Immolation’s Ross Dolan on Finding Their Sound on “Atonement”

Photo: Justin Borucki

Not only did Atonement place lucky No. 7 on Decibel’s year-end tally, Immolation’s 10th studio release delivered something of a landmark in the New York death metal institution’s 30-year reign. Coalescing behind the title’s definition – the album’s lyrical damnation pinpoint and its riffs ungodly – production, production, production pulled it all together magnificently. Vocal point Ross Dolan proved only too happy to talk (and laugh) about that particular facet at length.

Decibel: Production-wise, I’ve never heard an extreme metal album that sounds like Atonement. All the death metal trademarks are there, but the production is so warm, so analog – like a Seventies Neil Young album or something. You can hear every instrument, every lyric, all the layers. So many albums of this ilk sound so clanging. What in God’s name went into the sound of this album?
Ross Dolan: Wow, thanks. It took us a while [laughs]. It took us almost 30 years to get that production. We’ve been kinda working toward that [laughs]. Every album we’ve ever done has a completely different sound. So with the last three full-lengths and the Providence EP, we’ve split studio duties. We’ve used Millbrook [Sound] Studios to do all the tracking and stuff. That’s in upstate New York, and we use a guy named Paul Orofino [the owner], who we’ve worked with since the third album. So the first time we went up there was in ’98.

Paul’s definitely an old school guy. When we first went up there, it was two-inch tape and there was reel to reel. I was that deal. There was no digital involved. Since that time, he’s obviously gotten more modern equipment. He’s digitized now [laughs], but again, he’s an old school guy. He’s worked with Blue Öyster Cult, he’s worked with Golden Earring, Simon Kirke from Bad Company, Frank Carillo, who’s played with Peter Frampton. So he’s been doing this forever. We love Paul, we love the studio. It’s a great place.

But for the last three albums, since we signed with Nuclear Blast, we decided to split the duties and do all the tracking once again up in Millbrook, but we’ve used another fellow named Zach Ohren on the West Coast. He’s up in Oakland, California, and he’s been doing the mixing and mastering for us since Majesty & Decay. He’s a younger guy and he’s got more of a modern touch, but he’s a musician as well and he’s still very much into the old school sound. It took a couple records to get where we are now with Atonement.

The last album, Kingdom of Conspiracy, was definitely – like you said in the question – very clankity, especially in the drum department. That was one of the things we wanted to address, because we heard it from the fans, too. They’re like, “Yeah, great album, but the drum sound wasn’t what they were looking for.” We agreed, and moving forward into this record, when we started the process and reached out to Zach to do the mixing and mastering, that was the first thing he said to us: “Yeah, I’d like to address a couple issues we couldn’t quite get right on the last one.” One of them mainly being the drums – the drum sound. He wanted a warmer drum sound. That’s kinda where it started.

So with this one, he got the drum sounds we were looking for, and the guitar tones we had were nice and warm, as well as the bass. Everything kinda worked out. He knew what we were going for, but it’s just trying to capture that in this sort of music where there’s just so much going on dynamically. You know, it’s challenging for these guys. I get it. We’re just happy we’re getting that kind of response and feedback regarding the production, ’cause we’ve always been that band: “Yeah, it’s a great album, but the production kinda lacks.”

We’ve been that band for 30 years, so it’s nice to hear you really enjoying the production on this one. Thank you.

DB: So others besides me remarked about the production?
RD: Oh yeah, we have very close friends who we’ll always play the material for ahead of time. I respect their feedback, because they’ll give it to us straight. They’ll tell us whether they liked this or that, or how this sounds or that sounds. Everybody across the board was like, “Wow. This one really sounds good. You guys nailed it with this one. Zach and Paul did a great job working with this one.” And we were like, “Okay, cool.”

What we think leaving the studio is totally different than what the fans are going to think. You gotta realize we’ve been listening to these songs and have been inundated with this music for months [laughs]. You get out of the studio and you don’t know what’s up or down [laughs].

DB: When you talk about the drum sound, that definitely stands out. The trebly high end you get from cymbals is completely absent. That’s somewhat astonishing to me. You’re not losing any of the drum dynamics, but you’ve lopped off that horrible dryer lint treble.
RD: [Laughing] Totally, totally! I know exactly what you mean. It aggravated the hell out of us on the last record. And it just came down to a time issue, which is always what it is. You know what I’m saying? We only have so much time to get these things done [laughs]. You just can’t spend months and months tweaking it. It’s not feasible with the budgets we have. We got to a point with that where we’re, “Okay, we kind of have to call it here.” After listening to it for so long, we were just like, “All right, it sounds fine,” and then in retrospect you go back and you’re like, “Yeah, man, that one needed some adjustments.”

You know, listen, no harm, no foul. We haven’t gotten it right up to this point, so we tweak it here and there. It’s an evolution. A slow evolution over the years [laughs].

DB: So you listen to it, and listen to it, and listen to it. Is there a point when you get the mixes back where you can finally hear the forest for the trees? Can you definitely hear that there’s something more dynamic in the production, or can you not even hear it anymore because the grooves in your ears have worn down?
RS: Yeah, usually there’s that period, that honeymoon period after you get out of the studio, where you obsess over it for a week or two. You listen to it, and you’re like, “Hopefully everybody else will like it.” And then you get to a point after like a week or so, where it‘s, “All right, I can’t listen to it anymore.” And that’s it. I don’t listen to it again [laughs] until we’re going to rehearse for tour and I have to play through the songs. I’ll listen to the songs again then, but that’s about the only time.

Photo: Justin Borucki

In fact, that’s the only time we’re really hearing the songs as they should be heard. Prior to that, it’s riffs and half songs, and songs with only programmed drums and no vocals. So you’re not really seeing, hearing the full piece up until that point. We’re still like kids when it comes to that. We still really enjoy this. So when you finally get that finished, mastered recording, it’s kinda fun to listen to, and just listen to the songs as a fan would listen to them and not be so critical about this and that. Just sit back and absorb it.

That’s a nice period of time. And the unique thing with this record is that I found myself listening to this one long after that week  [laughs], week-and-a-half point. I was like, “Wow, this isn’t that bad. I can actually listen to it and enjoy the songs.” Because I think Bob [Vigna] totally knocked it out of the park with this record in terms of writing. It was finally nice to say, “Okay, we’ve punched out. Now we can sit back and enjoy it.” After that, the first thing you think of is, “Which songs will we want to play live?” It was a rough one with this one, because we enjoyed all the songs. So we just wound up picking a lot of songs to play live, which is another first.

Yeah, so at that point, we were all like, “Wow, this really is one of our best sounding releases.” At least since our first release came out in 1991. And that was a nice place to be, to finally be at a point where, “I wouldn’t really change anything.” Usually it’s a list: “Okay, I would change this, and next time we gotta address this. Next time we gotta address that.” But this time, it wasn’t like that. We were all across the board happy with this one, so that was a first. That was a first.

DB: When was that moment where you thought, “This isn’t like the rest?”
RD: We kinda had the running order all set, so right from the beginning with the first song, I’m like, “Wow.” The first song has a lot going on, so it was a good litmus for the rest of record. Because it has fast, it has slow, it has the big epic part in the middle. It’s a great song to listen to first out of the gate. This was probably on the ride home from the studio. We were listening to that: “This stuff has potential.”

Then when we got the mixes, I think we were in Europe when we were going back and forth with Zach for the mixes. I remember we got the first round of mixes and it wasn’t quite there. Once we got to, I think, mix 11 [laughs] and I finally put in on the stereo at home, it was like, “Wow. That’s how it should be.” That was that moment.

DB: The other remarkable facet of the mix is your vocals. They’re down in the belly of the mix, and yet so clear. When you’re listening to the music, they seem to almost just appear in your head, just floating. It’s like, “Man, where is this voice coming from exactly?

RD: [Laughs] Cool, thanks. That was Zach. That was all Zach. The only thing we shoot for when we’re recording vocal tracks is clarity. I just like it to be clear. Zero effects, just nice and crisp. This way you can get the articulation of the words, which I think is very important. I’ve always tried to articulate so at least you can kind of understand what I’m saying without sitting in front of a lyric sheet. In the studio, that’s mainly what I go for. Once it gets to Zach, that’s it. We just tell him, “Bring it up, bring it down.” We don’t want it to be so over the top. I’m not a fan of mixes that we’ve done where the vocals are too much up front.

People have always said that vocals in extreme metal, death metal in particular, is almost like another instrument, and that’s kind of how it works on this record. It’s like another instrument in there. It cuts through just enough so you hear what I’m saying and it has its presence, but it’s not dominating. Nothing’s really competing on this production, which is what makes it so good. It allows you to understand the dynamics. You can hear the articulation not only of the vocals, but of the drums.

Steve [Shalaty] is an amazing drummer and he does so much cool stuff that it’s a shame when a lot of that doesn’t cut through in the mix. With this one, we were getting back to the drums again without being redundant. Not only did we get warmer, more organic drum tones, we got a drum sound that allowed you to hear all the cool stuff Steve’s doing.

DB: It’s almost like your voice is part of the bass and rhythm tracks.
RD: Exactly.

DB: And like you said, the separation of sound is key here. You can hear every instrument clear as a bell without the music losing any of its integration and cohesion. Every nuance, every lick, every vocal pops. There’s space in it without it sounding like a psychedelic record or something.
RD: Yes, yes. I feel exactly the same way. And I’ve said that – the separation he achieved. And again, it’s all Zach. We give him the raw sounds and he just runs with ’em. I know with this one in particular, he spent a lot of time with it. Not that he didn’t on the last two or three as well, but with this one, after working with us a few years, he knew exactly what we were shooting for. What we wanted.

And there’s always that period in the beginning. Like when we first met Paul Orofino. There was an album or two before he locked into, “Okay, I understand what you guys are about. I understand what you’re going for.” And you know, that’s not an easy thing. These guys work with hundreds of bands [laughs]. So it’s cool when you develop that rapport with them and they understand what you’re shooting for sonically. Zach nailed it on this one, so we’re ecstatic [laughs].

DB: Well, and I have no idea how one does that and especially for as long as you’ve been doing it: Get across to a producer/engineer/mixer the sounds that you’re hearing in your head. “Translate what I’m hearin in my head.”
RD: Exactly. In the past, when we first met Paul for example, he told us, “Okay, bring in some CDs of bands you really like – that you really think have good sounding production.” Which is very difficult, because you may pick one album and say, “Wow, the drum production on this record is phenomenal, however, we’re not really going for that guitar sound.” So now you have five or six different releases, and you’re not really building your own identity there. You’re picking and choosing from others. I understand: It’s just a template to give someone an idea of what you’re looking for. But we always thought that was really hard, because we like different things. Sometimes it’s just about the feeling, not even the production.

When we first started releasing demos in the late eighties, all these bands that now have multiple albums out were demo bands like us. We were trading demos and writing everyone around the world, so you had demos that were super lo-fi, but there was just something about them that was so raw and heavy and dirty, and had so much feeling that later on when they would actually put out there first and second records and they included some demo tracks, they were never the same [laughs]. It’s hard to find that middle ground.

DB: So what were some of the albums that you gave him?
RD: I think we actually gave him… Wow, it’s hard to remember now. We gave him some classic stuff. We like the heaviness of… Oh, I think we brought in maybe Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets, ’cause those are just heavy-sounding records. They had great guitar tones. Then we brought in some more modern productions. We brought in the Covenant by Morbid Angel, because the same guy that did that did Master of Puppets. So we’re like, “This is kinda like what he did later on with that.”

Then we had some older stuff from like King Diamond. I think we brought in The Eye, because that album has phenomenal drum production. The drums cut through so nice on that. And then we also brought in some non-extreme metal stuff, like maybe some Perfect Circle or something like that, because some of the production on those records is just so huge. They’re sonically so amazing sounding. But again, it’s kinda hard because you’re just showing them little snippets of things you like from different bands. And there was more, but those are the ones I remember and that stick out in my head. This was so long ago.

Maybe we brought like an old Autopsy record to show him the heaviness and how the drums were a lot different. They weren’t over-produced on some of those records, but it was raw and they cut through. We had a lot of different things to show him [laughs], and probably at the end of the day it just made things worse and confused him even more.

DB: And what’s great about Atonement is if anyone ever asks you want you want to sound like, you just give them that record.
RD: Exactly, exactly [laughs]. Moving forward now for the next one, we’ll tell Zach, “You see what you did to that last one? That’s the ballpark we want to be in [laughs].”

DB: You know what your vocals reminded me of? Tim Curry as the devil in that Ridley Scott film with Tom Cruise, Legend. That grand theatricality that seems to be coming up from the bowels of the earth.
RD: That’s awesome – awesome. See, it’s great because this genre of music you get people who dig it, but hate the vocals. They just cannot get the vocals. “Hey, the band’s really good. Musically, you guys are really awesome, but I don’t know, I just can’t take the vocal [laughs].” Then there’s your camp; I always loved the heavier, deeper, guttural vocals from the earlier days, like the first time you heard Pleasure to Kill, Kreator. When he did the one line at the end and he says “Pleasure to kill,” but it was all distorted and sick. That’s kinda like the first time you heard something like that, back in the early-eighties. First time I heard that I was like, “That’s pretty cool.” After that, it started to get more common. You started to hear other singers sing deeper and deeper, and more guttural. So that was something I always enjoyed, because the music was so heavy and dark and oppressive, you needed a vocal style to complement that.

Immolation appeared on the cover of Decibel earlier this year. Get it here for more from the band on Atonement.