Written by Andrej Simeunovic
Suffocation packs in an obscene amount of fantastic riffs, disgusting slams, creative breaks, and tempo changes to the tracks of Despise the Sun, which clocks in at just 16 minutes. This lean and brutal death metal EP displays a mastery of balance and form in its instrumental arrangements and its heavier, cleaner production. This excellent collection of skillset and sound is some of the strongest material of Suffocation’s career.
Suffocation released this gem before (temporarily) breaking up in 1998, and what an EP it is. The biggest problem with this release is that it’s too damn short! The album clocks in at just over 16 minutes, and most listeners will be left yearning for more. Yet, in that short time, they manage to pack in an obscene amount of fantastic riffs, disgusting slams, creative breaks and tempo changes. Frankly, the songs are so damn good that you probably wouldn’t make it through anything longer. You would be dead, because your head would fly off of your shoulders from a) banging your head too much or b) Frank Mullen’s vocals coming out of your speakers and ripping your head off for you. Most EPs have some filler or are predominately composed of it, but not Despise the Sun. Here Suffocation displays nothing but sheer technical and brutal death metal, done right by the originators themselves.
All members remain unchanged from the previous two albums, except for the drums — Dave Culross replaces Mike Smith just for this EP. All of their individual contributions are refined and generally improved, and Culross in particular stands out. He does more than simply fill the shoes of Smith; he furthers the material with his hyper-speed double bass, constant cymbal washing, odd timing, and clever fills. The two guitars are multi-talented assassins: they can be heavy, chugging, and pummeling juggernauts one moment, yet quick, sharp, and surgically precise the next. The bass stands out in the mix well, providing both a thick bottom end and moments of flourish during breaks by the other instruments. It just fills in any open space in the sound — think cement or molten metal in a mold — making each song denser and heavier. The vocals are deep, vicious, significantly pissed off, and (personally, my favorite part) they still manage to be discernable. Lines like “FACE DOWN IN YOUR MISERY” are clearly heard and have much more impact because each syllable has so much fury and anger behind it.
The production is greatly improved from previous Suffocation albums because it’s more expansive and polished than both of their early albums. It is also improved from most of Scott Burns’ earlier albums. Some quick context: Scott Burns, resident at Morrisound Studios in Tampa, Florida, was a prolific producer of pioneering American death metal bands in the late 80s and early 90s. He produced so many landmark albums during this time that his sound is deeply engrained into death metal itself (and the odds are, your favorite early death metal album was produced by him). Scott Burns’ production and the sound of Morrisound Studios is so ubiquitous in early American death metal that it is considered “the” sound of the time. As death metal production has progressed and developed a more “modern” sound in recent years, the Morrisound Studios sound feels more confined, muddier, and somewhat dated when heard today. While those albums were strongly unified in sound — and notable in metal history for that reason — Burns’ move towards a more modern production on this EP is rather surprising and welcome. The songs on Despise the Sun have a heavier, slightly cleaner tone which prevents all the technical bits from being lost in the mix. At the same time, the traditional Morrisound Studios sound has a certain charm and warmth that unifies all those early albums, including the first few Suffocation albums. On Despise the Sun, these two worlds meet in a middle point that manages to avoid the cookie-cutter 90s Florida death metal sound and the overly sterile sound of modern productions to create something that has the best of both worlds.
The record kicks off with “Funeral Inception,” an absolute monster of a track, and one of my personal favorite Suffocation songs ever. A short intro sample that bounces between the left and right speakers gives way to the first riff: heavy, slow, and involuntary-headbang inducing. That riff is combined with some excellent drum work as well as genius transitions and tempo changes to demonstrate that Suffocation not only knows exactly what the fuck they’re doing when writing a brutal death metal song, but that they really are masters of their instruments. I use the term genius because the drums and the rest of the band utilize very simple methods in masterful and clever ways to build up tension and the excitement to begin the song. All instruments abruptly cut off after the first riff to emphasize the razor sharp guitar break thereafter, and the quick drum roll after that guides the listener directly into the first blasting section. By the time the band is rampaging through the first verse, the song is already packed full of momentum and energy just from those transitions and tempo changes.
“Devoid of Truth” is a super fast affair with a few mid-tempo parts thrown in. The bass is excellent: nice and punchy, matching up with the double bass lines and the guitars at the right points to maximize impact of the riffs, but still doing its own thing and keeping things interesting. “Despise the Sun” continues the trend of phenomenal bass lines, but Culross adds to that some excellent drum and cymbal work. The title track is a prime example of how the drums go beyond simply following the rest of the band around, with Culross’ unique tom, double bass, and cymbal accents and approach to the rhythm enhancing each section and song. Culross’ near constant cymbal abuse and fills not only break up the blasting sections for maximum impact but also increase the size and monstrosity of the band’s sound. “Bloodchurn” starts off with a riff that sounds like a modern version of one of Suffocation’s old school, thrashy riffs, à la “Reincremation” or “Jesus Wept,” but with a more technical and elaborate rhythmic approach. That riff builds into more complex fretwork and interplay between guitars and bass that is both technically interesting with its higher register flourishes and punishing in its brutal rhythmic assault. The opening riff and entirety of this song are great examples of the mixture of technical and brutal death metal that Suffocation helped pioneer — it is also the mixture which is copied by so many bands today.
“Catatonia” is a re-imaging of one of their older songs, originally written 10 years before this EP; it appears on their first EP, Human Waste. The drums are much faster than the original, but relative to the rest of the songs on Despise the Sun, it is much slower. The modern production brings out the intensity of the old school riffs and thrash breaks, which sound faster, nastier, and more unhinged than before. Around the 2:40 mark, “Catatonia” spirals completely out of control with a combination of relentlessly fast drum blasts and riffs from the strings. Drums, bass, guitars, and vocals are all combined into a single, concentrated stake that is driven directly into your eye socket until your brain literally explodes from the sheer force of the sound. All instruments rope in the madness for just a second before the guitar breaks out a wonderfully screechy, chaotic solo that sounds like Terrance Hobbs paid a gargoyle to fingerbang his fretboard. The solo quickly gives way to a bridge back into the previous maelstrom-stake section, but this time there is no respite. It plows its way through your brain matter right up until the very end of the record or your excruciating death, whichever comes first.
This EP’s release was a difficult pill for fans to swallow. It came three years after Pierced from Within (arguably the pinnacle of their career), and it gave Suffocation fans only 16 minutes of new material and a break-up. Yet, those who listen to this gem will realize this is some of the strongest material of their career. At the very least, Despise the Sun is a highly concentrated and excellent display of their skillset and sound. Everything is turned to 11, from the riffs and bass lines down to the breakdowns, slams, and drum work. Vocals are deep, throaty, and mixed in just the right spot. The production is expansive, a hair more clinical, and combines the instrumentation into a dense, meaty soup. It is a fantastic last hurrah (at the time) by a band at the top of their game. If you’re filling up your collection or just sampling Suffocation for the first time, Despise the Sun is a must have.