Hail to the Conquerors
CoC chats to Robert Vigna of Immolation
by: Jackie Smit
Anybody who has read Chronicles of Chaos on even a semi-frequent basis over the course of the past three years would know that I make no bones of my fervent admiration for New York's Immolation -- a band who, in my opinion, exemplify to the last detail everything that makes death metal as exciting and relevant today as it was in the early '90s. It's not surprising therefore that when the opportunity to interview the band arose, I jumped on it with about as much fervour as a sex-starved sea urchin staring the prospect of a night of intense passion with Jenna Jameson in the face. Of course, the fact that their latest opus, _Harnessing Ruin_, is already an early contender for album of 2005 certainly doesn't come amiss either. But enough of my gum-flapping -- in truth, I could probably sing Immolation's praises unabated for several more paragraphs. Instead, I'll leave you with an unedited transcript of the conversation that took place between myself and guitarist extraordinaire Robert Vigna.

CoC: It's probably a symptom of the extreme music as a genre, but as I mentioned in my review: Immolation are probably bound to get accused of stagnation with this record, given that this is your fourth time working with Paul Orofino. What made you go back to him this time round?

Robert Vigna: Paul is a great producer and we are comfortable recording at Millbrook. I can't see how people could say anything about stagnating, because every album we do with Paul sounds a bit different and each one gets even better as we go along. So for us, it is more of fine tuning than anything else. Paul really brings out the best in the band. He has a really accurate ear for music and he is able to add suggestions along the way, which enables us to make everything we write work well and sound good. Plus, he is also very down to earth. The studio is located in Millbrook in New York, which is a very rural area, and actually a very popular area for the rich and famous, so a lot of TV and movie personalities live there as well as many classic rock artists and producers. The town itself is very small, but the area around it is large and spread out, so it's very country-like. It is very quiet there and it allows us to concentrate on what we need to do, being away from our everyday lives and the daily grind of work. We stay in the band house, which is a ranch style flat that is connected to the studio. Paul also has his own pub in town, which makes the best BBQ wings you've ever had. So I would say we will probably be recording the next record there as well!

CoC: To what extent did Paul get involved with this album from a creative point of view, and by the same token, what is Immolation's process when it comes to making records? In what ways did you do things differently for this album?

RV: As before, Paul's involvement was primarily in suggesting things when he heard something that might not have been working. We do a lot of dissonant stuff, and sometimes we go a bit off the scale, so to speak. <laughs> So he makes us see when something really is not working musically, which then obviously lets us go back to the drawing board and try something else. We always end up creating something that sounds better than the original idea, so that is a very helpful thing. Paul is also great when it comes to the mixing and adding effects. As for how we create the songs, we usually come up with the music first, then we come up with the lyrics and the leads. There are times that the concepts for the songs are there pretty early too, and that inspires the actual music writing, but most of the time it is the music first. We didn't do too much differently this time as far as process, but we did try a lot of new things out within the music itself. We wrote everything in about three or four weeks. Steve [Shalaty], our new drummer, had to learn everything in a few days. We drove back and forth to Ohio (where Steve lives) for three weekends in a row, and after the last trip we went directly into the studio. We had re-written a lot of stuff over the course of the process, confusing Steve to death, of course! <laughs> But he learned it all and performed amazingly well in the studio. We even wrote one of the songs while we were there in the studio recording. After Steve finished the tracks to eight of the songs we showed him the last one, and then we recorded it. So it got a little hectic and stressful at times, but we enjoyed it anyway, because when you listen to the finished product it was all worth it.

CoC: In my opinion, _Harnessing Ruin_ is definitely a logical sequel to _Unholy Cult_, but "Dead to Me" in particular does stand out as Immolation taking perhaps more of a chance than anywhere else on the album. Was that something you were aware of when you wrote that song?

RV: Well, we write by feeling, and this one did feel special when it came out. All the material on _Harnessing Ruin_ actually flowed really well. With "Dead to Me" I wanted to try something really different for us, using the acoustic guitar parts as more of a main line with the whisper-like vocals. We also did something similar on "Son of Iniquity". Ross [Dolan, vocalist] was apprehensive about doing it both times, but once we tried it out and he heard how it sounded, it was evident that it made the parts in the song that much stronger. The contrast between parts and vocals really helped the feeling of the sections. It brings out the meaning in the lyrics more too and makes them more intense. Generally, we just like trying new things and we are not afraid to experiment. We like to expand and grow as a band and we want to be as creative as possible when it comes to writing new material. For us it's the only way. The bottom line is that this is a catchier, more diverse album than anything we have ever done, but at the same time, I'd say that it's the darkest, heaviest and strongest one too. So I think that not only will people who might not be familiar with death metal be able to relate to it and get into it, but the most die hard fans will appreciate it as well.

CoC: Staying with the new album, what was your intention when you began writing _Harnessing Ruin_ -- did you have a preconceived idea of what you wanted the record to sound like and what you wanted it to achieve, or did that come about naturally?

RV: It always comes naturally. We basically get to a point where we have about a month or so until the studio deadline, so we just write like the wind and concentrate on the album for that time. I think it's that spontaneity that works to our benefit sometimes, because we just get it done and make it happen, rather than getting caught up in over-analyzing everything. Don't get me wrong, we did a lot of re-writing and re-structuring, up to the last minute, making sure it was all the way it needed to be. But the fact that we get into that vibe, into that hectic creative push, really makes the music come out intense.

CoC: In what ways do you feel that _Harnessing Ruin_ has built on and improved over _Unholy Cult_?

RV: I think that the songs are much more straightforward and to the point. There is also a lot more going on within the songs, more of the overlaying melodies and dual rhythm parts. These songs flow really well and there are no gaps at all, there is always something going on to keep the songs interesting. It basically takes it from where we left off on _Unholy Cult_ and brings it up to the next level.

CoC: How did Steve's replacing Alex [Hernandez, ex-drummer] affect the band from a creative point of view, particularly considering that Alex has never been a run-of-the-mill drummer, and obviously played an integral role in how unique Immolation has always sounded? Do you see his influence as increasing in the future?

RV: Steve did an incredible job. Alex is a great drummer, there is no doubt about it, but Steve is equally as good in my book. He just has a slightly different approach and style, but it's a unique style too. After Steve helped us with our last US tour, he really got the hang of the Immolation drumming. This is something we've developed before Alex was in the band, and advanced on while he was a member. Now Steve has taken it further, adding in his unique abilities. Steve has a very smooth style and way of playing. We purposely wanted the album to have a very militant feel, plus Steve brought in a lot of cool beats and ways to play against the riffs that gave everything a strong tone as well. He has a great sense of timing too, and makes the songs heavier live. I think Steve will really bring a lot to the band in the future. He seems to click so well with what we are doing both in the studio and in the live situation, and I know that will be something that will increase and develop strongly as we go.

CoC: Lyrically, _Harnessing Ruin_ strikes me as moving away somewhat from strictly religious issues into more reality-based topics -- the title track in particular sounding as though it may almost be politically focused. Could you run through some of the things that you talk about on this record and what inspired it?

RV: We definitely put the heavy religious tone on the back burner this time. I mean of course there are going to be references in there, as religion truly does have a part in just about everything, as far as we're concerned, but we wanted to write about what we felt were the more important issues of our current time. _Harnessing Ruin_ looks at all the struggles that are currently surrounding us in the world today, both on a global scale as well as a personal one. From the war, to the terrorism, to the manipulation of power, to the conflicts within ourselves, and our own inner demons; we really expanded a lot and I think these are some of the best lyrics we have ever written. They, as always, are open to interpretation, but are also just more down to earth. We've always been reality-based, I feel, but now it's just more pin-pointing in on these certain events. The title track as an example that you mentioned, is about the war machine in general, its purpose, its devastation, and its realities. Then there is "Challenge the Storm", which looks at war, but from the point of view of those directly involved, those out in the middle of it all and how truly horrible it is, but personally trying to find reason in all that horror. We touch on the religious aspect in "Our Savior Sleeps", questioning how a god can let such events take place and leave their followers suffering and alone in such a bleak time. "My Own Enemy" looks inside at our inner demons, how each of us comes back to our own vices again and again, and how we are in fact our own worst enemy. That just gives you a few details on where we are coming from with the lyrics. All are done in a very dark way of course, and we always have to have that dark overtone. So where we write about certain types of things, we always add that dark twist in there that keeps it Immolation.

CoC: In terms of the (anti)-religious agenda of particularly your previous records: why attack Christianity rather than, for example, Islam, who some may argue is even more oppressive?

RV: Well, as I said earlier, I do think that we have definitely made things a bit more open to interpretation over the past few albums. We try and write the lyrics so they can relate to other things, which sometimes does not religion at all. _Unholy Cult_, for example can relate to religion or a type of cult-like situation, or that of a personal one. It all depends on how you look at it, and what you are personally picturing the songs to be. So everything we wrote can relate to other things. We did this on the last couple of records and especially on _Harnessing Ruin_, where, as I said before, most of the songs are more general, and more in touch with the current events in the world today.

CoC: I'm definitely not alone in my opinion that Immolation have thus far got less than you deserve in terms of being given the same amount of attention and I guess simple recognition by the more mainstream metal press as bands like Nile and more recently Behemoth. Is this ever something that you have been frustrated by, given the length of time that you've spent in this genre?

RV: I think bands like Nile and Behemoth deserve the attention they get. I'm sure once our new album gets out there and with the help of our first video we'll do pretty well with this one, so we don't worry about it too much. Hopefully we will tour with one or both of those bands at some point this coming year.

CoC: One thing that struck me about all of you on the DVD [_Bringing Down the World_] is that you're definitely not the kind of guys to really "fit into the crowd", so to speak. As you said on the DVD interview, you all don't really drink very much and you don't try to live a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Do you think that Immolation's sense of individuality, which it seems runs through not only the music, but also your personalities, has perhaps made the industry -- who obviously have their part to play in raising your profile from a commercial point of view -- unsure or confused over what to make of you?

RV: We are very down to earth people, kind of laid back actually. But that is not something that should matter. The bottom line is when we hit that stage, all hell breaks loose. And that's what counts; we don't need to drink a lot or get crazy. My life is already as crazy. I spend six to seven days a week working, so I like to take it easy when I can. <laughs> To us, it's all about the music. We are content with that part of it. The travelling around the world, meeting new people and old friends all over. That's what we are interested in. Checking out different sites and so on. We get the most out of every tour and really enjoy it; whether we are on a bus or driving a van, it's always a great experience. I think our music speaks for itself, and when people see us on the DVD and realize we are just regular people too, they will probably relate to it and see that we are just like anyone else. We just make death metal too! <laughs>

CoC: You reportedly had quite a few problems with Roadrunner when you were with them. How has working with Listenable differed, and do you have any regrets about the way in which your relationship with Roadrunner was dissolved?

RV: Roadrunner is a great label. The bottom line is that we were young back then and really didn't know how the industry worked. So that's why we didn't see eye to eye with them at the time. We don't have any regrets about it. We still see a few people from the label from time to time, like Monte Conner, who is now vice-president, I think. He's a really cool guy and actually gave us a lot of good advice when we wanted to listen. <laughs> But now it is great to be with Listenable; we are a priority with them. We have known the owner for years and he really puts in 110%. He makes things happen and really pushes to do the best for the band. The same goes for Century Media in the US. They are really supportive of the band and want to make things happen too. So we are happy to be where we are now.

CoC: Having been in the death metal scene for some time now -- how has the scene changed from your perspective over the past decade? What would you highlight as positives and negatives of these changes?

RV: Things were really different back when we started. There were no computers, e-mails or MP3s. It was all snail mail and tape trading. When you heard a band there was an identity, where today there are just so many that a lot of bands tend to sound alike and be very repetitive. It was all new back then too. But times change, I am happy with today too. The scene is so much more accessible these days with the Internet and stuff like that being around. I like the technology. I like the fact that metal is on such a rise now and there is a lot of interest in it. It is very reminiscent of the old days. I know there is a lot of potential in this style that hasn't been touched yet, and that's something I look forward to the future.

CoC: So, where do you see death metal and extreme music headed in the future, and where do you see Immolation fitting into the grand scheme of things?

RV: Well, like I mentioned, I think it has a lot of potential. I feel like we are just at the beginning of something here, and it has a lot of room to grow -- that's for sure. I think the more time goes on, the heavier music will become and the more accepted this style will be, and we'll definitely be there to do our part.

CoC: By the same token, as I mentioned in my review, Immolation have evolved over the course of the last few albums as a band who are almost in a genre all of their own. Do you feel that there's a transcending quality in your music that could make it accessible to people outside of the genre? Again, is that something you intentionally set out to do, or has it come naturally over time?

RV: I think it's very natural for us, but it's something we've always wanted to do. We want to expand and make this style something more than people can imagine. I think there are plenty of people out there who are not exposed to the heavier stuff too often, and if they were they would be into a lot of bands in this scene. I think that's part of what keeps us going. Like I said, there is so much potential ahead. I think with each album we are excited to work on new material, because ourselves, as well as all the other bands out there in the scene, are really writing the future of metal as we know it. To us that's an exciting thing, you're constantly on the cutting edge with every new release. I'm sure there are a lot of bands that feel this way too.

CoC: So, with Immolation being as unique as you are, it probably begs the question as to your musical influences, since they are clearly not your standard blend of Morbid Angel, Deicide etc.

RV: We are influenced and inspired by all kinds of music. Whether it's jazz, classic rock, blues, classical, nu-metal, doom, alternative, adult contemporary. Man, we like a lot of different stuff. So I think it's that open-mindedness to all that different music that helps us when creating our material.

CoC: After so many years doing Immolation, what is it about this music and this band that still piques your interest and motivates you to put in the time and effort that it requires?

RV: Well, aside from what I mentioned earlier, we just have a good time with it. It's fun for us; we enjoy it. There's something about getting on stage and just letting the emotions and the music run through you that is very uplifting. And although this style of music is often viewed as negative by so many on the outside, it really is more of a positive experience to those of us on the inside. People come out to shows to have a good time. It's entertainment. We like performing and getting the energy from the crowd and the crowd does the same. We all just get into the music and the moment and there's nothing else like it.

CoC: What's the agenda for the band going to be over the course of the next two to three years?

RV: Well, we will start a US tour with Deicide in June. Then we plan to do a couple of fest shows in Europe. We will probably get back out in the US and then over to Europe for a full tour later in the year. We also hope to really get silly and get another album recorded this year too, but we'll see how that goes. <laughs>

CoC: When all's said and done, what do you want this band to be remembered for?

RV: Our music, our hard work, our passion and our good down-to-earth attitude.

CoC: Thanks for your time, Robert. Do you have anything that you want to add?

RV: Thanks for the interview and support. We appreciate it. We hope to see everyone out there on the road and we look forward to it. See you all soon!

(article submitted 22/2/2005)

5/13/2001 P Schwarz Immolation: A Truly Individual Sin
7/7/1999 P Schwarz Immolation: Incinerating Yourself to Live
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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