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So it's about, I don't know, September 2003 I'll say (I'm not really positive, as I go on a yearly as opposed to monthly basis). I'm thirteen years old. I go out to the mailbox, a pretty frequent activity right around that time, and what do I see except a tiny Media Mail package. Of course, I knew what it was, we all do. Once I get inside, I immediately toss the rest of the mail on the counter and tear open my bounty. And what do I lay my eyes upon but (you guessed it) the glorious tortured-soul-laden cover art of Morbid Angel's seminal death metal release, 'Altars Of Madness'. It was the first metal CD I'd ever bought. After a cursory look through the packaging, I place the disc in my computer, place on a pair of Audiobahn headphones, and start to listen.
My life thus far has been divided into two portions: Pre-'Altars Of Madness', and Post-'Altars Of Madness'.
At soon as I heard the still ridiculously sinister backward riff at the beginning of the legendary 'Immortal Rites', there was something that had fundamentally changed about my life. At that point, I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but now I understand. That was not so much my entrance into the world of metal (I'd had an awareness of it above most of my peers who were still infatuated with Fred Durst's stunning ability to rhyme words with 'motherfucker') as the point where I felt that I had an actual connection to the community, that I was a member of something that not only gave me a feeling of brotherhood, but a feeling of meaning. It was as if some sort of Deus Ex Machina had arrived to deliver me from 'normality' and into a dark and romantic world that would fundamentally change the way I felt and thought. That symbolic act of participation is something that I remember every day when I listen to 'Altars Of Madness'. Those memories of mingled fear and ravenous desire for more always inundate me when I hear this album, and it's in moments like these that I feel confirmed, as a Hessian and as an entity. This, my readers, is the reason why I am in metal, and will continue to be forever. Death couldn't stop this passion.
In retrospect, it's almost unbelievable that I liked this the first time I heard it, because in all honesty, 'Altars Of Madness' is one ugly album. The thin, reedy production makes the instrumentation sound like gasps of dust from some ancient grimoire retrieved from a witch's coffin. David Vincent in all honesty had no ability to do vocals at this point, forcing him to skeletally gasp and rasp his way through the obscenely dogmatic and blasphemous lyrics (God of lies and greed/God of hypocrisy/We laugh at your bastard child/No god shall come before me) that would appear on this one album before disappearing in favor of the more complex (but far more restrained) writings that would define their sophomore release 'Blessed Are The Sick'. His bass, while not totally inaudible, is almost impossible to hear unless one listens purely for those lines hidden behind his vocals, which will periodically peek out for an impish, sardonic fill (such as on 'Suffocation') before disappearing back into the musical stream.
Trey Azagthoth and Richard Brunelle's guitar duo create intentionally bizarre riffs, without a single example coming to mind of one without some surreal hammer or slide maneuver delicately tucked into their utterly poisonous, churning guitar tone to heighten the otherworldliness that 'Altars Of Madness' uses as it's crudely yet carefully cultivated atmosphere. Solos clearly inspired by one Kerry King's maniacal contempt for any normal meter or scale flicker in frequently, and although these aren't nearly as brutally atonal and chaotic as some of their later compositions, they succeed in still being shocking and paralyzingly savage compared to other works at that time or even now. Pete Sandoval rounds out the group with a level of aggression that is missing from Morbid Angel's later work. The sound of his kit is always in competition with the guitars for who can be more carefully composed (in such an endearingly amateurish fashion), and, in the spirit of the rest of the album, packed to the brim with grotesquerie. Crash cymbals are distant in the background (similar to those used by modern funeral doom outfits such as Skepticism) while hi-hats, chinas and rides take the front where the former would normally be. The snare is dry like a corpse's bones bleached in the netherworld sun, while lifeless toms rattle on their frames, in dire need on new heads. Finishing off his arsenal are his dual bass drums (Sandoval reportedly learned to play double bass specifically for this album, although you wouldn't know it from his accuracy) that pack a surprisingly life-like punch, being felt more than heard in the conventional, triggered sense of today. While not technical in a traditional sense, 'Altars Of Madness' displays a sophistication above most when it comes to performance, due to the joyful inversion of typical musical dynamics that is used to such great effect. While tracks like 'Lord Of All Fevers And Plagues' might not be especially difficult to play, they are conceptually difficult to fully grasp, due to the alien nature in which they unravel.
Compositionally, Morbid Angel strikes that perfect balance between epic narration and utter absurdity, where the best of metal lies. The songs on this album are a perfect example of the beauty and power of metal; namely, in the combination of creative brilliance with pure youthful enthusiasm (best served before the expiration date, i.e. when 'maturity' sets in) that results in ridiculous but utterly sincere songs like 'Chapel Of Ghouls', who's undead denizens' blasphemous proclamations come alive with Vincent and Co.'s breakneck delivery, turning what would normally be childish and embarrassing (Dead, your god is dead/Fools, your god is dead/Useless prayers of lies/Behold Satan's rise) into a masterwork simply because every member of the band believed in it with their whole hearts and minds. This force of love and obsession comes through on every song, be it the almost too-fast 'Bleed For The Devil', the twisted-riff monster of 'Maze Of Torment', or the eternal anti-Christian anthem that is 'Blasphemy'. Morbid Angel obliterates the competition when it comes to pure songwriting; see the vindictive twists and turns of 'Visions From The Darkside' or the terrorizing death march of 'Damnation' for reference. This is most certainly one of the facets of this album that makes it eternal. While death metal has become steadily more professional and clean with the years, this still represents the period where it wasn't complacent, willing to grow fat on technicality or 'progress' in the perverted modern sense of the word.
No single band has been able to perfectly emulate Morbid Angel, especially at this point in their lengthy history. Black metal hissing, twisted riffs, machine-gunning-children-into-a-mass-grave drumming and rigid and mechanical yet organic structure created something that no one has successfully replicated in intensity and vitriol. The movements of these songs are unlike any others, with abrupt changes in tempo or rhythm that don't show off but fundamentally change the nature of the song and it's atmosphere. Closer 'Evil Spells' is a great example of this, moving seamlessly or abruptly (depending on desired effect) between rhythms before it's inconclusive but complete fade-out ending, like a camera ending a film, pulling away from an image of the evil in man conquering the good once and for all. Perhaps they've only robbed, raped and murdered the denizens of one town (which might be enough to console some people) but the unspoken knowledge amongst the audience is that yes, there will be more. And it won't stop until chaos roars over the ravaged corpse of order for the last time.
Morbid Angel's 'Altars Of Madness' is one of the greatest albums of all time, bar none. Four young guys from Tampa went out to create what in their minds was the most evil thing in the world. And you know what? They just might have succeeded. This album is mandatory not only for the extreme metaller, the forward-thinking nihilist, or the brutal anarchist. No, most of all, this is for the kid like me that wanted to put a voice to the bitter, destructive, darkness-ridden fantasies they'd had throughout their lives, but would only later learn were the truth they were searching for all along.