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After the departures of David Vincent and Erik Rutan, as well as the bankruptcy of Giant Records, the future of Morbid Angel seemed unclear. On a deeper level, it seemed that the band was creatively bankrupt for some time, taking their music further from its roots and attempting to appeal to the masses. By 1997, they recruited a new vocalist and then began working on the follow-up to 1995's dismal offering, Domination. It was time to get things back on track. Unfortunately, Trey was unaware of the true point where they deviated from their course, so he aimed to pick up where Covenant left off, rather than going back to a more pure time for the band. In February 1998, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh was unleashed.
To be honest, I was looking forward to the release of this album. For me, Morbid Angel was an upper-tier band, based on the first two records, alone. I also caught them live, on numerous occasions. With Domination being their only horrible offering, I hadn't given up on them yet. As a matter of fact, they were one of the very last Death Metal bands that I even attempted to keep up with, as I was extremely dissatisfied with what most Death Metal bands were doing in the mid-to-late 90s. My first impressions of the album are quite similar to my current opinion, though I think I have a better grasp on a few things.
First off, the big change here was in the vocal department. Steve Tucker replaced David Vincent and most people were turned off by this. Many claimed that Vincent was the voice of Morbid Angel and that Tucker was generic and vocalists like him were a dime a dozen. At the time, I felt the same way. Looking back, I was a bit unfair to Tucker, as were most. True, his style is boring and he didn't sound any different from the hundreds of other Death Metal vocalists of the time. However, and this is the thing that I neglected for so long, he put forth more effort than David Vincent did in his last album performance. In fact, it would appear that Steve Tucker was doing his best to emulate the vocal style of Covenant, imagining that was what Morbid Angel fans wanted. Right or wrong, I think he deserves a little more credit than he got. A boring and generic performance beats the awful vocals of Domination. The only real complaint is the section of "Umulamahri" that features similar distortion to that found on "Where the Slime Live".
As for the music, itself, what we have here is a very strong attempt at creating Covenant Pt. II. The more I listen to this, with such focus, the more apparent it becomes. Right from the beginning, "Heaving Earth" is somewhat reminiscent of "Rapture". The comparisons can be made throughout the album, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. On one hand, it implies that the band has run out of ideas and that they are merely repeating themselves at this point. Nonetheless, at least they were trying to correct the mistakes of the previous album and to re-establish themselves. And, really, it's not so uncommon for a band to begin rehashing old ideas, after so many albums. The real concern should be whether or not the music is enjoyable for the listeners. In this aspect, they succeeded. Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, while not being very original, is much more listenable than its predecessor. Unfortunately, it still suffers from some level of inconsistency.
It's already been mentioned that Trey Azagthoth is recycling some ideas, here. One must take a closer look to understand why. Is it that his creative well has run dry? Maybe it was important to reiterate past themes in an attempt to make the definitive statement that this is the sound Morbid Angel shall be known for, and to forget the foul 1995 release. That is entirely plausible. So, upon closer inspection, it may not be a lack of ideas, but rather an effort to reinforce the trademark sound of the band.
Another point could be made that the old material recorded for this album strengthens the argument against Trey's creative prowess. "Hellspawn: The Rebirth" is an old song, from Abominations of Desolation, that was re-recorded for the new album. "Invocation of the Continual One" was, supposedly, written back in 1984 and not recorded until 1997. Between the two of them, that's 12 minutes of material that had to be taken from the past, in order to fill out the new record. In their defense, Domination was the only album that didn't feature a re-recording of an older song, so this is nothing new. In fact, it's kind of interesting that the band could still incorporate old material into a new release. As for "Invocation of the Continual One", this is my pick for best song on the album, so it's a good thing that these old riffs were finally used. Even if the song had been sitting, unfinished, for 13 or 14 years there's no reason to not include it. Sometimes, these things need to ferment for a while before they are ready. Additionally, Trey's vocal performance on this one proves that he could have taken over vocal duties and the band would have, probably, benefited from it.
The final mark of inconsistency is the fact that the album contains so much filler, much of it just tossed at the end, randomly. "Disturbance in the Great Slumber" suits the album well, much like "Doomsday Celebration", from Blessed Are the Sick. No problem there. "Hymn to a Gas Giant" leads into the next song, well enough, but it's not completely necessary. As for the ones at the end of the album, none of those are needed. If they wanted to end the album with some ambient outro, one would have sufficed. Three in a row just reinforces the feeling that things weren't properly arranged and, in all honesty, none of them are worthwhile. Of course, it's simple to just stop the CD after the last real song, so the presence of these "bonus tracks" isn't terribly detrimental.
In terms of production, the band returned to Morrisound (though not using Tom Morris or the dreaded Scott Burns). The overall sound is a vast improvement over the previous album. Not to beat this to death, but it's about as close to the production of Covenant as was possible. The guitars are still muddy, which one could suppose is the desired sound. The guitar solos are crystal clear, really managing to pierce your ears. This may have something to do with the fact that Trey served as co-producer. Also the drums to seem to be mixed in a little better, for the most part.
All in all, the biggest flaw of Formulas Fatal to the Flesh was its timing. If this album had come out in 1995, it would probably have been hailed as another classic. The fact that it was released in early 1998 lessened its potential impact. Since Covenant, Morbid Angel released an E.P. of terrible remixes, the horrid pile of vomit known as Domination and then a lackluster live album. In other words, their stock had dropped in the previous 4 or 5 years. Outside of the poor timing, this album should be considered on-par with Covenant, which seemed to have been their goal. No, it didn't signal a return to the brilliance of Altars of Madness or Blessed Are the Sick, but it was the best thing they had released since 1993. It's filled with great riffs, some really good arrangements and a level of energy that hadn't been seen from this band in years. They really seemed as if they had something to prove. It's a shame that they weren't able to fully capitalize on the momentum that they began to regain with this one. If you haven't given this album a listen, do so. "Invocation of the Continual One", alone, is worth the price of the CD.