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It's hard to even properly interpret Sepultura's earliest works considering the direction they went later. Everyone's firmly aware that Sepultura began as a raw, unformed, primitive death/thrash band before evolving into one of the more seminal and technically accomplished bands of thrash's golden age, but making albums like this one cognitively jive with releases like 'Arise' is still challenging. A lot of people forget that at the beginning of Sepultura's career, they were knee-deep in the brackish Cogumelo sound of related bands like Sarcófago (which Wagner Antichrist would later establish after his brief term with Sepultura was up) or Holocausto, not the refined sound of American thrash that they would later come to more or less emulate. It's because of this that opinions on 'Morbid Visions' tend to miss the mark in my opinion; a great number of people put an excessive emphasis on the relative brutality or extremity of this album and the rest of Sepultura's pre-'Beneath the Remains' output and not enough on the pure songwriting involved. Is 'Morbid Visions' the most extreme work of Sepultura? Probably- but it's also a rather confused, very unrefined album that is more significantly dated than many similar records from the same period.
The most immediate sonic comparison is, rather unsurprisingly, Possessed, filtered through the more barbaric and primitive lens of early Teutonic thrash like Sodom or Kreator. A release date in late '86 gave the Brazilians plenty of time to spin 'Endless Pain' and 'In the Sign of Evil' in anticipation of their first full-length, and it shows: the ranting, too-fast vocal performance, tension-laced tremolo riffing, and sloppy, juvenile instrumentation are all directly derived from the German camp. From Possessed, though, comes a more immediately dark and twisted feeling, the hellish and fiery sound of which was clearly a conscious takeaway from 'Seven Churches.' Even though this is Sepultura's most brutal and crude release, it's still not quite as antagonistic and self-involved as 'I.N.R.I.' or 'Campo de Extermínio'- this album is the sound of kids who really look up to Slayer but are basically unable to achieve that level of instrumental prowess at their age. Hints of the sheer brutality of the Cogumelo scene will pop up in fits and starts in the form of sloppy, uneven blasts and even more malevolent than usual riffing, both of which dot tracks like 'Mayhem' with little ceremony or sense.
The playing is uneven and crude and the production is the same, but what I think prevents this album from really entering classic territory is the songwriting itself. As previously stated, this is clearly the sound of Sepultura trying to emulate several contrasting, combative styles of thrash at once, but the combination of all these different influences doesn't end up displaying hybrid vigor so much as a diluted sense of self. The riffcraft tends to be rather generic and over-simplified, with too heavy a reliance on typical thrash riff structures, a lack of rhythmic variation, and a lack of variation from track to track. Oddly enough, many of the musical ideas here are present on later albums- 'War' is like a prototype of the title cut off 'Arise'- but refined and streamlined, which really seems to be what Sepultura was originally made for. Even at a young age, Sepultura weren't quite the drunken sociopaths that many of their Cogumelo brethren were, and even on 'Morbid Visions' you can tell that they aspire to more mainstream and traditional ideas of quality.
All that being said, 'Morbid Visions' certainly occupies a crucial spot in early extreme metal history simply by virtue of its sheer influence. In one fell swoop, 'Morbid Visions' essentially codified the style of Brazilian thrash (even if it wasn't really a sterling example of it) and set up the beginning of Sepultura's legacy. While this is certainly not their greatest work, it's an invaluable look at the early Brazilian scene and the first real volley from one of thrash's pioneering bands.
If you have anything after the initial pressing of this album, you have the 'Bestial Devastation' tracks from Sepultura's split with Overdose tacked on as a bonus- considering the impossibility of finding an original copy of 'Morbid Visions' (or even a copy of the isolated 'Bestial Devastation') it only seems fair to discuss that as well. Even more overtly Teutonic than 'Morbid Visions' and somewhat less preoccupied with the burgeoning death metal sound 'Morbid Visions' clearly attempts to emulate, these short, violent tracks could easily be b-sides from 'Endless Pain', with an almost identical vocal delivery and chaotic, jerking drum performance. The aggressively '80s production (replete with vocal echo and half-distorted guitar) has a charm to it that 'Morbid Visions'' hazy cavern tends to lack, and the songwriting seems more genuine, enthusiastic, and less self-aware than the material off the band's first full-length. I personally prefer these tracks to anything off 'Morbid Visions,' but since getting them together is something of an inevitability, it all comes down to a matter of taste. I will say, though, that the Wagner-penned 'Antichrist' is probably my favorite track on the entire disc, mostly because it absolutely sounds like a forgotten Sarcófago track, with its ludicrous, clumsy blasting and adolescent joy.
Regardless of my particular feelings on this album, it's rather inevitable that I'm forced to recommend it to anyone interested in early metal. Enthusiasts for oldschool, primitive death/thrash will likely find a lot to love here, but more important than that is the historical relevance of these tracks. It rarely gets more authentic or archaic than this in extreme metal, and anyone who wants to hear the very earliest fires of death metal burn will need to pick this up as a matter of course. Even if you don't like it in particular, it inevitably occupies a valuable space in anyone's collection.
(Originally written for http://www.trialbyordeal666.blogspot.com)