Interview by Parisa Eshrati
In their 2022 album Acts of God, New York death metal pioneers Immolation grapple with feelings of deep despair and hopelessness through lyrical symbolism, crushing technical riffs and ominous artistic visuals. Following their recent co-headlining tour with Carcass, we spoke with guitarist and songwriter Bob Vigna on evoking an apocalyptic atmosphere in the music, conceptualizing their music videos, and a detailed behind-the-scenes of the recording process.
In the new album, Acts of God, you create an atmosphere of deep despair and hopelessness, specifically through continuing themes of light and darkness. How do you feel that exploring this contrast of light/dark helped you pursue these themes more intensely?
This kind of contrast is something we're always drawn to. Themes of dark and light, good and evil, etc. have been recurring ideas throughout our career. It's a good artistic way of portraying that. It felt like the best way to visualize the lyrics, and it's just something that's stuck with us through our writing career. Every time we write, we kind of just go with what comes to us.
A lot of the lyrics for this album came to me when I was writing the music itself. As I was writing, I would think of how the lyrics or vocals could flow with it. When I started doing that, a lot of ideas just started coming to me. I would just write it down with Ross [Dolan, vocals] as the music got written over a period of time. Every song that I send out in pre-production we'll listen to and come up with ideas along the way. We don't really start writing lyrics officially until all the music is done for the record because we get a better picture of all the songs and what idea would fit which song the best. It happens all over the course of time, this album was like two years of writing - give or take with the pandemic and everything. This particular theme of light and dark came up naturally, but yeah, once we find a theme that fits a song, Ross and I will go back and forth and tackle it until it's done.
There are also various apocalyptic-type themes throughout, specifically imagery of fire being both a purifying and extremely destructive force. This is obviously explored lyrically, but I’d like to ask about how you carry this particular theme into your guitar-playing. How do you feel, if at all, all your progressions give way for both sonic themes of destruction and clarity?
Musically - absolutely. We're always trying to find what is going to fit the music, you know? When it comes down to approaching solos, Alex [Bouks, guitar] and I both have a similar idea of what serves the song best. It's not about showing off what either of us are able to do technically, it's about elevating the song. Whether it's a sad sounding part, dark, intense, whatever, it's all about approaching the mood. If Alex and I are trading solos off in a song, it's like fitting together two pieces of a puzzle. We look at the transitions and how they complement one another as they fade in and out. The main idea is just to go with the feeling. That's what all of our writing is done by - feeling first, then creating a riff. When it comes to solos it goes both ways, sometimes I think about the song's meaning and other times I'm just thinking about the parts musically. It all depends but it comes down to what's going to make the best end result.
The track “The Age of No Light”, generally speaking, presents this idea that our world is bound by cruel, senseless chaos. While it’s a very grim observation, there could also be a somewhat freeing nature within chaos, a letting go of sorts. I’d be curious to hear you expand on this theme of the album - do you think we are held hostage by chaos or freed by it?
Hmm, well, there's certainly a lot of chaos going on. "The Age of No Light" vaguely expresses our amazement of how the world is going backwards instead of forward. Instead of advancing as people, we're at a point in society where I never thought we'd be again, you know? History repeats itself and people just keep ignoring the past. We're in a weird place now, and it's just very strange how dramatically things have turned around just in the past five or so years ago. It's become hard to fathom each day, honestly. It's kind of nuts, it really is. While I try not to discuss too much of the lyrics so everyone can come out with their own interpretation of the music, but generally this song is expressing that feeling.
I wanted to ask a couple questions about the music videos, as you produced, directed and edited all the videos for this album. Firstly, please tell us about your general background in film - how you got involved, other projects you’ve worked on, etc.
It's kind of a live and learn type thing. I didn't go to film school or anything like that. I used to work for a production company and we did a lot of weddings and big events. Through that company, I learned a lot about audio software and figured out the program that I now use for pre-production with our music. I'm still pretty unadvanced with technology [laughs], but it was good to finally break through and get more equipped with technology because it was an amazing change for me as far as writing music. It helped me tremendously, because instead of coming up with ideas and trying to vocalize them with the band, I could actually put together a song and present it audibly. Same goes for the film stuff. I basically learned by shooting weddings. I'd film clips to show during the reception, just typical shots of the ceremony, bride and groom rooms, etc. From that job I learned tools like Adobe Premier, which is a little more upscale than the programs I was using to make our music videos beforehand.
My first real music video was for our friend Karyn Crisis with her Gospel of The Witches project back in 2015. That was really fun because we played live with them a couple of times and we hardly ever have any side-projects.Aside from that, I also had some experience working with director Tommy Jones, who works for Nuclear Blast now. He did a few of our music videos, like "A Glorious Epoch'' and "Illumination". He hired me to program lights for some of his other music videos since I had lighting experience from the wedding industry. So the last video I helped him out with was an Overkill video, one of the first music videos from the last record they did. I gained a lot from just being around that atmosphere.
From there on out is when I started doing all the videos for Immolation. For this record, it was just a matter of learning, taking what you know and trying to make it work. We kind of know what we're trying to portray with the music in a lot of ways. It's cool to be able to take that and create something visual for it. And I enjoy it! I mean, I love all the aspects from the stage lighting and filming. I have a little idea about a lot of things [laughs] and I try to make it work as best I can. It's nice to be able to do all of this in-house so whenever we want to drop a music video, we can. We have the freedom to decide on what we're doing as a band so we don't have to rely on anyone to make it happen. I feel lucky that I can take tools that I've learned in other areas of my life and bring them into the band
Definitely. I love the background with the wedding gigs, that’s great.
Yeah, I've been in the industry for many years and was able to take a lot of stuff out of it, even though it's for the completely flip side with metal aesthetics [laughs]. In the production sense, though, there are a lot of similarities. For a recent European tour, I got to program lights for our show. It's something we're going to start doing in the future, but yeah, it's cool to take those interests and bring that out with the band.
In the “Apostle” music video, there’s a strong sense of claustrophobia compared to the other videos. All the shots are close-ups and you never see any person or any image as a full picture. What does this visual sense of confinement reflect in this song specifically?
We wanted that song to be subliminal, in a way. We purposely made that video so that you couldn't see our faces. The label definitely thought it was interesting choice because usually the whole point of the video is to show the band [laughs]. That was the whole point of it, though. We wanted it to tie in from the art on the album cover. You can barely see the faces in the painting, they're all somewhat obscured.
I won't say exactly what I think the song is about but the subject is based on something that happened locally in Yonkers. We even shot the video locally too. If you read into the history of Yonkers you could probably put the two-and-two together. Lyrically, that song has been something Ross has wanted to write about for a long time. Normally, we wouldn't write about that kind of stuff, so we didn't know how to approach it. Once Ross heard the music for this song, he knew it would be the one to work with that particular idea. It all came down to the feeling of it. Sorry it's a very vague answer [laughs], but I like to hear your questions and see the different feelings and ideas people get from the music.
While we’re on the subject, what are some of your favorite music videos?
Oh man, there are so many good ones out there. Behemoth has done a lot of great videos recently. I always loved the Morbid Angel "God of Emptiness" music video because it's very suggestive. It looks very realistic but you don't necessarily see everything. With CGI these days you could make everything look exactly how you like, but if you're not a millionaire or just generally enjoy the DIY approach, it's smart to make things suggestive. That way you're evoking a feeling, and in some ways makes it even more realistic to the viewer. The transformation scene in that video and the way it's out of focus is so cool, and very groundbreaking at that time.
I also get a lot of inspiration from movies, but really it all comes down to creating something interesting. I like to show the band a lot in our videos, but mainly I want to show the power behind the music. So when the band is playing a certain section that I think is strong, I try to make sure it's visually there. First, I shoot the band with nothing else to make sure it could stand alone as a solid performance video. From there, I create more of a visual approach and add in clips that are conscious of the music.
It all looks fantastic. Going back to the album, I saw how for the making of this record you all got a recording house. Tell me more about this two week period and how being in close quarters, and eating a lot of spaghetti together, helped the creative process.
[laughs] We had taco night too! Can’t forget that.
Well first I should mention Paul Orofino. Paul has been our producer since 1998, since our third record. He's a super nice guy and great producer, and the house is his third incarnation of the Millbrook Sound Studio. He loves to entertain at the studio, sometimes he’ll have like 80 people over just jamming and hanging out. It's a semi-basement area with a pool and a little bar area. It’s pretty much all you'd need, you know?
It's really an awesome place, because we can record all day and then just be in the house afterwards and chill. We can hash over how things came out and work on the lyrics. Normally, Ross and I would have to do this remotely because he lives up in Rochester and I'm down in Westchester, but finalizing the lyrics together really makes a difference. We would be up all night in the house brainstorming and discussing how to vocalize certain lyrics. So yeah, we definitely used the band house to our advantage. It's really fun to have a place that you can kind of just stretch out and hang out during the artistic and creative process. Way better than a hotel room! We could just hang out, cook, relax, etc. which we don't get to do very often. It's usually a lot more stressful trying to get a record done more last-minute.
I'd say for most of the previous records, we wouldn't start working on the lyrics at all until we got into the studio. In the two week period of time while we're tracking everything, we would write all the lyrics and try to rush to think of song titles and all that. We used to really kill ourselves over that, so now we realize it's nice to have them mostly done before going into the studio. Luckily, it's worked out over the years, but this record just went a lot more smoothly since we had this space and could just concentrate on the creative process.
It sounds like it's a very conducive environment for creating.
Oh, it's great. It's also more out in the country so it's really chill and far away from everything. You go in there with only one goal in mind, and that's to get the album recorded.
Now I’ve got to ask, who is the best cook in the band?
It's gotta be Steve. He's also done cooking as a profession here and there in the past so he's very good. Ross is good too though! He's a second close. I haven't had any food from Alex yet so we'll just have to see about him [laughs].
This is also your first album writing and recording with Alex Bouks. His dynamic in the band is very evident as a listener, but I’d love to hear more on the process of incorporating his style and working together in this way.
I've known Alex since we formed the band, so basically since the late ‘80s. We'd come out to Philadelphia to play shows at a venue called Gee Willikers, where our friend Anne would book all kinds of great metal shows. That's where we eventually got our first drummer, Craig [Smilowski], who was with us for the first couple of records. He was in Goreaphobia with Alex originally. Anyway, Bill [Taylor] wanted to leave the band and we totally understood, he just didn't want to tour anymore. Alex was a natural solution. It was just like having another family member join the band. We kept it in the circle, which is great. Alex's style is definitely very similar to mine in a lot of ways, especially with the solos.
Most of the writing for this record was done during the pandemic, so I did most of the writing on my own. Alex sent me a few things here and there that I'll probably use for the next record, though. During the pre-production phase, however, I went down to Delaware where Alex lives and work on the solos with him. During the recording I went down to Delaware to record and work on the solos with him. It was a much more back and forth experience which was really nice, as opposed to when I usually record my parts with Paul which is a really quick experience.
Alex's style is really cool. His approach is a little different than mine but similar, you know? So when you hear the solos going back and forth they really compliment each other, and sometimes we'd even do that on purpose. He joined the band literally right after we were done recording the last record so I know he had been itching to record with us. It's a no-brainer to have him in the family now. We come from the same school of music and all-in-all we approach music with feeling and emotion and opposed to just, you know, going crazy or whatever [laughs].
Within the death metal genre, you’ve been known to have a very distinct and unique stage presence. Do you feel like you’re channeling something specific when you’re playing live or just letting the music run through you?
Well, the last show we did at Maryland Deathfest out in like 85 degrees under the sun, I was just trying not to pass out! [laughs] I think it's really more of something that came up naturally for me. It just became the way I performed on stage.
I just feel the music through me. I gotta be careful not to go too crazy, 'cause when the crowd gets wild I get even crazier...and then I realize I'm gonna start screwing up some of the songs! [laughs] But yeah, people look at performance in different ways but I just try to put on a good performance and play the songs the best I can. For me, it's a way of putting the music out there and portraying the music through the energy I'm putting on stage.
You all put on a killer show. I first saw you play live fifteen years ago, and it was great catching you on this past tour with Carcass and seeing a whole new generation of younger people attending your shows.
Oh, that's the best part! It's so funny to see 14 year olds all decked out like how we used to be back in the late ‘80s. Wearing patches and all that is getting popular again, it's so bizarre! [laughs] It's great to see that interest in the younger bands too. I've noticed there are so many bands like Mortiferum, Blood Incantation, Imperial Triumphant, etc. that are getting back into the darker part of music again, which I feel like lost its way for a long time. There was a whole generation where the darkness seemed to be missing in the music, and now it's back in a big way. There's a lot of feeling and emotion in the music with this new generation of metal bands that reminds me of things I grew up with back in the way, so it's just cool to see that there is interest in all these new generations of fans.
Do you have any more shows lined up for the rest of the year? What else can Immolation fans look forward to?
We have a couple months off from shows until we do UK Death Fest. We didn't do a lot of Europe shows because of pandemic stuff and so many tours that were supposed to happen in the spring got pushed back to the fall, so we probably won’t do a full force European tour until 2023. We’ll also announce a fall season tour soon with a killer lineup. In the next few months, we’ll be doing more things behind the scenes and put out a couple more music videos.