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To get the full bug of why Morbid Angel’s now legendary debut is such an influential and key release in metal and an absolute cornerstone in the specific development of death metal, we must consider it in the context of its time of release. To this point, death metal was a strong but not altogether prodigious beast during the eighties. And as powerful and shocking as the raw, Satanic sounds of Sodom, Kreator, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and others were, the bands never really congealed into a “scene” per se, as the band of the thrash metal revolution so clearly did. But as far as death metal goes, the bands were far flung at divergent positions on the globe and musically fractured as well. This meant that from 1982 until about 1988, death metal was largely an underground phenomenon, even in the metal sense of the word.
But during this time, bands fermented in subterranean existence, some of which that would soon change the very face of metal in general. Sepultura and Entombed were two of them. But the band that would arise like a fetid gargoyle to envelop the entire metal scene in a black cloud of perdition was Morbid Angel, direct from sunny Florida. In 1989 the band were hardly unknown to demo collectors and other cellar dwellers, having spread their bastardized take on the music of Death and Possessed far and wide. Record companies dismissed their racket and were perhaps mildly repulsed by the band’s tendency to slash their limbs with razors onstage, so as to literally bleed for their music (totally true, gang, the band were very dedicated to proving their persona as a “true” death metal band in what they perceived as an overpopulation of posers in the scene). But it was only England’s Earache records, on a high from the relative fame of Napalm Death, to dare giving such a band an actual record contract.
So what’s important here? Everything. The songs are very, very well written, honed as they were over years of festering in Satan’s crock pot. Keys to understanding Morbid Angel’s sound lie in the introduction of the blast beat to death metal. Sure many other bands in the sub-genre played at scary tempos, but Morbid Angel were another story all together, as Pete Sandoval (late of grind merchants Terrorizer) upped the death metal drum ante several notches not only speed by in precision as well. Next, Trey Azagthoth (real name George Emmanuel). The guy is insane. His crafting of guitar riffs and arrangements that defy logic are a glorious thing to behold. His leads sound like demonic communications from Sheol itself. His songs seem to move sideways, backwards, in every direction but what you would expect. Plus the guy writes more riffs per album that most do in their whole careers. And while it’s true that I believe that Possessed (complexity and tempo shifts) and Death (general brutality) were profound influences on the band, their interpretation of those ideas is stunningly unique.
Best part: the songs, as barked forth by bassist David Vincent, remain some of the finest ever in death or any other brand of metal. “Visions From The Darkside” boasts profoundly gothic melodies atop ferocious rigging and speed, while “Maze Of Torment” displays the Morbid Angel machine simply firing on all satanic cylinders. “Lord Of All Fevers And Plague” is a demented trip to the Necronomicon poetry of the Ancients, with relentlessly shifting riffs and tempos, Vincent spitting out fearsome invocations in deceased Babylonian tongues. “Bleed For The Devil” is the band’s chance to blast in grind style mercilessly, while “Chapel Of Ghouls” is easily the most mature and affecting cut on hand, moving through the band’s entire bible of styles in a flurry of demonic intent. In a production sense this is also a rare example of a Morrisound (Tampa, Florida studio that would soon become the house of choice for death metal recording) studios project that retains a non-generic feel.
This album inverted the entire metal scene. For after it’s release the death metal scene truly began to rally around itself, and within a mere two years would come to dominate the metal underground in an almost epidemic sense. The influence of Morbid Angel’s music would inform this death metal scene in an all-consuming manner not unlike Slayer and Metallica’s domination of the thrash metal world. Further, Morbid Angel would perhaps produce an even better sophomore album, as we’ll soon see. But when the all bets are placed and the finest metal recordings ever are made to stand up and be counted, Altars Of Madness is destined to be very near the top of that list. Some didn’t like (or understand) it upon its release, but that’s only an illustration of how ahead of its time it was. Hear this, or forever be less of a human being.