A used copy of Souls to Deny has been lingering about in my CD collection for years now, but I can’t say I’ve ever been too excited about Suffocation, much less the work they’ve been churning out post-reunion. The legendary significance of Effigy of the Forgotten is not lost on me; given the sort of animosity that stirs between the subgenres of death metal (being a subgenre in itself), it would take some modicum of fortitude to come onto the scene with the intent of bridging the melodic, the technical, and the ‘brutal’ together. Though they’ve never slacked when it comes to the execution of their craft, I’m not convinced their latest incarnation has done enough to set their sound apart from the hordes of modern tech-death acts they have originally influenced in part.
For better or worse, Suffocation’s seventh full-length, Pinnacle of Bedlam, is a solid yet straightforward entry to the crowded tech-death canon. Although their evolution has been slow, this gradual push towards a distinctly ‘modern’ style of tech-death has been a long time coming. You know modern tech-death when you hear it: densely composed, hyper-actively performed, and with the prevailing tendency to sound like it was produced by the cybernetic 23rd-century equivalent of Bob Rock. While I love the attention-demanding busyness entailed in a lot of these bands (the current Suffocation included), the digital, ultraclear production is what largely defines modern tech-death to me, and it’s that same production that tends to undo the inherent aggression in the music.
Though by no means as mechanical as the worst offenders, Pinnacle of Bedlam is no exception to this rule. Given how common this tends to be, I might not have even bothered to notice it if I didn’t feel this was a rather new innovation to their sound. Effigy of the Forgotten‘s production was appropriately grimy and unwelcoming, and I get that it’s probably unfair to compare a band’s current style to something they did half a lifetime ago; in that case, even Souls to Deny managed to retain some of that same murkiness. Although the Suffocation of Pinnacle to Bedlam is more classically technical than its past incarnations, I do wonder if it was necessary to have accommodated their finesse without the digital trappings of modern production. Suffocation are still plenty aggressive, but that aggression is sensed by the mind, less so in the stomach. Great death metal of any nature should appeal to both.
This veer towards modern tech-death is felt in the songwriting as well as the production, although only the latter I would consider to be a clear-cut negative. As musicians, Suffocation are every bit as talented as they’ve ever been, and I don’t think their current era changes have alienated them from the things that made them so good to begin with. Suffocation are arguably more ‘tech’ on Pinnacle of Bedlam than they’ve ever been. Listening to the album is like brushing a coat of sand off a painting: it feels chaotic and indecipherable at first, but as time goes on, the seemingly rhapsodic pieces of the puzzle begin to come together. The first couple of times I listened to it, I entertained the notion that I didn’t really like what they were doing here. There aren’t the sort of immortal riffs and chunky hooks that made their earlier work such an easier sell. Although they never go as far as ‘widdly-widdly’, would-be Paganini shreds and sweeps, there’s a sense of the way these songs come across upon first listen. Only the melodic entrance and uneasy pinch-harmonics of ‘Sullen Days’ really stood out. Several listens in, and I don’t think any other tracks really stand out on their own, but I do have a greater appreciation for the way the pieces tie together. I might even say Pinnacle of Bedlam feels like a singular, forty-minute slab of synchronized aggression; the breaks between songs are often negligible, and—with the obvious exception of ‘Sullen Days’—their momentum is impressively consistent and aggressive.
Based on my own interpretations and experience of Suffocation’s work, it feels strange to directly compare what they were doing twenty years ago to the music they’re putting out in this decade. Frank Mullen‘s distinctive gutturals (a rare thing in death metal) are a consistent through-line through each of their albums, and I don’t think the shift from one blend of sub-sub-genres to another will ever be enough to alienate their fans. Even so, where death metal of the classic era is now a precious thing, the sort of tech-death zeitgeist Suffocation have gradually adapted to fit feels less poignant than the individual sound they started with. This isn’t a case of simply yearning for the ‘good ol’ days’ either; there are still limitless possibilities for a band today to distinguish themselves in any genre. Suffocation are more skilled and capable of playing this sort of stuff than most of their younger contemporaries, but the fact that Pinnacle of Bedlam feels interchangeable with a thousand other albums of its style is enough to keep me from really loving what they’ve done here.
01) Cycles of Suffering
02) Purgatorial Punishment
03) Eminent Wrath
04) As Grace Descends
05) Sullen Days
06) Pinnacle of Bedlam
07) My Demise
09) Rapture of Revocation
10) Beginning of Sorrow