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An easy-to-misunderstand paradigm shift - 95%

Napero, July 7th, 2009

Altars of Madness truly is a legendary album. It is one of the original death metal classics, and can be claimed to be the one that set the ball rolling and created - or at the very least, brought to public attention - the whole genre. While discussing such claims can be considered irrelevant to the quality of the album as an individual piece of music, history speaks for itself, and the importance of Morbid Angel's creation can not be dismissed. Sometimes an album is more than just an album, and if any one release within the world of death metal deserves recognition as the first cause, it's definitely this one.

Musically, Altars of Madness is the grandfather of all death metal. The juicy, crunchy guitar tone has an 80s feel to it, but still manages to create a wall of meat and bones that a lot of band strive for even today. The bass is, contrary to what people too often claim, quite audible, and while it may sometimes settle for merely following the guitars like a nice obedient puppy, it has the essential death metal feel to it, perhaps as the result of doing the same things as the guitars. The drumming, simple and straightforward as it is by today's standards, goes beyond its thrash roots. The extreme technicality of today's death metal drummers is nowhere to be found, but the ferocious speed, the way the tempo changes are accomplished, and the ruthless assaulting in selected parts of the album are all reference points in death metal 20 years later, still being built on. No neat tricks, no extra frills, just downright friendly flattening of anything standing in the way.

The vocals are not the death growls of the 21st century. The gutturals were invented later, and the vocal delivery owes more to the thrash origins of the music than any other individual ingredient in the soup. Vincent is more of a grunter than a growler, and even if the death growl was later to sprout from the kind of coarse grunting found here, the overdone pig squeals and pitchshifted rumbling some bands use have mutated further from the model given on the album than any other area within the subgenre. To a thrash fan, the vocals are enjoyable, but a latter-day deathmetalhead might find them timid and too close to more traditional forms of metal vocals.

Time has generally been surprisingly friendly to the album, and while modern bands with their pronounced technicality and striving for extremes are, of course, more precise and more complex, and naturally have better production, the album has not lost its edge. No, this is the one, true definition of death metal, and even if Death and a few others did a couple of very good albums before Altars, it is still the original, revered and widely respected yardstick for those following the original concept behind death metal, and deservedly so. Perhaps every aspect of death metal has been done better by some younger band, or maybe even every single one of them has been improved on various albums in the past two decades, but the fact remains: Altars of Madness is the original blueprint of death metal.

On a deeper level, this is exactly what death metal should be: aggressive, chaotic, non-linear. While the songwriting is still firmly rooted in the thrash foundation, the atmosphere has the essential feel of random bruising in it, and that has only recently been fading from the essence of death metal; once death metal becomes ordered and loses the illogical flow that skips around mutilating verses and cramming incompatible things together by force, it ceases to be death metal. It becomes melodeath, pop, or something fundamentally different, a domesticated housecat instead of a mean feral lynx. Because death metal, by nature, is supposed to be unshackled and cranky. Modern bands do like order, often a bit too much: a funny time signature does not equal chaos, and while the younger generation certainly has more skill, speed and precision, the crawling chaos and primordial maelstrom cannot be indexed, folded and put in a file. No, death metal must have chaos as one of its components, otherwise it's something tamed, fattened and ready to be slaughtered and devoured by some commercial entity. Maybe Altars is not quite as chaotic as it could be by today's standards, but it still opened a new view to songwriting, and that is the origin and reason for death metal, much more so than the riffs or styles of playing the instruments.

And now those who dislike excessive allegories and irrelevant silliness in reviews are adviced to scroll down to the next review. We are about to enter the realm of Twilight Zone inside Napero's disorganized mind, and if you don't like that, you probably shouldn't be listening to death metal either; both are manifestations of systematic chaos. The rest of you, please read on. Caveat emptor, or something.

I attended an interesting training course at work a while ago. The course was called something like "Technology Innovation Management", and even if the title sounds pretentious, it had some very useful content and was actually a lot closer to my everyday work than many would believe. It may tell more of my "job" than comfortable, actually, but I digress.

Anyway, during the training, a cartoonishly stereotypical but apparently brilliant research professor, a real life Dr Emmett Brown if you will, told us that he had tried to list the greatest and most influential technical discoveries of mankind since the taming of the mystical force of fire. While many of us would list cars, firearms, radio, TV, cheese grater, iPod, T-34/85, T-shirt, Harley Davidson (just kidding here... pieces of crap...), cable ties, instant noodles and the monkey wrench, he was more interested in the big picture, the kind of inventions that more or less immediately changed the world and caused a quantum leap in the way we look at it. He had ended up with a really short and condensed list of three items:

1) The Gutenberg movable type printing
2) The steam engine
3) The transistor

The list is open to discussion, of course, but those inventions had an effect on everyone's life, and changed something truly essential in an irreversible way. While the first two are bound to appear on a list of this kind, it was the last item that caused the most heated discussion among the crowd. Didn't the professor consider the mighty computer a more relevant invention than the measly spec of semiconductors on a silicon chip? Wasn't the Internet the real paradigm shift in the everyday life? His answer was devastating, accurate and convincing: no, once the transistor was there, someone was bound to put several of them together and create a computer; it was only a matter of time. And once there was a computer, someone was bound to connect two of them with a cable, and there was the Internet; it was only a matter of time. Once the fundamental building block, the transistor, had come into being and started a revolution, an earth-shaking process of progress began, and nowadays tens of millions of transistors are produced yearly for every man, woman and child on the planet, mostly integrated on tiny chips. Transistors rule the world, not telecoms, religion, IP, governments or armies.

What does this have to to do with Altars of Madness? Well, very little, if taken literally, of course. But if we assemble a parallel list of very important albums in metal history after the prehistoric taming of the fire by Black Sabbath's Black Sabbath, we are naturally bound to have the "movable type printing" in the form of Helloween's Walls of Jericho, the "steam engine" of Kill 'Em All, and a handful of others. Altars of Madness is the transistor. Because everything else in death metal is based on the concepts condensed on the album, and everything done afterwards would have been done by someone sooner or later; it was only a matter of time. Some bands have taken the commercial route and tamed the beast, neutering it to create melodic versions of the ferocious species, some have gone deeper into the chaos and managed to turn the DNA into a rabid pitbull. Still others worship the original formula, and churn out copies of the mighty Altars to this day, sometimes even surpassing the original's enjoyability factor by using the same ingredients. But anyone denying the album's status as the transistor in metal history has completely missed the point. And anyone comparing it to the newest album by Devourment, Dying Fetus or Nile is missing the point in an even more embarrassing way.

Of course, the blueprint on Altars of Madness wasn't quite as revolutionary as the transistor was. Many of the ideas had appeared on the aforementioned Death albums, for example. But on the other hand, the transistor's functions had been created before by vacuum tubes, and only the semiconductor version finally turned the world upside down. Success, once again, has some intrisic value in it, because even the greatest of inventions is worthless unless it finds a way from the inventor's shack to the great outdoors. Those before Morbid Angel were and are there, but in those days, they did not become famous enough to start a genre. Altars of Madness did.

Whatever way you wish to rate this album, don't miss the point. Disliking it is OK, but disliking it because it's less catchy that the new Cannibal Corpse album, or sloppier than the Aborted album you heard last year, simply shows you dislike the basic blueprint of death metal.

Please, don't hate metal. Thank you.