Interview with Immolation vocalist/bassist Ross Dolan | By Nicholas Senior
When a band are about to release their 10th album, sometimes it’s about giving themselves – or ending up with – extra time to make the final product that much more special. That’s the route some of New York’s finest death metal purveyors, Immolation, took with their upcoming release. Atonement – available now via Nuclear Blast – finds the band honing in on their unique take on the style, but it’s the added time the band had on the little things that makes their 10th record their best yet.
Vocalist and bassist Ross Dolan explains how Immolation ended up with more time than usual to craft their latest batch of top-notch tunes. “Honestly, this was a rough one for us, because we had so many setbacks during the course of this one,” he says. “We started this process February of 2015, so it started a while ago, and that’s not normally our style. Normally, we’re about two, three months out from the studio and start writing and it comes together. We had a lot of time with this one.”
“By May, we had about three songs finished, and [guitarist] Bob [Vigna] hit a wall, had some writer’s block,” he continues, “and our drummer Steve [Shalaty] broke his ankle around September of last year. That put everything on hold; he needed surgery and had rods put into his leg, so it was a big deal, you know? It took him about six months to just go through the rehab and learn how to play. Luckily, we had a tour lined up when he came back, so he got to ease into things, and we were absolutely ready to pump out the record by the end.”
Immolation do everything with an old-school mindset; the production values clarity rather than brick-walled sound. Dolan discusses the band’s recording style, saying, “It’s always been a problem for us, to find that sweet spot. The kind of stuff we play is all over the map dynamically: it’s super fast, super slow, multiple layers of guitars and shit going on. To make everything shine in the production is real tricky. With this one, we really tried to go into [it] and make this one sound really good. Specifically, with the drums; they sound amazing. That was the main thing we wanted to address, because we all thought they sounded a bit too mechanical on [2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy]. We do actually listen to what people tell us and try to address them with each record,” he laughs.
For a band with a notable antipathy toward religion, Immolation’s music has a lot of soul. Atonement is no different. Dolan agrees. “The music has to have that feeling, that soul. That’s how we write. It’s not like we’re trying to break speed barriers,” he laughs. “Each song is the sum of its part, and each part of the song represents a part of the band: the slow, fast, dynamic, heavy, the haunting, the weird sections, the hypnotic sections that [Vigna] does really well. He doesn’t look at it like writing individual songs. He looks at it like one long piece where everything fits together. He writes the albums like an orchestra, and I love the layers, especially on this record.”
The band even took extra time on the artwork. Atonement’s front and back covers are from longtime collaborator Pär Olofsson, and they evoke the hellfire of retro death metal records. The band were also able to reach out to Zbigniew Bielak—who has worked with the likes of Ghost and Paradise Lost—for four individual pieces in the booklet that correspond with certain tracks. Dolan is ecstatic that they had the time to make it all happen, though he claims he isn’t great at explaining the art itself. “The title is [Vigna]’s idea. The concept of the song deals with the religious fundamentalism that we see around the world,” he says. “There are a couple of lines in the song that became the inspiration for the album’s cover. ‘Angel of hatred / Spread your wings / Spread your thorns down upon us / Anointing the holy water so red / Taking from us all that you can.’”
“The combination of Par’s and Zbigniew’s artwork—really, I think the album has an awesome look,” he continues. “We wanted to do more with Kingdom…, but we ran out of time. That’s always been our problem, but with this one, we figured since we had the time, we’d make it special. The cover piece is a nod to the earlier stuff we did. You’ll have to see it; I’m bad at describing shit,” he laughs. Dolan would have been a great museum curator.
Dolan clearly takes the lyrics seriously, because he’s a music fan too. “The lyrics are important to us. I’ve always been a lyric guy,” he confirms. “When I get an album or CD, the first thing I do is open it up and start reading. It’s a fine line. We don’t want to cross over into that political realm. We’re not a political band. Personally, I can’t stand politics, but unfortunately, that’s a big part of our reality today. So, how we write our lyrics is very important, because at the end of the day, it is escapism for a lot of people. They listen to music to escape the daily realities of the world, so you don’t want to inundate them with too much of that shit in their time of trying to escape. There’s a way to step over that line where we don’t get too preachy, because we don’t want to be that band, ever.”
For Atonement, Immolation continued tackling the world around them, and it’s not a pretty world. “What it all comes down to is humanity, and how we, as a people, have not learned our lessons from the past,” Dolan says. “That’s the reason a lot these things happen: we just can’t learn from our mistakes. It’s very frustrating. I’m like most people; I don’t want to get into a right/left thing, because it’s all fucking nonsense to me. It’s all divisive. It’s no better than religion or nationalism. Most people in this country are really disheartened by the level of corruption we see all over. It’s so embedded, and it’s hard to undo that. It’s not a ‘my team or your team’ thing anymore. The level of corruption and collusion between government and corporations is not a good thing, not a good direction. What are you going to do? I try to have hope—as long as there are forward-thinking people and people who want to help their neighbor and fellow man, you know?”
He offers an example: “‘Fostering Divide’ is about all these divisive forces in the world, ripping everybody apart and inciting this madness. It’s the classic ‘divide and conquer’ scheme, and it’s always been like that. People need to forget about all the other stuff that’s distracting them and realize that we can really make some progress if we ignored this other bullshit and came together collectively. Until people are ready to do that, it’s not going to happen. We’re too caught up in this manufactured divide.”