The guys in Immolation should be resting. These giants of the New York death metal scene just returned from a string of performances in Europe and South America, and in just a few days are doing another round that stretches all the way through the (Northern) Autumn touring behind their latest, critically acclaimed album, 2017’s Atonement (Nuclear Blast). They should be resting, but instead, Immolation guitarist, Bob Vigna, who’s responsible for ten albums of heavy, creepy as hell guitar riffs, is talking to me. Why is he talking to me right now? Because when I was scheduled to talk to him last week; I was foiled by the tyranny of time-zones. Yes, I know I should have seen that it was EST and I’m on MST, but that doesn’t change the fact that time zones are tools of oppression invented by, you guessed it: the patriarchy.
So where are you all right now? “‘We’re in New York now. We’re home for a few days, then we head out for the trip, which basically is going to start with eight or nine shows in Asia, then we go to Australia for three dates, then after that we do another three dates in Japan,’ says Vigna. ‘So it’s going to be about a two and a half, three week run. Between everything about fourteen shows, I think — altogether”.
This interview is preceding their visit down under where it’s been a few years since they last visited. “In 2016 we went there for the first time — that was cool. I think we did about three shows in Australia and maybe one in New Zealand,’ says Vigna. ‘It was great to finally get down there after so many years, you know, and we’re looking forward to coming back. We have a great team we work with over there, Dave (Haley) who plays drums for Psycroptic, he works for Direct Touring over there and he’s got a couple of guys, and they do a great job – and the shows are great, the fans are great, so we’re psyched to get back there. We haven’t been down there since Atonement came out, so it’s cool to get down there again … we had a great time there”.
Death metal is compelling music — It’s so violent and dark, but I love it. It’s also unlistenable to ninety per cent of the population. How do you explain its evolution? “Well for us it’s just a natural progression from listening to, you know, everything from Metallica and Slayer back in the day. To us, the early thrash was a lot darker than the direction it eventually went into,’ says Vigna. ‘You know you had the early Kreator albums, the early Destruction albums, early Voivod stuff, Possessed, of course, with the first couple of records … back then, it was very new and for us it was just that progression going from Metallica to Slayer, then you start getting into heavier stuff and start doing your own thing”.
Immolation started in 1986 and at that time, little underground scenes were popping up all over the world that connected with each other through a network of dedicated fans and musicians. Immolation, along with bands like Suffocation, Mortician, Skinless, et cetera, helped curate what is referred to as the New York death metal scene. “We all became part of that underground scene of bands. Before we had the world wide web, we just sent everything via snail mail; sending cassettes and demos across the world. You had guys doing their own own fanzines, black and white photocopied ‘zines that would go around the world,’ says Vigna. ‘It was kind of a connection that everybody had. It was just this really cool thing back then — It was new, and the music was, for us, extreme, dark, heavy and just interesting. We were always interested in it and now we’ve been doing our own thing. We love what we do and we love a lot of the underground music, but we like a lot of other stuff too, it’s just this what we do and this is what we’re about, but we appreciate all types — for us there’s just something about it, it’s that emotion you get, the aggression of it, but also the atmosphere of it, which is cool”.
Nowadays, death metal and other forms of extreme music seem to be gaining much more acceptance. Is there a fear of death metal losing any of its underground mystique? “Eh, I mean look, what’s underground, and what’s not underground anymore? I mean, look, we’ve been doing this for over thirty years, you know? [laughs] We’re more than happy to peek our heads out from the underground. [more laughter]… It doesn’t matter, you know? The music’s the music. Of course it was underground, because not a lot of people knew about it and now it’s getting more popular. It has had its ups and downs, don’t get me wrong, like in the nineties it went down for a while and these music genres kind of go in those cycles, but now it’s really on an uptick which to me it’s great”.
Vigna definitely is not bothered by more mainstream acceptance of extreme music. And why should he? He’s been grinding for three decades and Immolation is finally starting to see some payoff.
‘The more people start getting into it the better. I’m surprised it didn’t catch on earlier in a sense – but it was a tough kind of music for people to swallow. Obviously, it did get popular, but now it’s at that point where it’s really getting popular, because you have a lot of these bands getting bigger because they’re out there in front of these people that don’t know this music. For instance, the whole last Slayer tour that’s going on, they took out Napalm Death, Behemoth, Cannibal Corpse, you know, Obituary on a bunch of their tours over here and in Europe. It’s great, because now some of these kids that never had a clue are seeing these bands for the first time — or some of the older guys that have been listening to Slayer for years who probably stopped at Slayer, are seeing these bands and going ‘oh,’ they might get interested in them”.
Vigna seems upbeat about the state of the scene, particularly in regards to the increasing amount of crossover that’s been going on. “Yeah it’s crazy, but you know this genre has been made up of so many sub-genres that someone that listened to Slayer for years probably never even heard of death metal or black metal or whatever, you know what I’m saying? It’s just good that it’s getting out there now. I mean, Behemoth is even on tour with Slipknot here in the states. That’s awesome! They’re bringing the music to the masses, so that’s a good thing for everybody, because then kids get into to different music; kids might get into maybe Behemoth or Obituary, or Napalm or whatever, and they see more extreme music out there and start looking into other stuff probably, so it only helps, you know?’
Vigna (who kind of looks like Anton LaVey) punctuates his thoughts on the underground: ‘Whether or not it needs to stay underground? You know, the music is dark, it’s underground music, but if more people get into it — I’m not worried about that! [laughs]’
I admit I feel slightly dumb wanting to cling to this ‘underground’ thing when it comes to death metal. But I’m selfish, I don’t like sharing things I love — like death metal — with just any yahoo off the street. But if these bands are going to thrive and continue to make music, the more fans they can get the better. Death metal by its nature will always be outsider music, so a little more mainstream exposure isn’t a bad thing. Death metal isn’t going to go away either judging by its almost three generations of fans. “Oh yeah! It’s crazy, because you’ll see people our age and then you‘ll see people in their twenties or thirties and then you’ll see thirteen to fifteen-year olds, or whatever, you know? Some young kids at these shows and festivals — so yeah, it is interesting,’ says Vigna. ‘We’re like old guinea pigs for how this music is going to go — how far we can take it — and how long we can take it! [laughs]. Because obviously Metallica is still doing it and they’re maybe just a little older than us, but again, when you take that, and you take Slayer, then you take whatever we’re all doing now, and it gets more and more extreme, so it must get tougher and tougher as we get older, of course. But I think we’re doing pretty good, so knock on wood, you know? [laughs].’
Australian readers can catch Immolation on the following dates at the Direct Underground Festival 2019 featuring Dark Funeral, Abramelin, Christ Dismembered and Reaper:
September 6th – Sydney, Crowbar
September 7th – Melbourne, Max Watts
The band also play The Triffid in Brisbane with Dark Funeral, Christ Dismembered and Descent on September 5th.