who were in that war but unfortunately I was too young at the time to pick their brains and get their stories on that era.
WC: Unfortunately we’re losing more and more people from that generation. People are going to misunderstand that war more and more. Hitler doesn’t mean the same thing to kids today that he did to us.
RD: Yeah, it’s a shame. We’ve been to a lot of the historical sites in Europe when we’ve toured there. We’ve been to the invasion beaches in Normandy, we went to Belgium, we visited the Ardennes and saw all the memorials there. All the temporary cemeteries for both sides, the Germans and the US soldiers both. One thing that struck me about going to these cemeteries, specifically the German ones, was how beautifully maintained they were. Another thing that struck me was the ages of a lot of the German soldiers…
RD: Yeah! Young kids, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. It’s so mind blowing and it’s a side of that war that people don’t see. But when you’re there and looking at the stones….and there are three names on a stone, three names on a grave…you see the ages. This is nuts! Seeing that cemetery with rows on rows of these stones, it hits you like nothing else. It’s overwhelming.
WC: I think we could be heading to something similar to this soon.
RD: I would hope not. We should be at a point in our evolution where we are way past having to worry about that.
WC: On that cheerful note…(laughs) Any last words for the fans?
RD: I just want to thank them for the 29 years of support they have given us. Without that support, there would be no Immolation. We hope to pay them back on tour and we will see you out there very soon!