February 2013 was an interesting month for death metal. The highly anticipated release of Portal’s Vexovoid—a record that continues to linger in the darkest recesses of the listener’s psyche long after its conclusion—saw the light of day, and received rapturous praise. Devourment split opinions with their Relapse debut by leaving the “slams” behind. One side declared the album boring and not as brutal as their past efforts. The other side, which included PopMatters, noted the audacity and saw beyond the lack of breakdowns. While elsewhere in the world, Germany’s Defeated Sanity released Passages Into Deformity which pulverized and appeased the Devourment detractors.
If you look to the works of these above-mentioned bands, the influence of a legendary death metal group ties them all together—Suffocation. Suffocation’s jack-hammering blast-beats—which helped pioneer the use of this extreme beat in metal, nauseating riffs that tie time-signatures in knots, and the lowest-of-the-low guttural vocals, have spawned the wicked since the band’s inception in the late 1980s. And amongst February’s feverish condemnation and knee-scraping worship around Portal, Devourment, and Defeated Sanity, it just so happens that Suffocation released a new record titled, Pinnacle of Bedlam.
With drummer Mike Smith out of the fold again for the past year and vocalist Frank Mullen taking time off from touring, it’s as if Suffocation knew they needed to write the best material possible to quell calls that the band could be on the way out. By placing further emphasis on the technical side of their sound, these veteran New Yorkers have done just that.
This record, quite definitively, harks back to the spirit of the band’s classic Effigy of the Forgotten and Pierced From Within period with what may be the best collection of songs Suffocation have released for almost two decades. The line-up shuffles Suffocation have suffered since 1988 have lead to a couple of inconsistent records. But it is instantaneously clear that the current guitar-pairing of Terrence Hobbs and Guy Marchais have really tightened their game on Pinnacle of Bedlam. This duo wields an abundance of hardcore/thrash-flecked death metal riffs that swiftly shift tempos, with Derek Boyer’s slimy bass-lines binding the battering.
Dave Culross (Malevolent Creation) makes his first appearance on a Suffocation recording since 1998’s Despise the Sun EP, and this experienced death metal drummer plays out of his skin (see: the title track for an example of speed and control) and silences those who are still fretting over Smith’s absence. Stay-at-home-vocalist Mullen is also on fine form throughout; barking his lyrics, based on cycles of life and death, clearly and forcefully. While the criminally underrated Hobbs adds some grace to the brutality with his masterful lead-work on “Cycles of Suffering”, “Purgatorial Punishment”, and “My Demise”. And it’s the strength of these individual performances that really injects a lethal dose of directness into this record.
Unlike Autopsy or Asphyx, whose primitive take on the genre thrives from leaving raw flesh and blood on the strings, Suffocation’s technical death metal is all about keeping the musicianship for each song razor sharp and the performance tight as possible. Focusing on this dynamic is what makes “Sullen Days” and “Rapture of Revocation” sound so precise, yet these songs do not pander to being overly complex for the sake of it and contain enough unique flourishes to remain memorable.
It’s this dedication to using technical ability for the benefit of the song which has made Suffocation such a landmark death metal band. Such skill can only be acquired through years of sharpening song-craft, as it can be extremely tricky balancing the complexity necessary for this kind of death metal. Trying to heap endless arpeggios, technical riffs, and breakdowns into one song leads to forgettable drivel—we’ve all heard bands we no longer remember the name of blinding us with needless showboating until all you are left with is aural equivalent of a circle jerk. Luckily for us, Suffocation could never be accused of such ego-fueled desperation.
So with that said, let us welcome Pinnacle of Bedlam into the esteemed company of Macabre Eternal, Deathhammer, Utilitarian, Torture, and most recently—The Underground Resistance, as another killer record made by metal’s irrepressible old-guard.