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Satanism, in my consideration, is a lyrical theme that frequently shocks the average mind as it is, in a world where at the very least half the global population theoretically has a Semitic religious background, a sharp edged opposition to the common morality.
It is a theme that was a logic progression during the evolution of heavy metal, a musical genre rooted in the sentiment and act of rebellion (rebellion which was also one of the main factors of rock'n'roll culture's birth) as anger, frustration and a general distaste of modern society was reflected in the early works of british band Black Sabbath (songs like “Into The Void”, “Paranoid” and “Iron Man”) during the late 60s and 70s.
Fast-forward through time. The year is 1989, in a decade where music has divided itself into many sub-categories that have eventually fused and led to a further, more articulate musical development.
Thrash metal was at its peak. Little did people know, its time of fame was to be short, but nevertheless fruitful. Some obscure, rising bands had already taken the genre to further extremities in terms of aggression, speed, and technicality.
Melodic singing and violent shouting was fast turning to snarls, barks and growls. More riffs were getting stacked into songs, and in the process, turning less and less melodic and departing from any known scales, entering the world of atonality. Drumming that had already been considered breakneck-fast was shunned as mid-tempo in comparisons drawn to new and talented drummers.
From this rapid descent into musical bestiality, Morbid Angel was born. The project mainly dictated by the twisted yet original mind of young Trey Azagthoth was fast gaining in reputation and support. It was time for a solid and complete release, an improvement of their earlier unreleased album, “Abominations of Desolation”. Little did he know, with the help of the breath taking drummer Pete Sandoval, terrifying vocalist/bassist David Vincent and lacerating other lead guitarist Richard Brunelle, Trey Azagthoth was not simply going to improve his material, but create something wholly unique and spectacular.
“Altars of Madness” was released in 1989, at at a time were death metal was slowly gaining a respectable following but still considered as an abomination by some of the more conservative metalheads. Death's 1987 release “Scream Bloody Gore” demonstrated a virgin brutality and a enjoyable sense of horror, but “AoM” delivered more than just that.
The reversed debut riff on the first song off the record, “Immortal Rites” showcases just what to expect from the album, yet not revelaing the unheard, obscure pleasures yet to be experienced.
The song kicks in, and Vincent delivers an astonishing show of anger and madness through the use of his brilliant and impressive high growls.
Reverb on this album is used tastefully, as it works in parallel with the powerfully anti-religious lyrics by reflecting the vast, cold and inhuman emptiness that christianity has to offer and creates.
On “Immortal Rites” and “Visions from the Dark Side”, it truly works wonders alongside the unintelligibly fast tremolo picking.
The song structures are quite progressive, and they never follow a distinctive pattern within the album, but it is all for the best. Who could expect the epic bass breakdown on “Suffocation”? Who would be able to foresee the ferocious blastbeats of “Chapel of Ghouls”? Unexpectedness gives this album so much space and dimension, making us smile with delight at the sonic attacks uncoiled ex nihilo.
Lyrical themes, at a first glance, seem fairly clichéd. A deeper study of the lyrics reveals a true talent, that of David Vincent, who like a contemporary misanthropic Baudelaire images his youthful but structured hate and anger against organised religion in a way that works fantastically with the musical compositions: there is a distinctive opposition to the christian doctrine built up on the philosophy of Thelema (portrayed by the song "Blasphemy") and nihilistic tendencies ("Chapel Of Ghouls").
The drumming is devastating. Using his experience and recent acquisition of double bass drumming from previous recording “World Downfall”, Pete Sandoval annihilates his drum kit with his enjoyably dispersed blast beats, painfully yet exhilarating fast bomb blasts and suffocating double bass drumming, incorporating grindcore's speed (“Suffocation”) into the brutally oppressive atmosphere of death metal (“Evil Spells”, “Blasphemy”).
The riffs are awe-strucking. Riffs that start out melodic quickly turn atonal, and convey the decrepitude of Semitic religions. Melodies are rare but whence used are immediately followed by an artificial harmonic, like the malicious cackle of some demonic creature, like a siren luring sailors to their doom.
The soloing is immense, but better showcased on later albums. Trey Azagthoth equally uses atonality in his solos as in his riffs, creating mind bending dissonant noise that, when played with the echo effect, recalls psychedelic music.
Vincent's growls are terrifying, inhuman yet fascinating. I had never seen a death metal artist express his anger so well as Vincent does. His vocals are clear enough to be intelligible (unlike a good deal of modern death metal bands) and his lyrical proficiency is very visible. His lyrics create a sort of hopelessness, revealing the hollowness of christian words.
“Altars of Madness” is a truly excellent record, that is already considered by most of the metal community as an absolute classic of the genre. It is the point where black metal, thrash metal and death metal fuse to become a product of massive appeal, be it for the exhilaration experienced during the faster, thrashier songs like “Maze of Torment” or “Suffocation”, or the overwhelming yet enjoyable sense of madness conveyed by the yet unseen quality riffing delivered by both Brunelle and Azagthoth, in songs like “Visions from the Dark Side” or “Lord of All Fevers and Plague”.
The hellish ride ends with the decreasing riffs of “Evil Spells”, still carrying on with momentum, and leading to Morbid Angel's second and equally excellent release “Blessed Are The Sick”.
“Altars of Madness” is an album that in theory should be highly appealing to thrash metal speed addicts, black metal occult seekers and death metal brutality lovers.
Hell, it might even please christians, even in the act of brutally bashing christianity!