Frank Mullen didn’t want the moment to end. After several years of scaled-back commitments with his band Suffocation, retirement was finally in sight for the 48-year-old, who during the past three decades has garnered a reputation as not only one of the most ferocious vocalists in the death-metal subgenre but also, improbably, one of the most entertaining. The last hometown show on his final run of North American shows with the band, dubbed the Farewell Frank Tour, had entered the home stretch.
The Long Island quintet, a hard-touring act with a rabid international following and secure elder statesmen status in their style, was onstage Friday at New York’s Gramercy Theatre, playing one of its “hits,” “Liege of Inveracity,” the opening track off its 1991 debut, Effigy of the Forgotten. The band reached the song’s climax — a grinding, caveman-simple half-time riff of the sort that has earned Suffocation a designation as one of the godfathers of a sound known as “slam” — and in the crowd, pure bedlam reigned. The house lights were up, and a sweaty, euphoric, sloppy-drunk circle pit was threatening to engulf the entire floor of the sold-out 650-capacity venue. Mullen grinned down at the sight, then, as the song ended, turned to his bandmates and spun his finger around in a “keep going” motion. After a moment of confusion, guitarist Terrance Hobbs — besides Mullen, the only other current Suffocation member who’s been around since the Effigy days — re-started the riff; the rest of the band joined in, and the roughhousing picked up right where it had left off.
When the impromptu reprise was over, Mullen told the crowd that what he had just witnessed was permanently imprinted on his memory — the last time he would ever see a local audience lose its collective shit to a song that’s been having that effect on fans for more than a quarter century.
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The night was emotional from the start. Mullen walked out to a warm ovation a few minutes before 10pm, after Suffocation’s massive logo banner had been hoisted at the back of the stage. Already sounding choked up, the bald vocalist, clad in his signature tank top and jeans and with the wiry build of an aging middleweight, told the crowd he was determined not to cry. “There’s no crying in death metal,” he mock-raged at himself. “Except for ‘Jesus Wept.'” He was referring to the closing track of Effigy, which turned up in the middle of the set.
Mullen addressed the crowd after almost every song, holding forth in his thick Lawng Island accent. At various points, he offered a dedication to “the love of my life,” a woman in attendance who, as he described, got clobbered in the pit at an early Suffocation show years before the two became a couple; joked about his future as a soft-rock crooner and sang a bit of the 1972 Looking Glass hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”; pondered whether he should take up shuffleboard or golf after leaving the band; and asked, “Is this the one with the sword?” when a crew member presented him with a gag-gift cane signed by Farewell Frank tourmates Cattle Decapitation, Krisiun and Visceral Disgorge. Every such interlude was punctuated with sincere expressions of gratitude and countless instances of “my friends… ,” Mullen’s standard audience salutation.
And of course, there was the “death chop,” the signature Mullen stage move that gave the Farewell Frank Tour its tagline: “Death Chopping North America.” It’s a simple but infectious gesture wherein Mullen, grinning fiendishly while sticking out his tongue, rapidly moves his hand up and down like a knife in time with the band’s frequent bursts of pummeling speed. It was on constant display at Friday’s show, not just from Mullen, but throughout the crowd; among Suffocation fans, it’s become as rampant as a viral catch-phrase. (The band was even selling company-logo-style shirts at its merch booth showing a wood-chipping truck spewing blood, with text that read “Mullen Chop Woodchippers.”)
If the show was a lovefest between the departing singer and his adoring fans, it was only a slightly more pronounced version of what goes on at every Suffocation gig. The paradox at the heart of the band, and what has made their shows mandatory for adrenaline-junkie metalheads for decades, is that so much good cheer comes alongside such utterly ferocious music. In addition to the “slam” designation, the band are also held up as pioneers of what’s often referred to — somewhat absurdly, given that all death metal could be described this way — as “brutal death metal.” Regardless of how you label their style, though, Suffocation have always been, and remain to this day, a witheringly intense and staggeringly proficient band both live and on record.
The core elements of what would become their signature style were all there on Effigy: Hobbs’ razor-sharp and highly technical riffing; stabbing blastbeats (pounded out by original drummer Mike Smith in an especially punishing, uniform way that became a new benchmark in extreme metal); whiplash tempo changes like the “Liege” breakdown; disturbing lyrics about death, destruction and the evils of religion, rendered in stilted Death Metal English; and of course, Mullen’s voice, an inhuman, percussive growl that’s almost clinical in its sustained harshness. Other death-metal vocalists often layer in multiple registers, or add personal flourishes to emphasize this or that syllable; Mullen, on the other hand, is on constant attack. Even now, all these years later, the force he projects onstage is outrageous.
As Mullen explained at one point during Friday’s show, the set list for the tour (which concluded Saturday in Reading, Pennsylvania) was simply a selection of his favorite songs from the band’s sizable discography. There were few surprises. Anyone who’s seen the band recent years knew they’d be hearing the churning, complex “Thrones of Blood,” from 1995’s Pierced From Within, one of Suffocation’s strongest albums and a good place for new listeners to start; “Funeral Inception,” from 1998’s Despise the Sun EP, with its Usual Suspects intro sample — “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” which Mullen makes a habit of speaking from the stage — and agonizingly slow midsection riff over which Mullen roars “God … forbid! God … forbidden!” while inviting the audience to scream along; the lumbering “Catatonia,” the first song the band ever wrote; and manic perennial set closer “Infecting the Crypts.”
The band played nothing from 2017’s …Of the Dark Light, its latest LP and only one with the current lineup of Mullen, Hobbs, guitarist Charlie Errigo, bassist Derek Boyer and drummer Eric Morotti, who perform the entire Suffocation catalog with effortless virtuosity. (Suffocation’s personnel has shuffled constantly during the past 30 years, and the entire group took a five-year break between 1998 and 2003.) That might be just as well, since Mullen — who has been sitting out many of the band’s recent tours while fill-in vocalists such as new permanent replacement Ricky Myers have taken his place — has said in interviews he had mixed feelings about appearing on the record.
It sounded like another joke but, as he told the crowd on Friday, in addition to the odd studio-focused musical project, the vocalist hopes to explore acting in his post-Suffocation life. It’s not the most far-fetched idea in the world, considering what an affable and charismatic presence he is. (For now, his actual day gig is in water waste treatment.)
But for one last night, there he was on a New York City stage, alternating his irrepressibly upbeat patter with ageless vocal ferocity. (“I’d rather go out on a high note instead of, like, he’s washed up, he should have stopped doing it five years ago,” he told an interviewer earlier in November.) And the crowd — showing their love through moshing, clapping and drunken, unhinged yells — made sure he felt appreciated. “This is the best thing I’ve ever fuckin’ done, man,” he said during his opening speech, his voice breaking up. And by this, he meant the band and everything it had achieved: worldwide underground fame, a discography widely regarded as foundational, an influence on hundreds of younger acts, and even a membership in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame alongside everyone from Lou Reed to Eric B & Rakim. Frank Mullen may be exiting the genre he help to shape, but in the hearts and minds of fans, the death chop lives on.