Hall of Fame Countdown: Incantation “Onward to Golgotha”

A lot has been written about Incantation’s 1992 classic, Onward to Golgotha. We included it in our issue on the best death metal albums of all time, and did a Hall of Fame feature to commemorate its recording. Hell, I’ve even written about it elsewhere. As difficult as it is to pinpoint one band as the highlight of any genre, Incantation certainly makes my favorite death metal sound. It’s a sound on Onward to Golgotha that Decibel’s Scott Koerber describes as

“42 pounding minutes of swarming guitars, blasting darkness and crushing doom set to a warlike, blackened death metal pace, with abstract leads and pitch harmonics illuminating the tangled mass. Incantation, along with Immolation, emerged at the epicenter of what would soon after become a burgeoning NY/NJ death metal scene.”

So before I use up all the adjectives that best describe this album, let’s engage in the ultimate obsessive exercise and rank the songs according to preference (I won’t say worst to best, since they’re all great tracks). Also, for readers eager to learn more about some of metal’s most legendary releases, we have a new Hall of Fame anthology coming out, which you can pre-order here!

11.) Devoured Death

Onward to Golgotha is a very consistent listen – but perhaps because of this, not every track is a definitive standout. “Devoured Death” is a speedy and energetic death metal track that bears no blemishes, but functions as a filler song to move the album along.

10.) Eternal Torture

Likewise, the album’s closer embodies many of the fine qualities present throughout the other songs, but isn’t as essential as those further up this list. It makes for a suitable closer, a breakneck blast of fury before laying the listener to rest (though it makes for a good lead in to “Demonic Incarnate” if you’re going straight from this album into Mortal Throne of the Nazarene). Note: this song was not on the original 1992 vinyl release, but made it onto the CD version, not sure why.

9.) Christening the Afterbirth

Incantation’s style is distinct from other forms of death metal for its undercurrent of doom metal. When applied in the right way, it gives the listener a feeling of terror and foreboding unlike anything else. But sometimes, Incantation overplays this hand and has the dirges go on for a little too long. I get this song is part of what makes them iconic, but the slow riffing sections just don’t land as well as other sections on the album. It’s also one of the songs that makes you wish the production wasn’t quite as muddy as it is. The production helps to create the atmosphere and it’s one that fits the music and subject matter perfectly, but some riffs might have benefited from turning the bass knob down just a tad.

8.) Deliverance of Horrific Prophecies

I’d say Incantation does a better job of the doom approach here on the album’s original closing track. The song is a great example of a band using “extreme” or “evil” themes without resorting to being gross or intentionally provocative, as can be seen by the lyrics: “Praying for a dying religion, The lord will bless us, Misfortune of God, The throne is lost, Christ’s fate, Was a lie.” Here the band uses unholy themes without resorting to self-parody, thus actually making the effect on the listener even stronger.

7.) Rotting Spiritual Embodiment

This album shows the band’s ability to sink the listener into a slow-moving, lava-like pool of darkness, and then purge him or her into a ferocious slash fest of fast drums and riffing. Listen at 2:20 for the use of dual-octave riffing, a technique often championed by the band’s stylistic cousins in Profanatica. This technique is a great way to get the listener’s attention and enhances the feeling of panic and urgency.

6.) Golgotha

The albums scorching opening track. Funny thing, someone once pointed out to me the similarity of the song’s opening riff with that of “Invoked Infinity” on 2012’s excellent Vanquish in Vengeance. Not sure of this was done as an intentional “throwback” to get the listener’s ears to perk up, or a simple oversight. With the amount of records Incantation has put out, I wouldn’t be surprised by either. Though it doesn’t matter in the end, both songs absolutely crush.

5.) Profanation

John McEntee and company are masters of the ominous-sounding riff, and “Profanation” is a great example of this. And the way they seamlessly move from the verse groove into more low-end thunderstorms at 1:10 is mesmerizing, and the mini guitar solo is perfectly placed.

4.) Entrantment of Evil

Despair. There are bands whose entire discography cannot match the amount of feeling of despair invoked during the first 20 seconds of this song. Like other stylistic tropes, the pinch harmonic has become a cliche in extreme metal, but “Entrantment of Evil” shows the technique being used for its ordained purpose. Like “Devoured Death,” “Eternal Torture” and “Unholy Massacre,” this song originally came from the EP of the same name released in 1990. I’d highly recommend that any fans of raw death metal check out that EP after giving this album a few spins.

3.) Unholy Massacre

More than any other song on this album, “Unholy Massacre” embodies every strength that Incantation brings to death metal: huge and ominous-sounding riffs, perfect use of pinch harmonics, almost impossibly low vocals (Demilich notwithstanding) and a talent for make effect slow AND fast parts.

2.) Blasphemous Cremation

Great extreme metal has the unique ability to transport the listener to other realms and to unearth feelings other types of music can’t even imagine enough to wish away. “Blasphemous Cremation” pulls the listener through several moods and speeds until reaching the pinnacle of ominous terror at 2:45. The use of the minor-third intervals is so brilliant in it’s simplicity that even at dozens of listens it still causes the hair on my arms to stand up. This is what is meant by the “extreme” in extreme metal: as a means to force your mind and body to travel through obscure and dark territory…and not to make you simply laugh at the silliness of it all.

1.) Immortal Cessation

As far as I know, this song is no great crowd favorite, but I still think of it as the album’s finest. It’s the one moment where all the band’s best qualities actually encounter a lesser-known force: melodic riffing! Listen at :16 and :42 to know what I’m talking about. This catches the listener off guard once again, this time by managing to capture a note of sadness not present through the rest of the album. It’s similar to how the band would later to use the same approach on “Desecration (of the Heavenly Graceful)” on Diabolical Conquest. But for those of you looking to rage in the darkness of the tracks I just named, don’t worry, there’s still a belt-bursting feast of unholy torments to be found here.