Possessed Since Dawn: An Interview with Immolation’s Ross Dolan

Ross Dolan (second from right) and Immolation

New York death stalwarts Immolation will be turning dirty-thirty next year. Almost three decades have passed, but the old adage doesn’t lie: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Immolation have been a benchmark of consistency during their reign. Since their Dawn of Possession debut, vocalist/bassist Ross Dolan has honored the band’s initial intent with a discography that evolves without straying from their rock-solid identity. Early this year, Immolation and Nuclear Blast gave us the band’s tenth opus, Atonement. In his review in dB #149, Forrest Pitts wrote, “Atonement’s grim, fascinating tension lies in its quality of hinged, as opposed to “unhinged,” power. This is an imposing work from an unflagging scene sovereign.”

So when Decibel decided to feature death metal’s summer supremacy on the cover of issue #154, Dolan was on a short list of experts we sought for a state-of-the-genre report. Read the extended “Long Live Death” cover story interview below for Dolan’s thoughts on death metal’s past, present, and future. But first, re-structure your brain cells to this clip from Immolation’s set at the Decibel Metal & Beer Festival:

You’ve seen death metal trends come and go over almost 30 years with this project. How do you think the genre has changed since Immolation was formed?

Ross Dolan: Back in the late 1980s, there were only a small number of bands worldwide who were creating this type of music, so there was more originality and way more distinction between the different bands because the music was still in its infancy stages. In time, the genre began to grow exponentially and there were new death metal bands popping up in every corner of the globe. The record labels jumped on this new genre as it was exploding around the world and gaining momentum. Now the bands that pioneered the genre had record deals and were able to reach more people through touring and worldwide distribution of their albums through the various labels. That, along with the ever present underground — tape trading, fanzines and word of mouth — truly ignited the death metal fire around the world.

The death metal scene certainly had its ups and downs over the years, going through phases where it seemed like the music was losing its momentum and popularity, only to spring back in full force a few years later. It weathered the many storms that came its way, brushing off the trends and always returning back to the core of what made it what it was. It was also interesting to see how some of the earlier bands and the unique sounds they created were responsible for inspiring newer talent, fostering new generations of bands that took their cues musically and stylistically from these earlier bands. Two bands that come to mind right off the top of my head are Cannibal Corpse and At the Gates, both legendary bands that started back in the late 80s/early 90s that were able to inspire whole new generations of bands later on. Also, the internet has definitely been a blessing and a curse, and in many ways it has changed so much, not only in the death metal scene, but music in general.

We were hand-writing letters to bands and fans all over the world until e-mail and social media made everything faster and connected bands and fans alike almost instantly. That also changed the dynamic of how bands promoted themselves to their fans. This — along with new technologies that allow bands now to inexpensively record demos and albums on their laptops — also changed the availability of new music and allowed the costs for these projects to be minimal. We also started seeing the many different sub-genres within the death metal scene take shape as well, due to the mass exposure and the need to create something new and fresh out of something that had been long established. Different styles were blended together and bands experimented in many different ways to create something new out of something old.

Immolation's Atonement: Creating something new from something old. Immolation’s Atonement: Creating something new from something old.

What do you think of the current state of death metal? Is it stronger than ever, or propped up mainly by the contributions of genre pioneers?

RD: I think death metal is in a good place right now, and we are very excited to still be part of this movement. We are looking at a great year for new releases, with most of them coming from long-established and well-respected bands in the genre, which only serves to re-ignite and re-inspire younger bands along the way. I see this as a positive because it keeps things fresh and appeals to newer generations of fans that are slowly discovering death metal, as we all did back in the early days.

The scene seems to be at a high point now, and this is due to the many great bands out there — both old and new — that are making their contributions musically and pushing the bar each time around. The fact that the older bands like us are still releasing albums that the fans enjoy and still support definitely helps the cause. But it’s not all on us, I believe.

What was your earliest memory of discovering extreme music? When did you realize death metal was a new genre that you had helped establish?

RD: Ever since I was a child I always had a great passion for music. Regardless of whether I was listening to early classic rock or movie soundtracks, I was obsessed in absorbing every bit of music I could get my hands on. My musical journey was like so many others, starting with classic heavy metal like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, then getting into the earlier thrash bands, and then eventually discovering heavier and more extreme music. At that time in the mid 1980s, I was already into a lot of the bands that inspired so many others like ourselves such as Slayer, Destruction, Mercyful Fate, Sodom, Kreator, etc. But I would say it was Possessed’s Seven Churches that really put it all into perspective for me and pointed us down the path we ultimately chose musically.

This was the music I was searching for, and it was something you felt, something that touched you deep within. It was angry, dark, evil, haunting, heavy and extreme. It was unlike anything that had come before, and although it evolved out of the same bands we were all more or less listening to, it took on a life of its own and became its own thing.

That was the beginning. From that point forward we tried to discover newer bands that were darker and even more extreme. Early Sepultura, Death, Morbid Angel, and Autopsy were some of those bands we started discovering when we dug a little deeper and started sending out our demo tape in early 1988 to fanzines and bands around the world. It was about searching for and discovering the heaviest, darkest, and most evil music we could find. Tapping into that in the late 1980s was probably the most exciting time in death metal’s 30+ year history. No one ever thought what we were creating back then would still resonate in the way it has for over three decades. Being part of this from the beginning was just luck; a right time and right place type of thing. We were all young and wanted to express ourselves through our music. We had a lot to say, and this gave us the right medium to make those statements and have fun doing it. We never looked too far beyond the moment, and certainly never thought what we were doing then would have reached so many people globally as it has. We are just happy to still be part of it.

Creative journeys often involve discovering your voice and identity — like changing the band name from Rigor Mortis to Immolation — then challenging yourself to perfect that voice. How has your own creative identity evolved over time?

RD: I would agree that this has definitely been a creative journey for Immolation. We learned a lot about ourselves as musicians, songwriters and people over the last 30 years.  We are constantly growing and evolving even after all those years, and the foundation we laid back in 1988 is still paramount to what Immolation is and will always be. I think we were fortunate enough to have established an identity for the band back in the very beginning. We of course didn’t realize this until many years later since we were still young and just focused on having fun creating dark and extreme music for ourselves and our friends. Since day one, we have always tried to create something very unique with our music, music that had feeling and had something to say. We never looked around us for that direction, but rather looked within. We knew what felt right and what didn’t, and we just didn’t care what anyone at the time had to say about it.

That being said, we still work tirelessly towards that goal of keeping our identity and voice intact while building on that foundation and fine tuning it each time we record another album. The vision is still the same, and that is what ultimately steers the ship for us. It gets a little easier with time for us, and I think the reason for this is that we are very comfortable with where we have taken the band musically and creatively and understand what is needed to achieve those goals. The band has certainly grown and evolved, but in a way that honors what we started back in 1988. That allows us to constantly build on that and make adjustments and tweaks when needed to keep things where they need to be.

With no major gaps in your recording and release history, what about death metal has consistently satisfied your creative hunger?

RD: Death metal is a means of expression, a way to vent. It is a way to speak your mind and be blunt about it without having to apologize for not being politically correct. It allows us to create music that is dark and extreme, with no holds barred. It allows us to escape our current reality and lose ourselves in its controlled chaos, touching us in a way that is extremely primal and profound.

This is music that both offends and unites, all at once. Each new album we record represents where we were as people at that moment in time and all the things going on around us that leave their mark on us as individuals. It allows us to look at our world and write music that taps into that zeitgeist and explore the darker side of our reality in an honest way. We do it in a very dark way, an aggressive way that really reflects the tone of what we are saying lyrically, so the two complement each other. It is an important avenue for us to say what we want, be honest and true about it, and not have to worry about our fans not getting it.

Have you ever felt frustrated with death metal itself or fan expectations to rigidly adhere to genre conventions? Or is the genre just as small as you allow it to be?

RD: In the past, this type of thing would be frustrating, regardless of whether it came from the fans or the press. We were much more sensitive about this type of thing in the earlier years, around the first and second albums. But as we grew as musicians and people, we felt this type of thing only muddied the waters and caused us to focus on things that really didn’t matter at the end of the day. Since day one, it was never about following trends or writing music for anyone other than ourselves, and as soon as we understood that, it was easier to forge ahead and not worry about these outside forces. There is nothing wrong with trying new things and experimenting in a way that doesn’t taint the essence of the band, but to adhere to some type of imaginary made-up formula is silly. Death metal is what it is, and there are certain elements I believe have no business being in this music. So I am a purist in one sense — but not a purist who wants to be boxed-in and have my hands tied creatively, either.

What do you think are the most important factors to ensure death metal itself stays healthy and vibrant for years to come?

RD: Creating music that is original and honest — that focuses more on feeling than trends — is key in keeping this music alive and vital. We are not trying to re-invent the wheel, just create something fresh and original without crossing that line into experimental waters. I’m old school and follow the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” motto. Originality and feeling are vital in keeping death metal alive and vibrant. Being passionate about the music — playing it for the sake of the art and not a paycheck — is also a key factor in bands not losing themselves in the business side of the music. It’s easy to lose your way if you aren’t grounded and focused on what attracted you to this music to begin with. So keeping that in perspective would be my advice to younger bands, and to most importantly have fun with it.

Is there a particularly memorable fan experience you’ve had with Immolation?

RD: We have been very fortunate to do what we do and bring our music to people all over the globe. The last 30 years has been the best experience of my life, an experience that has opened my eyes in so many ways and gave me a true sense of the world and life. Being able to do what you’re passionate about and touch people in such a profound way through your music is a feeling I just can’t articulate with words.

One particular experience that really touched me — and I think truly opened my eyes to the positive effect this music has on people — was back in 2012. We were on tour with Marduk in Europe and were playing Serbia for the first time in our lives. We’ve had shows scheduled there in the past, but these shows were always cancelled due to the political climate, which was unfortunate for the fans and for us. We played in Belgrade in September of that year, and it was one of the best shows of the tour as far as excitement and crowd response. The people we met and spoke with were all so excited to see us and were all super cool to talk to and hang out with. They made us feel welcome and couldn’t wait to see us perform.

During the set, we played a mixture of older and newer songs as we usually do, and on this particular night we played the song “Father You’re Not a Father.” During the song there was a young man in the front row pressed up against the barrier singing along and going nuts. After the show, we were out in the crowd meeting the fans, shaking hands, and this guy from the front row came up to me. He hugged me and started to cry, telling me how the show and our performance really struck a nerve with him, and he couldn’t express how happy he was to finally meet us. He told me that Immolation was his father’s favorite band, and “Father You’re Not a Father” was his favorite song. He told me his father would play our music every day when he was younger, and he eventually became a fan of Immolation as well.

The sad part of the story came when he told me his father was in the military and was killed while serving. The fact that we played his father’s favorite song was something he told me he would never forget, and that he was just thankful that we were able to talk so he could share his story. He wished his father could have been there for that moment, and described how happy he would have been. It was a story that truly touched me, and gave me a better understanding of how powerful music can be in people’s lives.

Order Immolation’s Atonement from Nuclear Blast HERE. Then follow Immolation’s updates and tour schedule over on Facebook.