It was an album that came out of nowhere to astound many and breathe much needed new fire into Death Metal.
It had an oddball production that was nonetheless totally intriguing. But most of all it had songs. Grade A songs that still sound powerful and provocative today, fifteen years on.
‘Failures For Gods’ may not be the best album in Immolation’s discography, but it’s the most important. It was the one that turned the band from being a washed up death metal casualty of the Great Roadrunner Cull into one of the most important acts the genre has ever had.
So while many will say ‘Unholy Cult’ captured better the essence of the band at its peak, I’d argue that without this gamechanger album, they’d never have even gotten to it.
The band’s two previous albums, ‘Dawn Of Possession’ and the lesser ‘Herein After’ were utterly unremarkable affairs as death metal goes. Alright, so ‘Dawn’s songwriting showed hints of the excellence to follow. But these really were meat and potatoes stuff.
Three critical factors came together to make ‘Failures’ go far beyond them.
That Production – So Wierd It’s Great
Even when it came out, it was an object of intense debate. Was this a great production or an awful one?
It was all down to Paul Orofino. He was the absolute antithesis of the Jim Morris or Scott Burns producer who’d been churning out death metal since the late 80s. Far from it. The hardest he’d done before 1998 was Riot, or a little bit of shredding from Vinnie Moore.
What he brought to ‘Failures’ however would come not only to define this record, but the sound of the band itself.
What’s odd about it?
Well, it can best be described as muffled, gluggy, brown, cardboardy, dense, like molasses, or any other amount of inadequate words.
The bass drums, far from clicky, are pronounced, thuddish and bizzarrely tuned to a sort of low mid-range – like typing on a clunky fat keyboard. The snare had a certain tubbiness. The guitars are rounded, as opposed to the scooped sharpness of the Florida school. The vocals, free from reverb, are dry as the sahara. It is exceptionally strange.
Marry this to Immo’s dissonant and muddy chordal choices and you’ve got one ugly concoction. Basically, it was a unique sound – the only real reference point being (perhaps) the crushingly dense murk of Nile’s ‘Amongst The Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka’ from a year previously. There are very few other comparitors, save for demos that were very likely trying their best not to sound like that at all.
Yet there was a lot to love in this strange sound. It gave the band an immediate sound all of their own. The plainness and lack of effect gave away how superb the playing was, and almost demanded you listen more and more.
The other key thing about this record’s role in defining the band was the arrival of Alex Hernandez on drums.
Orofino’s odd production gave him an overly pronounced place in the mix, and whether by accident or design, it would come to make his drumming central to the very voicing of the band.
He just did incredible shit on this album – whether in the form of intricate fills, furious blastbeats or the immense creativity within his tom work, every beat is worth savouring.
Hear the opening riffs of ‘No Jesus, No Beast’. What is going on there? What seems like a straight 4/4 riff only with the hi-hats pulsing along in 3/4, it’s a total mind melt, and yet so easy to get sucked into. He does the same thing on the ride cymbal during those blasts as well- something many a death metal drummer has come to copy.
Even deep album cuts, like ‘Your Angel Died’ where he’s playing so hard the bass drums sound like they’re about to overtake the snare, are worth hearing for his work.
Without doubt, Hernandez raised a death metal bar on this one. Yes, Sandoval was still at the top of the tree, and yes, guys like Kevin Talley were pushing the very speed barriers at around the same time. But Alex Hernandez had a voice and an approach of his own, and that was vital.
The Amazing Tunes
It is an album of anthems. No-one had written lyrics with such memorably irreligious fire since Deicide’s ‘Once Upon The Cross’ (and arguably, very few still have risen to that plate) – with songs and lyrics, like ‘Once’, that were both direct and memorable.
Stick it on tonight and right from the start you can feel yourself mouthing the lyrics even after all these years.
It’s easy to underestimate what the ferocity of opener ‘Once Ordained’ was like back in 1999. A mucky hurricane of sound, whipping everything up into its blastbeats. Then, two bona-fide death metal classics.
‘No Jesus, No Beast’ with its slamming chorus after tumble upon tumble of double kick underlay (just listen to those kicks alone – it’s an incredible performance) sent shivers down the spine for the bands preparedness to bark those lyrics out so clearly and fully.
Then the title track itself; a masterly crafted riff that had athem written all over it. Serious, severe and solemn, it stands towering like the devil on the album artwork. After that unholy reversed guitar, the little skip beat on the snare which lent it a miltaristic, parading air and yet with a impossible to ignore groove too.
It remains a masterstroke, bettered again by the blasting follow up with its ‘Icon of icons’ vocal hook.
Even the guitars were odd too – the solos not fluid legato, or speedy tapping arpeggios, but instead a sort of strangulated gasps that sounded as if they were being wrung out rather than merely played.
So it goes on, track after track.
The band would go on to record a string of increasingly awesome albums after it. The ferocious ‘Close To A World Below’ which managed to get even more intensely heavy, and the ultimate distillation of their sound and technical tightness, ‘Unholy Cult’. And you could perhaps argue that these are more consistent or more powerful albums.
‘Failures’ however is still the one I reach for. In its oddity it gained personality. It was a perfect companion piece for Nile, and Gorguts’ epochal ‘Obscura’ of 1998 – a talisman album signalling that death metal was changing for good.
And not only death metal – for would we have the Deathspell Omegas, Bolzers and Dead Congregations of this world without a reborn Immolation? Probably not, without the seminal, dark, difficult and writhing sound of this classic album.
– Earl Grey ::: 01/12/14