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This album is a true death metal classic. When I first heard it I wasn't used to the style, having just discovered death metal at that time, and I couldn't really understand what I was hearing. At the time I simply didn't understand death metal, being unused to its extremeness and harsh brutality. However, as I listened to more and more death metal albums by more and more bands, my opinion changed.
As time went on, I began to realise the true greatness of this album. Now that I am able to easily tell the difference between each song, I realised that they are all quite unique after all. Perhaps not as much as the songs on later Morbid Angel albums, but this album succeeds in doing what it is supposed to: be utterly brutal and uncompromising without a hint of mercy, and not be overly deep like the following albums. Not that being overly deep is bad, not at all - both approaches are equally good, in different ways.
The first song is amazing in particular, in that it combines devastating death metal brutality with some really twisted, evil melodies. The melody of the guitars playing with that slow chugging riff underneath at around 2.05 is really evil and malevolent. Things like this would become a hallmark of Morbid Angel - the faster openings with the slower middle sections. Eventually they would create full fledged sludgy songs, from Blessed are the Sick onwards, but on this album the predominant tempos of the songs are consistently fast.
The otherworldly feel of the music that is pretty much unique to Morbid Angel is already on full display here. Not in an overly atmospheric way, more in a twisted, warped, vicious way, created by the strange sounds of some of the riffs and the atonal solos. This is particularly true on Immortal Rites, Visions from the Dark Side, Maze of Torment, and Chapel of Ghouls, although also appear strongly on many of the other songs too. In no way is anything here truly conventional, because while this album is incredibly brutal, it doesn't have to try to be brutal in order to work. It's still brutal in and out of itself, but there is far more to Altars of Madness than just brutality. There's the twisted melodies of the solos that often sound really bizarre. There's the lyrics, which range from pure satanism and anti-Christianity to strange musings on Lovecraftian topics. Lord of all Fevers and Plagues is a good example, or is that song about Sumerian mythology instead? Either way, this part of the music works just as well as the satanic stuff.
Another thing that really stands out is Pete Sandoval's drumming. No one else in the death metal world, as fast as they often were, could drum as fast as he could at the time, and the only drummers that were ever faster were grindcore drummers. But Sandoval really stands out here. His blastbeats are brutal and extremely well done. When the band plays slower he fits in excellently too.
Trey Azagthoth's guitar playing is incredible here too. His riffs are incredibly brutal, dark, and twisted. And his solos? I don't know whether I would describe them as good in the memorable way, like "hey, this is a great solo, I'll remember this one for a long time", because they aren't memorable in that way. They are excellent, but they are incredibly atonal and twisted. This was probably the whole point, as it does make the music sound more otherworldly and, yes, more satanic than it would with more melodic solos. At least I think so. However, the occasional more melodic moments don't detract from the darkness at all; in fact, they often enhance it.
Other standout moments are the massive, slow, heavy break at around 3.30 on 'Chapel of Ghouls', which is truly skullcrushing and evil, the slow, crushing riffs in the middle of 'Evil Spells' and the really creepy feel of that song overall, and the huge number of tempo changes and interesting melodies and riffs in 'Maze of Torment'.
Overall, this album is truly a classic and is right up there with all of the other classic death metal albums, and easily one of the greatest death metal albums of all time, as well as one of the most influential. This is inspirational stuff - it helped to continue the evolution of death metal, taking it away from anything remotely resembling thrash metal completely. Bands like Possessed may have helped to start death metal, but it was Death that took the idea and ran with it properly for the first time, and then Morbid Angel that took the next step in order to create a subgenre that wasn't just a more brutal version of thrash with harsh vocals, but something far more extreme in ways that were, at the time, probably quite hard to imagine. The atonality of this album is another reason it really stands out. Death had atonal solos, but not really atonal riffs. Not everything here is atonal of course, but the stuff that is works just as well as the stuff that isn't.
The overall brutality, darkness, and uncompromising nature of this album is what really set it apart at the time, more than anything else. All of those elements combining together to create something far more brutal, sinister, dark, and disturbing than any death metal band had done before. Of course death metal was only just starting properly around this time, but that only makes this debut even more special and astounding. Death was great, but they simply couldn't match this level of brutality. And this album also proved one other thing for certain: death metal didn't have to be all based on just gory horror. It could just as easily be based on satanic horror, and might be even more scary and sinister by doing so.
A true death metal classic. Anyone who is a fan of death metal must have this in his collection.