July 26th 1992 was a big day for me. It was my eighteenth birthday, and also the day that ensured I would never leave the underground as long as I lived. I had just graduated high school, and I’d been invited by a friend’s band to step in on bass to open for what was already proving to be one of my favourite bands, Immolation. Their debut album, Dawn of Possession, had been released almost a year ago to the day, and I was fairly obsessed with it by this point. I had never heard anything quite like it, which is saying a lot since I was already a big fan of bands like Deicide and Morbid Angel. Immolation was a different creature, to be sure. There was a brooding quality in their music, highlighted by Bob Vigna‘s dirge-driven melodies and the revolutionary use of pinch harmonics as integral parts of songs.
I had been banging away with my own rehearsal-grade death metal act for over two years, and suddenly I was going to play a real show, possibly to a room full of real fans. I was excited and nervous, because I wasn’t the most proficient bassist then, and the material took some preparation. July 25th had the band appearing in my hometown of San Antonio. I was to play the next night in Houston, which was definitely going to be a bigger affair. The venue hosting the show in SA was far removed from the city centre, in gang controlled territory, in fact. This is in part why the turnout was relatively small. The advantage was that it allowed me more access to members of the band, who I very much wanted to meet. I was skinny and had chin length hair at that point in the game, and I was far from being a death metal warrior by any measure. Nevertheless, I arrived at the show early, and spotted frontman Ross Dolan setting up the bands’ merchandise. I took a deep breath and walked up to him, saying “Uh, excuse me… Ross Dolan?” Ross turned around with a smile and said “Yeah! How ya doin’?” in an unmistakable New York accent. I was pleasantly surprised, as he was far from the roaring hellpreacher portrayed on the album. I didn’t know too many people of significance in the death metal scene back then, so I assumed that being a nice kid from a nice neighbourhood with nice parents could potentially rule me out of a life in this world. Ross quickly proved that it wasn’t the case. I subsequently met Bob and the rest of the band, and all of them were quite friendly. We chatted a fair amount before their set, and then I watched them destroy a mostly empty room with an incredible performance. It was a stirring preview of what I could expect in Houston.
The next morning I drove up in my own car, following the other guys in Indignation, the band with whom I was appearing. It was an almost improbable lineup considering that it was us, the newly-minted Imprecation, and then Immolation as well as Hexx and Goreaphobia in between. Everyone had to laugh about the name line up on the bill. I had never performed live in Houston, in fact I’d never even been to a show there. The Axiom was a venue on yet another shit side of town, but it was venerable and clearly a destination point for the locals. Lots of people showed up. Again, I felt out of my element because there was a far larger and more visible drug presence in town, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I was pleased to catch up with Ross and find that he too had a disdain for that world. We took a walk down the street together to a convenience store and shot the breeze, comparing daily life circumstances between Texas and New York, which at the time were even more different than they are now, in the age before the internet. I made a point of getting his address so we could stay in touch, and before I knew it it was my turn on stage. I played well enough, and as a band we had a great response. Houston has always been one of those scenes where people go crazy for all the (good) bands, which is something I’ve always appreciated.
Immolation finally hit the stage, flanked by fallen angel scrims on their speaker stacks, glowing ominously, thanks to the blacklights placed cleverly below. They were amazing once again, and the audience responded with appropriate ferocity. In the course of it all, I was turning eighteen and it was the best birthday party that I could ask for. I had a long drive back with a friend who had accompanied me, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay to the very end and say my goodbyes. Looking back, like all things in hindsight, I would have never cut things short that way. Even so, the die was cast. Between my own experience performing that night, and then the alchemy of Immolation’s incredible music and the people they proved to be, I was irrevocably hooked. I was already completely devoted to death metal, but when you’re that young, sometimes other influences and ideas can lead you astray. If there was ever a chance of that, it had disappeared by the time I arrived back home at the crack of dawn.
Fast forwarding, I headed off to college, stayed in touch with Ross by letter, and then ultimately we exchange phone numbers and began talking regularly. Immolation took an unplanned hiatus of sorts, but I held their banner high until their triumphant return with their second album, Here in After in 1996. Ross and the guys made it back to Texas on tour with Cannibal Corpse and stayed at my house for Super Bowl Sunday. After that, we were proper friends. The band went through a couple of lineup changes, but Ross and Bob were always the constants. Ross and I would talk on the phone regularly, just catching up and hanging out long distance.
Fast forward again, and in 2008 I realised a dream from sixteen years before by opening a show in New York with the guys, this time with my band Averse Sefira. Immolation was one of the biggest reasons I worked so hard and sacrificed so much to make my own way in metal. I wanted another chance to appear on a bill with them, and it was a goal that fuelled the agenda. They were always there, encouraging me and offering advice. More than anything, I wanted Ross and Bob to like what I was doing, and the fact that they did was something I was truly proud of. That year we not only opened for them in new York, but on 31 other dates around the US as well. I made a point of watching every performance on that tour, and each night the spark of magic from my birthday in 1992 was there again.
Not everyone gets to meet their heroes with such ideal results, much less become lifelong friends with them. Don’t be fooled by my starry assessment; Immolation is an apex death metal band, full of conviction and virtuosity. They will blow your mind and crush your skull in equal measures. At this point, Immolation is rightfully known as one of the greatest death metal bands of all time. They never compromised, and they stayed the course even when it wasn’t easy or fun, and definitely not profitable. But here they are, thirty one years later, travelling all over the world to show everyone how it’s done. If you’ve never seen them before, take my word for it and fucking go. Even if it’s not “your thing”, their class and sheer power will enthral you. I’m going to fire up the dream factory one more time and work for them on their extensive North American tour, starting this October. Once again, I will be out with some of my best friends, who also happen to be one of the best bands around. It makes perfect sense; I’m here because of Immolation, and, then and now, I would follow them anywhere.
You can catch Immolation live in Krakow tonight at the Mystic Festival before they head off next month to South America. Australian fans can see the band at the following dates in September: