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The reunion of classic New York death metal combo Suffocation has been one of mixed results. It is not without a sense of irony that the most traditional sounding album since 2002 is one with only two original members, one of whom due to economic considerations has minimized his involvement to that of a glorified recording musician more than anything else. A decade and a half into their reunion there’s only question that remains: is Suffocation still relevant to the very genre they helped pioneer and redefine in their original run? Fortunately, if “…Of the Dark Light” is anything to go by then, yes – somehow they are. As unbelievable as it may sound in light of the band’s more than dubious post-“Depise the Sun” output. Can “…Of the Dark Light” hold its own against the band’s classic Roadrunner output? No, but nobody is expecting these grizzled veterans to. Which is sort of the problem.

The strangely titled “…Of the Dark Light” arrives after a turbulent four-year period of inner turmoil and personnel changes that saw the departure of lead guitarist Guy Marchais (hired to substitute for the absent Doug Cerrito) and troubled skinsman Dave Culross. Supplanting their more established predecessors are sometime Pyrexia and Internal Bleeding guitarist Charlie Errigo and Ontario, Canada-based drummer Eric Morotti. Errigo is a suitable replacement for Marchais, but the absence of original creative force Cerrito (whose advanced arthritis no longer allows him to play guitar for extended periods of time) remains a sore point, and rightly so. Morotti is no Mike Smith but nobody is expecting him to be. Instead he leans closer to Doug Bohn’s hardcore-informed style on “Pierced From Within”.

That “…Of the Dark Light” then comes across as a modern day “Pierced From Within” equivalent should surprise exactly no one. There’s very little ornamental about this new album and it’s reassuring to see the New York stalwarts reclaim at least a fraction, however insignificant, of the identity they worked so hard to distance themselves from in the early 2000s. Granted, it took them four albums and a second, less than amicable ousting of drum god Mike Smith to arrive at that point, but they are finally here. Had “…Of the Dark Light” followed on the back of “Souls to Deny” than Suffocation would have made a more than admirable comeback. Unfortunately that’s not quite how it went. To go from the lethargic and largely forgettable “Blood Oath” to something as punchy and compact as this speaks of a veritable meeting of minds. Suffocation, even though there are hardly any prime era members left, acquits itself admirably after passing itself off as a thinly-veiled beatdown hardcore band for well over a decade.

None of the songtitles do particularly inspire confidence as the majority sound nothing like vintage Suffocation (‘The Warmth Within the Dark’, ‘Your Last Breaths’, ‘Caught Between Two Worlds’, ‘Some Things Should Be Left Alone’) and from a visual standpoint “…Of the Dark Light” is anything but typical. The uncharacteristic songtitles makes one question the level of Mullen’s involvement. The days of Dan Seagrave or Hiro Takahashi artworks are apparently over. The album features guest vocals from Kevin Mueller, Mullen’s live substitute, in what is probably a remnant of the failed experiment that saw Disgorge drummer Ricky Myers briefly co-fronting the band. Boyer’s bass guitar never sounded better as it at long last sounds tonally similar as to when Chris Richards handled the low end. Charlie Errigo has quietly replaced Guy Marchais, and he very much continues what Marchais excelled at; providing a fairly indistinct and inobtrusive support layer for Hobbs’ guitar pyrotechnics. The title track, usually the tour de force of any album, sounds like every other well-budgeted New York death metal band. Whether or not that is actually a good thing is entirely up to one’s personal preference. At least Suffocation’s reunion output has been more consistent than Obituary’s. Not that that is saying much.

It goes without saying that Suffocation never again will reach the height of compositional elegance and technical prowess that they had on “Breeding the Spawn”. “…Of the Dark Light” at long last abandons the beatdown hardcore aesthetics that plagued much of the band’s post-2002 output and Suffocation - however little is actually left of it at this point - is so much better for it. Mullen, no longer the guntoting New York stereotype from the not-quite-so-distant past, wields a deeper register once more. Has he sounded better and more lively? Certainly. Has the production work done him more justice in earlier days? Not a shred of doubt about it. Frank Mullen, who has been subject to imitation and emulation for about two decades and counting at this point, remains a frontman that few can match in enunciation and delivery. Terrance Hobbs, Suffocation’s primary songsmith in the post-Cerrito era, rekindles some of his old magic on “…Of the Dark Light”. While it can hardly be called a revival this late into the reunion Suffocation reclaims at least a figment of the glory they once commanded.

“…Of the Dark Light” is the closest the New York formation has come to matching its classic tenure on Roadrunner Records. However this new recording isn’t without its shortcomings. The production from Joe Cincotta and his Full Force Studio is probably the driest, the most compressed and sterile sounding that this band has utilized thus far. Likewise is the Colin Marks artwork the most charateristically uncharacteristic. It largely is a stylistic continuation of the Raymond Swanland canvas of the prior effort. As the visuals pull the band into the 21st century its key members gravitate back to what established them two decades prior in the first place. Evolution through attrition, so to speak. Mullen and Hobbs may be the only real Suffocation members left, at least there’s something, however little, defensible about “…Of the Dark Light”. The same couldn’t be said about the drab preceeding this 11th hour return-to-form, if it can be called that.

As Dissection fell apart at the peak of its power due to the incarceration of its frontman and creative force, rhythm guitarist Johan Norman went on to create a new band with touring drummer Tobias Kjellgren. The formation initially went by the name Reaper, but eventually settled on Soulreaper, named after one of the songs Norman that wrote for the Dissection swansong “Storm Of the Light’s Bane”, to avoid copyright infringement. A lot more influenced by US death metal than Dissection, specifically “Covenant” by Morbid Angel, Soulreaper, who existed from 1997 to 2004, released two albums. Of these two “Written In Blood” was the first, and probably the best at that.

Soulreaper consisted of Dissection alumni Johan Norman (rhythm guitar) and Tobias Kjellgren (drums). Rounding out the line-up are relative unknowns as Christoffer Hermansson (lead guitar), Mikael Lång (bass guitar) and frontman Christoffer Hjertén. Each of the members had experience with prior bands but none ever amounted to anything substantial. Only frontman Hjertén, a more than capable and versatile vocalist in his own right, had prior experience with early black metal band Mastema, but his presence wasn’t able to elevate Soulreaper beyond mere functionality. Soulreaper debuted on Nuclear Blast Records as a result of the connection that the Dissection alumni had with the label. The brand would not prove strong enough and “Written In Blood” was its only for the German label imprint.

As Norman had a hand in Dissection’s more straightforward death metal oriented songs it isn’t much of a surprise to see him return to that particular well. The genre was winning in popularity again after the second wave (symfo) black metal explosion, and the advent of the more brutal subset of the US death metal sound. Yet as crunchy and functional as “Written In Blood” sounds it’s hardly a revitalization of the genre. Its combination of traditional American aggression with a Swedish melodic sensibility works purely on a visceral level, but on a conceptual level Soulreaper is as bland as its album title and vanilla occult lyrical fodder suggests. Soulreaper suffers from a similar fatigue and regression that Deicide and Morbid Angel experienced in the early 2000s.

The semi-acoustic intro to ‘Written In Blood’ is build around a variation of the central melody to the classic Dissection song ‘Where Dead Angels Lie’ visit the website. There are even more ties to Dissection abound on this album. ‘Satanized’ was the signature song and ideological vessel of the shortlived Satanized, a one-off project from Jon Nödtveidt and Johan Norman that released a solitary demo in 1991. The song was recorded in an earlier form on “My Shadow…”, the lone Decameron album from 1996, the death metal band that Tobias Kjellgren figured into before his involvement with Dissection. The strongest tracks of the album are ‘Seal Of Degradation’, ‘Subterreanean Might’ and ‘Labyrinth Of the Deathlord’. ‘Satanized’ on the other hand stands out for all the wrong reasons, and in just how much it differs from the remainder of the album.

The most interesting, and perhaps most telling, aspect of “Written In Blood” is that its strongest songs were co-written by a member no longer involved with the band. Johan Norman wrote ‘Darken the Sign’ in its entirety, and he had a hand in all other songs of the album as well. ‘Ungodly’ was penned with input from bass guitarist Mikael Lång. The trio of ‘Written In Blood’, ‘Subterreanean Might’ and ‘Labyrinth Of the Deathlord’ were co-written by Johan Norman and original lead guitarist Mattias Eliasson. ‘Seal Of Degradation’ was co-written by Johan Norman and Christoffer Hermansson. It seems only logical that Norman and Kjellgren broke ranks with Dissection as they wanted to branch off into more straightforward and less traditionally influenced direction.

“Written In Blood” was recorded at Gain Productions with Dikk Tator producing, and mastered at the prestigious Cutting Room facility in in Stockholm, Sweden. As expected with Nuclear Blast the production is bass-heavy, crunchy and modern. Especially the drums sound incredibly concrete and powerful. The bass guitar has a rumbling deep tone but it never amounts to anything more than providing the required amount of low end rumbling. The cover artwork was rendered by Robert Ekeroth. The original band logo, which only features on this album, was created by Nicklas Rudolfsson. As most things about Soulreaper “Written In Blood” was good, but just not good enough to appeal to a wider audience beyond the one they had established with their involvement in Dissection.

Soulreaper and its debut were eclipsed by bigger bands and album despite its lineage to Dissection, and the power of a major label behind them. While far from terrible “Written In Blood” wasn’t able to hold its own against other Scandinavian, and European, releases of the time. While possessing enough grit and concrete heaviness to appeal to a more American audience “Written In Blood” lacks in truly unique characteristics to differentiate it from other Swedish acts. Norman’s brief connection with Dissection allowed him to launch his own unit, ultimately Soulreaper wouldn’t prove resilient enough to evolve into an entity worth mentioning. “Written In Blood” is too by-the-book to be in any way mandatory.