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With all works of metal that are deemed timeless classics, a grain of salt ought to be taken with regard to the former part of the concept, as more often than not it is the time of a given album that can make all the difference. Indeed, when considering the context of a band's origins and how they pertain to the general evolution of a scene, as well as scenes within a larger one, a logical picture can be drawn that will bring a level of predictability and, more importantly, a good dose of reality that should destroy any false expectations. Perhaps no greater case for keeping the context of an album and band in mind is made in the dark, forbidding, but ironically typical beast that is "Altars Of Madness", Morbid Angel's eventual debut after a good 6 years of toiling under various lineups in the wake of the thrash metal movement's rise and flowering. It is primarily so because, to an ear more attuned to modern death metal practices, this album carries a strong familiarity with the concurring thrash metal sound, particularly among its reddest adherents in Germany and Brazil in Kreator and Sepultura.
The otherworldly and horrific character of this album is immediately apparent in the spiritual darkness depicted on its cover, which is a terrifying collage of suffering spirits, some of them seeming to be human-like, but distorted almost beyond the point of recognition and conjoined into something resembling a spider web. With the implicit musical tone hinted at in such imagery, the dense dimensions that result in the 80s mixing style, which is dark and heavy to the point of reminding of Slayer's heavily influential "Reign In Blood" as well as the adjacent early works of Bolt Thrower, are a natural result. When considering the heavily similar character of other albums that cropped up in the late 80s such as Death's "Leprosy", one could almost accuse Morbid Angel of going through the motions to a certain extent, though the atmosphere that results from the muddier guitar tone, the strategic application of keyboards for a further layer of looming terror, and the deeply reverb-steeped character of the whole, it is quite easy to differentiate this from its contemporaries.
While all of these pieces of history may serve to demystify this album to some extent, the individual elements employed to make this album distinct is ultimately where the attributed status of a classic definitely have merit here. Particularly, the character of David Vincent's vocal work makes a noticeable impression, as its just a tiny bit more intense and dark than anything offered up to this point. His voice definitely takes on a blackened character not all that different from Angelripper's work on "Persecution Mania", but just a bit more guttural and nasty, further amplified by the much more chaotic nature of the surrounding music. Likewise, Trey Azagthoth's lead breaks, which tend to be short bursts of unfettered maniacal noise, up the ante far beyond what the largely Kerry King influenced work of the death/thrash sound had accomplished up to this point. It wouldn't be surprising that Trey would have difficulty recreating these monstrous passages of banshee screams and fluttering cries through his guitar live, as its difficult to really grab onto them after hearing them a dozen times on here, but this actually serves to add to the album's mystique rather than come off as obtuse showboating.
It's when dealing with the work behind the characters helming this affair that things get a tiny bit more commonplace, though not to the point of becoming derivative. The riff work largely conforms itself to the tremolo-happy mayhem that has been in existence in the thrash style since 1985 when "Seven Churches" and "Hell Awaits" reared their putrid faces, and was picked up on and further exaggerated by Chuck Schuldiner on "Scream Bloody Gore". Where this album adds things to the equation is primarily in further exaggerating the existing template and complimenting it with a much more chaotic drum sound. The drum work itself, like the riffs, tends to be an exercise in pushing an already existing death/thrash envelope with more frequent blast beats and a much heavier dose of double bass work. To be clear, this wasn't unheard of at the time, but wasn't really used with this level of frequency, and it can be rightly assumed that the technical and brutal character of Suffocation's debut, as well as Cannibal Corpse's, owes about as much to this album as they do to that of "Reign In Blood".
But the greatest charm that this album holds is that, in spite of all the elaborate and chaotic things that have been spliced together to form the equivalent of a volcanic explosion, it contains a solid collection of memorable songs. Whether the format lends itself to a straight up thrash approach that is accented with death influences such as "Evil Spells", or a more atmospheric and multifaceted approach as heard on "Immortal Rites" and "Chapel Of Ghouls", these are songs that just refuse to be forgotten. There is still just a faint echo of the melodic sensibility that characterized the early influences of the NWOBHM that originally inspired what turned into this formidable display of unrelenting darkness and fear, and while it's a far cry from the works of Satan and Blitzkrieg, a few riffs can't help but reminisce on the simpler format that was everywhere in 1983 when this band was first formed. If nothing else, Trey Azagthoth is a creature of the earliest days of the entire genre, and his first task of paying tribute to the early kings of the scene, while fleeting and obscured by a heavier demeanor, has been sufficiently accomplished here.
Recommending an album of this magnitude to anyone with a semblance of affinity for heavy metal is a given, and it definitely has enough older influences present to win over some early heavy and thrash metal fans who might consider the present death metal scene far too percussive and tuneless to listen to. It is a standard in the sense that it further expanded upon the formula, though it can't really be defined as the only standard when considering the wealth of work that came before it in the mid 80s. Like any scene, death metal is a collective accomplishment with numerous moving parts, but at the same time, one shouldn't deny the individual accomplishments of the arm simply because the leg gave it the ability to reach its destination.