Pinnacle of Bedlam
Nuclear Blast Records/Riot! Entertainment
Reviewed By Luke Saunders
Astonishing new album from New York Death Metal vets
New York death metal legends Suffocation are undoubtedly one of the all-time greats of the genre. They took death metal to brutal and astonishingly technical new heights during their 90’s heyday, releasing classics such as their full-length debut, Effigy of the Forgotten (1991), and the unmatched Pierced from Within (1995). Of course there have been hiccups along the way, like the unfulfilled promise of sophomore effort Breeding the Spawn (1993) and their eventual disbanding shortly after the release of the excellent Despise the Sun EP (1998). Thankfully, with plenty of creative juices left in the tank the band reformed with the solid yet slightly flawed Souls to Deny album in 2004. That particular album appeared to be a mere warm-up effort before hitting their straps through the re-energised self-titled album (2006). They took a step sideways with Blood Oath (2009), and although it was a solid batch of typical Suffocation brutality, with ample doses of powerful groove, it also hinted at a veteran act running a little low on fresh ideas. Well doubters be damned because Pinnacle of Bedlam sees the mighty Suffocation return to somewhere near their best, delivering their most accomplished album since Pierced from Within.
Firstly it’s out with the old, and well, in with the old. Original drummer Mike Smith has departed and been promptly replaced by ex-sticksman Dave Culross, who manned the drums on their Despise the Sun EP. With all due respect to the wonderful talents of Mike Smith, a fine drummer in his own right, the re-addition of Culross proves to be an inspired move. Culross delivers a phenomenal performance throughout Pinnacle of Bedlam, stamping his presence with brute force and no shortage of finesse. He effortlessly employs technical, fluid rhythms, staggeringly complex drum patterns, scattershot blast beats and some delightfully subtle inflections of creativity and flair. Elsewhere, the modern incarnation of the band remains intact and in vintage form; rounded out by the distinct, intimidating vocals of Frank Mullen, the solid bottom end of bassist Derek Boyer and the restlessly creative and complex riffing of Terrance Hobbs and Guy Marchais. The latter pair are at their electric best, displaying their full repertoire of sharp, technical riffs, head-spinning time changes and intricate, soulful guitar solos that embellish the cement crushing heaviness with deft melodics. And the trademark Suffocation breakdowns sporadically pepper the album, and are some of their best in recent memory. As demonstrated throughout their storied career, Suffocation never use their breakdowns as a crutch to mask inferior song-writing. Instead they are used as a strategic power-play to embellish and compliment the arrangements. They are unpredictably yet perfectly placed; punishing and never contrived.
The songs are typical Suffocation fare, but the ante has been significantly raised in the song-writing department and the intent behind the individual and collective performances is palpable. The sheer power, brutality and catchiness of the material has Suffocation sounding the most invigorated and inspired they’ve been during the uneven second phase of their illustrious career. In fact the dense, multi-layered complexity and thrashier tone recalls Pierced from Within, complete with a modernised edge. The full sounding production is robust and balanced, combining stunning heft with crisp digital clarity, allowing the listener to gradually decipher and unlock the intricate layers within. Like any great technical/brutal death metal album, Pinnacle of Bedlam requires multiple attempts to get your head around the myriad of swift time changes, tech-wizardry of the musicianship, and the vast and complex scope of the compositions. Yet for all the depth and intricacies within the material, Pinnacle of Bedlam has a satisfying immediacy that reveals its greatness from the outset; hitting hard and quickly establishing itself as the brutally focused, monstrously heavy album we all hoped Suffocation were still capable of delivering.
‘Cycles of Suffering’ detonates with a simultaneous barrage of tight blasts and Mullen’s refined growl. The song has all the Suffocation trademarks and it’s a wonderfully dynamic, powerful statement to open the album and set the course for the brilliance to follow. For many, ‘As Grace Descends’ served as the first pre-release taste of the album, and it’s a brilliant track. The song’s thrashy, vaguely melodic tendencies worm their way through the tight tech-death foundation in glorious style. Restrained notes open and close ’Sullen Days’, the bruising centrepiece of the album. The song features one of the album’s show-stopping riffs during its chunky main section, and is chock full of catchy hooks and clever tempo changes. The title track is another monstrous slab of controlled menace, featuring some of the album’s most sublime soloing and a slamming beat-down. The thrashy pulse, bruising breakdowns and killer solos define the excellent ‘My Demise’, and the album ends in style with a pair of stupendous rippers in the form of ‘Rapture of Revocation’ and ‘Beginning of Sorrow’.
Pinnacle of Bedlam is another jewel in the crown of one of death metal’s most influential players. To release an album of this magnitude so late in their career is testament to Suffocation’s durability and masterful song-writing. This is an early album of the year contender and a near flawless death metal platter that will surely go down as one of the must-have metal releases of 2013. Mind-blowing.