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Suffocation’s Pinnacle of Bedlam: “Pinnacle” Indeed

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I feel a little guilty liking the new Suffocation album as much as I do. It’s the first without Mike Smith since… well, the last time Mike Smith didn’t play drums for them, and he was a big part in giving them the sound they’ve honed. Or that this is the first album since Frank Mullen has taken a reduced touring role. This could be the beginning of the (real) end of Suffocation, so this Pinnacle of Bedlam should be bumming me out to a certain extent. But it’s not. The fact that it’s sharper, meaner, and more focused than anything they’ve done since they came back from the dead early last decade is impressive. With some different members and the end perhaps nearer than it once had been, Pinnacle of Bedlam still sounds like Suffocation. Any new Suffocation is good Suffocation. But somehow, Bedlam is, staggeringly, better than that.

The first thing that sticks out about it is just how goddamn technical it is. Whereas Blood Oath was all about floor-leveling power grooves, Pinnacle of Bedlam is Suffocation proving that they still have the market cornered on squirrely tech-death. The solos are an evocative counterpoint to the chunky and churning riffs that surround them, more well-thought-out than on albums past. And though he may not be Mike Smith, Dave Culross’ drums are fucking absurd. But like how Blood Oath wasn’t actually ALL grooves, this one isn’t without its fair share of heavy moments (Frank’s growl as the guitars prepare for something huge on “Inversion” is already in the running for the heaviest thing you’ll hear all year). But nitpicking whether it’s heavy or technical can’t overshadow the fact that, to put it eloquently, every fucking song on it slays. Every one. The almost uncharacteristically epicness of the aforementioned “Inversion,” the 6/8 riff of perdition under the solo in “Purgatorial Punishment,” the atmospheric islands amidst the sewage of “Sullen Days” and the title track… They harness everything that’s great about Suffocation, even though on paper it’s sort of antithetical: Bedlam is fast and rigorous yet loose and human. Though the genre they helped spawn is known more for robotic precision and surgically sterile performances, the band sound like they’re communicating with eachother, each with a unique personality that benefits them as a whole. They can play at callous-testing speeds but still sound like a live band. There’s a ton of bands that could learn something from that.

In fact, that’s another great thing about Pinnacle of Bedlam: hearing Suffocation, a band that are older than most of the sweep- and/or slam-obsessed  new jacks frantically trying to rip them off, school the shit out of their peers and apostles. Hell, they school bands I like: “As Grace Descends” opens with a high-BPM sprint through some odd time signatures that should knock Necrophagist out of their hibernation, and the rubbery riff that surfaces halfway through opener “Cycles of Suffering” could have been salvaged from a lost Burnt by the Sun song. But obviously, they’re not trying on new hats to fit whatever’s been happening on their stages before they go on; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is Suffocation being Suffocation, and objectively, no one does it better than them. Pinnacle of Bedlam is the sound of a few hundred Despise the Sun-worshipping guitar nerds going sulkingly back to the drawing board.

Because out of death metal’s Big Four, Suffocation’s latter day releases are in a class of their own. Cannibal Corpse and Deicide have been putting out albums that are just as good as their early-’90s best, and Morbid Angel… well, you have to give them points for doing something as nakedly awful as their last album. But Suffocation are the only ones who’ve actually gotten better. Ask a scraggly guy in a Mortician long-sleeve 15 years ago if he thought Suffocation could improve on Effigy of the Forgotten or Pierced from Within: he would have coughed up some dirt weed resin and told you, “Bullshit.” But here we are, 20+ years in with a bigger, better, faster, and stronger version of them. If this does wind up being their last or one of their last albums, they’ll go out on a high note. But true to form, it’ll be a high note of their own, so somewhere rumbling below a low G.

Suffocation’s Pinnacle of Bedlam comes out February 15 on Nuclear Blast. You can stream the track “As Grace Descends” here and pre-order the album here.

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