Drummer Craig Smilowski about Immolation’s 30-year-old album Dawn of Possession
Death Metal reached its peak very quickly. The heyday of the genre was definitely 1991, when a lot of classic, influential records saw the light. One of them was Dawn of Possession of the New York-based band Immolation. In my opinion the album never got the recognition, that it would have deserved and it seems to be underrated as well. Drummer Craig Smilowski answered my questions.
Craig, at what age did you first become interested in heavy metal music and what was so exciting for you regarding this style?
That would be at a very early age as my father brought home a bag of cassettes that had various bands that ranged from Led Zeppelin to Van Halen, and a lot of other 70’s rock.
When did you first start learning to play an instrument and which instrument was it?
Well, I first started learning the rudiments of drumming about third grade. Later on it was taught by a high school friend, Charles Leinhauser, he showed me about 3 drum beats and taught me the basics, learning to separate my hands and feet, counting beats per measure, etc.
When did you decide to become part of a band?
Well, I was always a fan of music since early age and as time progressed, I’ve gotten more into music by listening to bands like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and being intrigued by the drumming. It was something that I was leaning towards as I wasn’t really interested in sports or anything else for that matter I just seem to gravitate towards a musical direction.
What were your experiences as a musician prior to Immolation?
I had a group of friends with whom we had a band and we would get together on the weekends and rehearse and write songs, so I had just progressed and I found myself playing in different bands along the way. Up until the point of joining Immolation I was playing with Goreaphobia.
You joined the band in 1991 to replace Neal Boback. Do you still remember, how you got in the picture exactly? Were you the band’s first choice or did they audition other drummers as well?
Goreaphobia did a few shows with Immolation early on and I received a phone call from Ross informing me that Neal quit the band and that they were interested in having me play drums on their record with them. I don’t believe they looked towards another drummer prior to asking me.
By the way, what extent were you familiar with the Rigor Mortis and Immolation demos to?
Well, I was familiar with the second demo and did have a copy of it, and I do recall one day I was telling a former guitarist of Goreaphobia “Do you hear that part right there? I would be doing this on the drums there“ as opposed to what we were hearing. So in a sense I was preparing myself for something I was unaware it was about to happen which was ultimately playing for them.
Immolation is often regarded as one of the greatest Death Metal bands to come out of New York. What were your views on the NY Death Metal scene as a whole?
It’s amazing. To be a part of something that has been held in such high regard I feel the opinions by the fans are right on point. There were Immolation, Suffocation, Mortician including bands from Tri-state area like Incantation, Revenant and further south with Exmortis just to name a few. The Death Metal scene was still considered underground although the fanbase was growing at a considerable rate.
How about the originators of Death Metal in your opinion?
For me, that would be bands such as Possessed and Massacre/Death, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Slayer, Sodom and many of the European bands. They all helped contribute to how Death Metal gained momentum.
At which point did you start working on the material of Dawn of Possession? What do you recall of the songwriting process?
When I was asked to record the album with Immolation there were only six weeks for me to learn all the songs plus one was written within the last two weeks before we left for Germany to record and as I stated earlier while listening to the second demo, I was already putting drum parts to their songs that I felt what I would’ve done, if it were me and it’s ironic that not too long after me obtaining the demo, I was in a situation of doing what I already thought about. But it was a very cool learning process, even though the songs were pretty much written, there were opportunities for me to have input drum-wise with ideas I was feeling.
You entered the Musiclab Studios (Berlin, Germany) to cut the album; was it a conscious decision, instead of entering the Morrisound Studios, that was very popular those times?
Musiclab Studios had already been selected by the band before I joined and the band felt that going there was a good choice due to Harris Johns’ experience.We’re going to Morrisound they said it would set ourselves apart.
How did the recording sessions go?
The recording sessions went very well. I was able to track my parts within three days. There were many interesting things that we learned as a band watching Harris’ work. We also lived at the studio, so it was very convenient and allowed for us to spend more time working on the album. It’s something I’ll never forget.
Did Immolation already appear on Dawn of Possession as a phenomenal band with its original ideas for Death Metal?
No. I would say the band just wrote songs and had an idea of what they wanted for the record. It all comes down to chemistry and we had a chemistry for the time. Things fell into place and we felt very comfortable with the results.
Did you manage from the very beginning to do something unique and being excellent musicians, you incorporated in your music some elements that can’t be heard in Death Metal too often, such as weird disharmonic melodies and strange solos?
Bob certainly has a unique style, but that comes with influence, practice, imagination and I agree with the approach Bob takes with songwriting. It does have an atmosphere to it and again, all the members at the time contributed in some way, but that’s all due to persistence and influence over the years of honing your craft and gaining influence from many styles of music.
Did the constant rhythm changes and the perfect way your musical ideas fit with each other provide a skull-crushing result?
I would say so yes. None of us ever thought it would become what it has. We worked hard and took it seriously and the end result shows that.
Do you think, that Dawn of Possession has all the things, such as guttural vocals, tight musicianship and an overall anti-religion theme?
How do you explain, that songwriting-wise Immolation took the epic approach as most of the songs have that feeling and combined with the great amount of heaviness?
Again, I believe that it is just due to having a vision combined with chemistry along with the right individuals at the right time, and it can lead to magical moments.
Were you very good musicians that carry to perfection your songwriting ideas?
At the time we were just trying to make a good record. We all had the same goal in mind and we knew that we need to practice, which we did. I believe just about every night for six weeks straight up until we left to record, Bob and I would rehearse together during the day and we would rehearse as a full band at night at the rehearsal space.
Is the music monstrously brutal, the atmosphere is really dark, the lyrics are blasphemous and the whole album is a crushing experience?
I would say yes, as it’s a very solid record not to mention going by the reaction of the fans/listeners alike.
Is Immolation one of those bands that makes perfect use of the slowdowns and makes great changes/moodin medium paces?
I would agree, as the songs are always thought out ideas exchanged discussed not just throwing together first things that come to mind.
Do you agree with, that Dawn of Possession is one of the essences of American Death Metal, an album well balanced in terms of brutality, technique and climate?
I would agree with you, yes.
Is Dawn of Possession the catchiest and easiest to listen to of all Immolation albums?
It’s one of the most straightforward records which helps for the listener. Yes.
Did opener Into Everlasting Fire show that both the music and the lyrics picture an apocalypse from a distant future?
I think the opening track fits best with the album cover. Yes.
Immolation’s ability to write strong, cohesive songs also translates into your ability to write cohesive album, correct?
I would agree with you there, because when you take time with each song the chances of a strong album from first track to last increases exponentially.
Does this album have the band’s darkest and most sinister riffs to date, delievered by Robert Vigna and Tom Wilkinson, that are incredibly dark and they contain a great mood to them?
I think that overtime. Bob has evolved into one of the most, if not the most, unique guitarists in Death Metal as well as the way he actually plays his guitar unlike anyone.
You did an awesome performance as well, the powerful drums plays some unique and complicated patterns…
I greatly appreciate your complements of my playing on this record, although almost all the songs were written prior. It comes down to the individual and the influences they have also add their own take of what they feel could work within a song and I am deeply honored to have been a part of such a record.
How do you mind, that the closest comparison to be drawn is probably Morbid Angel’s debut, Altars of Madness?
That one always kind of had me wondering where the comparison lies as there’s a lot of blast beats on Altars of Madness and none on Dawn of Possession.
Can you give us any details regarding the shows, tours in support of the record?
When we had the opportunity to tour with Massacre and Morgoth, that was a very memorable tour with many great shows. It was nice to see such a great crowd respond to us being an opener for the tour given the album was just released.
Is Dawn of Possession a stand alone album in Immolation’s discography?
I would say it’s a stand alone in a sense only because it’s the debut, however it is more of a precursor to an ever evolving greatness that they’ve become and will continue to bring the listener an even more unique experience with each record.
Craig, thank you for your answers! What are your closing words?
Thank you David for the interview! I’d like to thank all the Immolation fans, who without them the record would be not what it is today. I’m grateful humbled and honored. Cheers!