Incinerating Yourself to Live
CoC chats with Ross Dolan of Immolation
by: Paul Schwarz
I first encountered Immolation when I was given a tape of their 1996 _Here in After_ [CoC #6] album, their second, and Dark Funeral's _The Secrets of the Black Arts_. The latter succeeded in boring me very quickly, but the former I simply could not stop listening to. Immolation produce a warped, sometimes difficult to follow style of death metal which definitely preserves roots such as Autopsy, and even mirrors certain elements of fellow New Jersey death metallers Incantation, but essentially has its own, individual character. The use of dissonance by guitarists Robert Vigna and Thomas Wilkinson, the vague melody superimposed on Ross Dolan's incredible low and brutal vocals, the eclectic drum style of Craig Smilowski (who has now been replaced by Alex Hernandez) and the powerful, well thought out lyrical content quickly turned Immolation into one of my favourite death metal bands. Researching their history, I found that they were another band whose career had been viciously held up for years by the greed of the trend-orientated minds who run Roadrunner Records. This also made my search for their 1991 _Dawn of Possession_ debut a long trawl through countless second hand record stores. Last year I looked forward to seeing them at the Milwaukee Metalfest, but unfortunately the band were in the middle of finishing their new album. I awaited _Failures for Gods_, as the title of their second release for Metal Blade became, with bated breath, but '98 disappeared, five months of '99 went by, and still no _FfG_. Then, just after the Dynamo festival, it came, and damn was it worth the wait. The record is reviewed elsewhere, but let's just say here that it wasn't any kind of disappointment. Talking to vocalist/bassist Ross Dolan, who was at Metal Blade Germany for interviews, I satisfied my curiosity about all things _FfG_, and the situations surrounding it and the band.

CoC: How's it going?

Ross Dolan: Good. This is the first day of interviews, it's been going pretty good, it's nice to be over here.

CoC: Are you guys touring at all at the moment...

RD: No, just doing interviews, I don't think we'll be touring here [Europe] realistically until about fall, so that's good: it'll give the album time to sink in.

CoC: And you're doing the Milwaukee Metalfest...

RD: Yeah, the Metalfest and a bunch of stuff leading up to that.

CoC: What do you think _FfG_ says about Immolation now, in 1999, with your past releases taken into account; what kind of statement do you think it makes to the death metal scene and people in general?

RD: I think it is making a very strong statement. It's definitely, without a doubt, our strongest album, on all accounts: strongest musically, strongest lyrically, conceptually, and it is also our best produced album. So I think when people hear this, obviously fans of Immolation will definitely be impressed, because I think it blows away the last two albums, and maybe people who aren't fans of Immolation, but maybe fans of extreme music, will also appreciate it too. I think it is definitely making a statement that we are still here, and we're not going away, and the music is still here: that's the most important thing. We get asked a lot "Well, what do you think of the death metal scene?", or the metal scene in general. And when asked this about the US I'd definitely have to answer that metal in the US is basically dead. Hip-hop and Korn and Marilyn Manson are the big thing in the US right now, extreme music: death metal, black metal, what have you; the scene is definitely strong in the US but it's more underground than it has been, but that is not saying it's not strong, 'cause it is very strong. There's still very big turnouts at the shows, there's definitely interested people, it's just that a lot of the new kids aren't exposed to it as much, they're exposed to bands like Korn and Marilyn Manson and that type of stuff, and they don't know that this type of stuff exists. It's unfortunate.

CoC: Picking up on couple of your points about the album, with regards to the lyrics and concept. I've listened to the album about eleven times or so...

RD: Wow!

CoC: ... a few times reading along with the lyrics and what have you, I have the feeling that it has quite a strong concept which goes through the music and the lyrics, ending with the last two minutes of the last song, that has a very final sort of feel to it. Is there like a story concept running through the album or has it got one -aim- as a concept?

RD: Ummm, well, I wouldn't say really a story concept. All the songs basically deal with our personal feelings and viewpoints on religion, and we look at it from all different angles and we take it from different points of view, but they all come back to the same feelings. As a band we all feel the same way, which is good, it helps and it is something we can all relate to on a personal level, because, let's face it, religion, it's a very dominating thing, it's very controlling, it controls people on all different levels and we're surrounded by it. We grew up with it. It definitely had some kind of impact on our upbringings, and on our childhoods, to a certain extent, whether it be going to Catholic school or being raised in a Catholic household, and it is something which does have an influence on your earlier years. As you get older, you have two types of people: you have people who are just going to continue on and fall in with the herd and follow, or people who are going to say "Well, let's question what we've been taught, is this really the way we actually feel in our hearts about things?", and that's not how -we- felt in our hearts, and I think a lot of people probably agree with us, because it is something that most people just never give thought to.

CoC: Yeah, and I'm certainly one of the people who agree with you. On the subject of your upbringing, were most of you or some of you brought up in particularly strict religious backgrounds?

RD: Umm, not -strict- strict, but it was definitely something that was, I guess, relevant in our childhoods. I for one went to a Catholic high school and I drew a lot inspiration from what I learned and what I saw in those years, and actually that was a period of my life where I was able to look at things in a different light and question things -- which was probably a turning point for me, which was good and it's something I'm able to elaborate on now, at this point in my life.

CoC: And I get the impression the song "Failures for Gods" may have been inspired by this being, as I think it is, about the leadership of religion and how that has led to religion to be an influence on society?

RD: Oh, you're absolutely right, and it's cool, I'm glad you actually read the lyrics and you're interested in that, that's definitely cool.

CoC: Not to be preachy to anyone, but I think the best way of interviewing -is- to really get into a band and see it like a fan, and not just as a product.

RD: Right, right, well, that's cool, man, we definitely appreciate that. Yeah, so you're absolutely right, "Failures for Gods", you hit it on the nose, that's basically what the song is dealing with. The title itself could be looked at in two different ways: "Failures -for- Gods", meaning people who worship gods are a failure, in a certain way, because they don't have the inner strength or strength in general to see these things as so intangible and so unrealistic that they can't get on with their lives and they can't make decisions on their own without having this crutch; or you could look at it in the sense that these gods, in turn, who are being worshipped, are failures in the sense that they will never ever deliver what these people are expecting, realistically speaking. I look at things from a very realistic point of view and it's just not realistic, it's not tangible, it's really just... <laughs> It's a nice story to tell, and it's something cool to tell the kids, but to base your life on it is just not feasible.

CoC: <laughs> Yeah, I see what you're saying, so would you say with Immolation that you're anti-Christian, anti-religion, would you call yourselves Satanic, for example? Because one of the icons that you mention a lot, across your albums, is Jesus, and God in the Christian sense.

RD: Right, right, and that's only because of how we were brought up, as Catholics and as Christians. That was the icon; Jesus Christ was the icon and I think Christianity... it's very prevalent all over the world. But I would say we're definitely -not- a Satanic band, we're basically anti-religion, but we're just anti-control, really. We're not into that whole control thing and that's basically what religion does, it controls and manipulates and it just soaks up money. <laughs> You know what I'm saying? The church is so... unbelievable, <laughs> they have so much land and so many riches, they don't get taxed, it's a big scam, really.

CoC: And there's a whole history of that going back to the beginning of the church...

RD: Oh right, that's not even getting back to the history, <I laugh> to the millions of people who died in the name of religion and Christ and God, it's just really such a bizarre, overwhelming thing when you think about it. But, if you're familiar with the last album [_Here in After_], we even say in one of the songs that it is not hate and it's really not a hatred thing for us, we don't -hate- Christians, we don't -hate-... it's just something we don't agree with and again we're not about... we're not trying to convince people, we're not trying to change anybody's mind, it's just... if you agree with us you do, if you don't, you don't. But the music and the lyrics go hand in hand for us.

CoC: I was going to touch just briefly on the concept thing, I detect slightly the millennial, doomsday thing; a few songs seem to have a lot about it. "Stench of High Heaven" and "The Devil I Know" seem to talk about a new coming age with the Devil replacing Christ...

RD: Right.

CoC: ... something of that description; is that at all related to the whole doomsday, millennium thing?

RD: No, no. Not really. You mentioned "The Devil I Know" and "Stench of High Heaven"?

CoC: Yeah, "Stench of High Heaven".

RD: Yeah, well, basically, "Stench of High Heaven"... in a nutshell, that song is about the absurdity of the whole concept of Heaven, about the whole concept of "if you live a certain way you're going to go to this really cool place, extreme Nirvana, where everything is all nice and beautiful" and this and that and blah, blah blah blah blah. Again, it's a nice story, but realistically... honestly, nobody knows what happens when you're dead, because obviously you're dead. And I would like to think that we go on to maybe a higher form of existence where there is no pain and there is no suffering and there is no hardship like we have here, but that's wishful thinking. <laughs>

CoC: Yes, I'd say that's definitely wishful thinking and that's a good hope, but also why is it certain people are going there and certain people aren't? That's the other illogicality [well, actually only one of many of them --Paul] I can't understand.

RD: Right, it's a very hypocritical thing, because for example I'm sure most of these people would look upon a band like us or people like us in a very dark light because of what we sing about, what we do... but as people they don't really know us and, you know, for this scene in general I've met so many cool people over the past thirteen years, who would definitely be looked down upon by the Church in general because of their beliefs and their views, but they're all good people, man, they're hard working people, a lot of the people we know are pretty straightedge, they don't drink, they don't smoke, they're respectful, and it is all about how you treat people, and it is about upbringing and that's it. One of my philosophies is "What comes around goes around" and I firmly believe that and I see it happening <laughs> all the time, so I just like to treat people with respect and that's the respect that I would desire from people.

CoC: The cover artworks [for your albums] seems to tell a story of some description, in comic book form, but I was going to ask, you say your lyrics are -actually- about control and things, but your artwork and the imagery you use is, not Satanic, but very much using the stories of religion and the stories which are not religious, but of Lovecraft or whatever; how does that part of it come in and why is [Immolation] not a very realistic seeming, political band, like, say, Rage Against the Machine or something?

RD: Well, I mean, politics for one doesn't interest me, it's all bullshit. It just doesn't excite me. The artwork for the album, actually, if you read the lyrics for "Once Ordained", basically what's depicted in the artwork is what's going on in the lyrics of that song. The artwork obviously also conveys the message of "Failures for Gods", but what you're seeing there... and even on the inside, if you notice we wrote the little chorus or refrain or whatever you call it, from ["Once Ordained"], and basically it's people being... you see the people, the masses being blindly led by God or Christ or whoever you want it to be; we depicted Christ on the inside cover. Basically, on the outside of the front cover you see... obviously it's plain that it's the Devil; it's a dark figure representing evil and the people flocked, which symbolises people following the religion, and then on the inside you open it up and to their astonishment; they're amazed to see that... they see the face of Christ but it's really the Devil.

CoC: You missed last year's Metalfest because you were mixing your album?

RD: Yeah, we were right in the middle of recording and we just couldn't leave. <laughs>

CoC: That being last July, why did it take so long to release _FfG_?

RD: Basically, when you get right down to it, it was the artwork. We approached Andreas [Marschall, whose artwork has graced all of Immolation's albums thus far --Paul] right after we got out of the studio and he was unfortunately booked up until the end of the year, and because we have the two completely separate pieces of artwork and the little icons on the inside, it took him much longer to do. So that was the big delay, and you know what?, we decided it was much better to wait, and get a packaging that was worth the wait, rather than to put out something that we weren't going to be happy with.

CoC: Absolutely.

RD: And we're very happy with it, so it all worked out.

CoC: So, after this you -hope- to release albums in slightly more regular succession than has so far been the case?

RD: Yeah.

CoC: 'Cause you've been like five years, three years...

RD: Yeah, I know, man, I know. <laughs> We know, man, it sucks. It's definitely never planned that way, but unfortunately it always seems... the five years between the first two albums, a lot of that -was- out of our control because of the change in labels, and we were in limbo for a year or two there, but then we got back on track, and it's not that it takes us five years, obviously, to write eight songs, it's just that other circumstances... and also as a band we're not in a situation where we're able to write 24 hours a day. We all work full-time jobs, we're all very busy and Immolation consumes -all- our free time, and it's not easy because of our schedules, but yes: we're making a conscious effort now, we already started writing material for the fourth album and we do want to be in the studio hopefully sometime mid-year next year. So yeah, we don't plan to make people wait any longer than they have to.

CoC: How important do you think the music you play, the death metal, is for delivering the message of the lyrics? Do you think there is a symbiosis between the two or could you do the same music with gore lyrics, or jazz with your lyrics?

RD: No, no, you're right, there is definitely a symbiosis between the two, they work hand-in-hand. The music is very dark, and in turn the lyrics have to be very dark. I couldn't see us writing... I mean it's possible for us to write about something different, as long as it's done in a certain way, in a dark way which is going to complement the music, and also how the music complements the lyrics. But we have so much to draw from, we have almost a whole album's worth of concepts and ideas, lyrically, for the next album all in the same direction [as we have been going], so I don't think we're going to run out of ideas anytime soon. You're right, though, they definitely do work hand in hand.

CoC: I find, particularly on _HiA_ but also on this album, the music has this feeling of barely controlled chaos, and I think it differs a lot from the more workman-like death metal like Cannibal Corpse or Deicide, in that it has a more uncontrolled feel, the drums are a little more unusual; when you guys write are you particularly technical about this, do you kind of plan out this kind of things or is it just the way you happen to play?

RD: Umm, it's a combination of both. Musically, it's about feeling. When the music is written it's what feels right. We really don't have any kind of theory or plan or anything in mind. It's just what feels right and we're very fortunate to all click really well together in our minds, so we work well together, we're very... if one person doesn't see something, one of us will, and it definitely helps when you have four minds working on one thing, you know. So musically there are no guidelines, but when it comes to incorporating the drums, the drums are to a point planned out, because drums could really change the whole mood and feeling of a particular riff, without a doubt. You could have something that sounds very dark, and if you put the wrong type of drums to it, the wrong type of beats or fills, it's going to really sound too happy or to what not. <chuckles>

CoC: And the production is important to that, too.

RD: Oh, of course, of course. So the drums are something that we spend probably a good majority of the time working out and Alex, he's an excellent drummer and he really works well with our ideas and we all have input, again like I said, so it's not like it's all on his shoulders, we all have input and ideas. So it all comes together in the end.

CoC: So there wasn't any particular difficulty switching from Craig to Alex?

RD: No, the only difficulty was Alex was used to playing a different style, he was an extreme player, he played in a bunch of bands....

CoC: What, sort of grindcore type stuff?

RD: Grindcore, yeah, he played in a band called Fallen Christ, he played in a band called Disassociate, he was in a couple of hardcore bands. So he was a very straightforward kind of player, and to play our stuff he had to get used to our style, 'cause it's very different from what he was playing. We're not a full out, I don't know if you call grind band or whatever, but you know we're not speed for speed's sake and we're not sludge for sludge's sake. It's about feeling and moods and there's a lot going on in the songs and it took him... I would say a year, honestly, before he actually got comfortable, but now that he is... I mean to me he did an amazing job on the new album and he's definitely that missing element that we've been lacking the last ten years.

CoC: That's great. I was going to ask about the production, I noticed the producer was Paul Orofino and I don't know the name, and the only record I could find which had his production was Riot. I was wondering what led you to choose him? He's not, you know, Jim Morris or anybody traditional [to death metal].

RD: No, definitely not. We're not about using people because they've been used. We've never been about following trends or following whatever. We have pretty much always done our own thing, so the choice to use Paul... he was actually recommended by a good friend of ours and he had never really produced a death metal band or any extreme music like us, he's mostly... he's been used to working with rock 'n' roll bands, stuff like... he did an album by Blue Oyster Cult, he worked with Simon Kirk from Bad Company, Riot, Dee Snider and his new band, Widowmaker, so he's done a lot of stuff like that, which is good, though, 'cause he knows how to get those... the drum sounds and the heavy type of guitar stuff and it's good to have someone looking at it from a different perspective. The fact that he's been around for a long time, you know, a good producer is a good producer, it doesn't matter what you play. They know how to bring out the best in the music and that's what we felt he did and we definitely plan on using him for the next album.

CoC: I was curious to find out, because apart from Harris Johns who did a lot of thrash stuff [he did _Dawn of Possession_ and had produced Voivod, Kreator and Sodom --Paul], I don't know Wayne Dorrel [_Here in After_ producer] from anything else.

RD: Yeah, Wayne was basically just out of school and we were the first project he actually worked on on his own, so he was kind of new at it. He did a good job considering, but we felt there were a lot of things on the production side of the spectrum that needed improvement with that album, without a doubt.

CoC: Do you always aim to progress in doing Immolation, or are you sort of trying to create the archetype of classic death metal?

RD: Well, what we really want to do is continue in the vein that we started, just obviously with each album we want to improve, but we just want things to get darker, we want things to get more extreme, but, like you said, in a controlled sense. For us there are no boundaries, we just want to improve musically, we're always into trying new things, but we're not into trying to do things which are going to change the essence of the band. Our feeling as a band is that; we think we do this well enough to know that if we work hard enough at it we might get to the point we're happy with. <laughs> So with each album we definitely improve to a certain extent and we're happy with every album. We're happy with all the albums. We're not ashamed of the past albums. We think they're very strong albums and with each one it just gets better. So, we look forward to creating an even darker and heavier album next time around.

CoC: Yeah, I guess if you're not going to make a better album [or at least think you have --Paul], then what's the point?

RD: Oh, of course, of course.

CoC: Finally, do you have anything to say to fans who've been waiting for this album, and just people in general who might pick it up?

RD: Again, I feel it's definitely our strongest album, I think fans of Immolation will definitely be impressed because it's our best work and I think they'll see that right off the bat. I think that we're the type of band where in the first few seconds of each album you know it's us right away, it just has that vibe, I don't know how to explain it, but...

CoC: A trademark?

RD: Yeah, we've been told that a million times before and I definitely know what people are talking about, and I agree with that. So, people can expect probably the most intense, aggressive, and hateful Immolation album. With lots of mood, I think it combines definitely the best elements of both the past albums; the feelings and the moods from _Dawn of Possession_, and the hatred and the intensity of _Here in After_. And it just takes it all to the next level.

CoC: One last thing, I was wondering if you guys ever thought about doing any audio-visual stuff, not necessarily a video but some kind of visual thing. I know that's not necessarily financially feasible, but in theory would you guys be interested in doing that?

RD: Oh, of course, of course. We've always thought about it. We always toss around the idea of doing something, like you mentioned, but, like you said, though, the financial aspect of it is not realistic for us, and we're not the type of band who's going to do something at 50%, we want to do it at 100%. And the ideas, you know, you could really just take the ball and run with our concepts and just go all out, and to do that you would need a lot of money. So rather than do it half-assed we just wouldn't do it at all. <laughs> But it is something we would love to do. We have so many good ideas and visually we could bring out so much more of what we're trying to convey, but who knows? Maybe one day.

(article submitted 7/7/1999)

2/22/2005 J Smit Immolation: Hail to the Conquerors
5/13/2001 P Schwarz Immolation: A Truly Individual Sin
2/9/1996 G Filicetti Immolation: Continuing the Crucifixion
8/23/2013 A El Naby 8.5 Immolation - Kingdom of Conspiracy
3/7/2010 J Smit 9.5 Immolation - Majesty & Decay
6/10/2007 T DePalma Immolation - Of Hope and Horror
6/10/2007 T DePalma 9.5 Immolation - Shadows in the Light
1/20/2005 J Smit 9 Immolation - Harnessing Ruin
6/30/2003 P Schwarz 9 Immolation - Unholy Cult
1/10/2001 K Buchanan 9 Immolation - Close to a World Below
7/7/1999 P Schwarz 9.5 Immolation - Failures for Gods
1/17/1996 G Filicetti 7 Immolation - Here In After
6/3/2005 T DePalma Deicide / Immolation / Skinless / Despised Icon / With Passion Tear Through the City, Tear Through the Soul
5/21/2003 J Smit Immolation / Malevolent Creation / Aborted / Noctiferia A Kingdom United
5/21/2003 J Montague Immolation / Malevolent Creation / Aborted / Noctiferia Goth Club Destroyed by Death Metal Gods
3/16/1997 A Bromley Cannibal Corpse / Brutal Truth / Immolation / Oppresor Cannabis Corpse and Friends
5/10/1996 V Singh Deicide / Fallen Christ / Immolation / Incantation The Wave of Death
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