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Standing by the Altar - 68%

marktheviktor, May 28th, 2009

Altars of Madness is influential. I will not deny it that. It’s an album that takes a big leap from thrash metal into full-on death metal. It’s highly evolved. For that, I commend it. It’s brutal, technically proficient and evil sounding. David Vincent’s vocals are cool as hell and Trey Azagthoth’s solos and riffing are out of this world and highly influential to the genre. The album is impressive and pioneering. That is all the credit I have in my bag to give to Altars of Madness. That’s not token appreciation either. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all the praise in the world that can be given to an album that is ove-… Eesh, I really hesitate to use that word. I’m not comfortable with that term as applied to here. Just let me put it this way: While Altars is proficient and ground breaking, it on its own individual merits regardless of influence, is not the best death metal album released in 1989. That would be Severed Survival by Autopsy.

Quality is quality regardless of how short or long it is and while it is not an absolute aggravating factor, but like its thrash counterpart Reign in Blood, this record is too short to be all that. I do have one other bone to pick in addition to the point. This release in its original version contains nine songs. What’s missing? The song that should have been included in the original playlist: Lord of All Fevers and Plagues because it is the best track on the album. It’s the “anchor” or standout. That it is a bonus track inserted into the middle of the main playlist(at least on most CD versions) attests to how right I am about this and what a folly that omission was. So for instructional purposes only, I just assume that it is part of the main album. That means no, Chapel of Ghouls is not the best song here but it’s close. The lyrics are pretty awesome and the song is wickedly catchy but the breaks are too leisurely and it doesn’t finish quite like it should. Visions from the Darkside has some riffs going that are downright evil and Pete Sandoval’s blasts are meritoriously hellish. Too bad the song just suddenly stops because it doesn’t know how else to end. It’s a good song though. Something quite like what is found and expanded on in a few songs with the later Covenant.

David Vincent’s bass is not too noticeable. He should have taken charge a little more with it on Immortal Rites because Sandoval’s gravity blasts sound empty without it. It’s like they’re left waiting for more bass padding to supplement. Morbid Angel were making their studio album debut here with this record so this doesn’t always sound that crisp or consistent for each song. There’s that audio clipping in the first 10 seconds of the song. I don’t know if this was intentional but the impedance makes it sound like an early thrash recording for that little amount of time and then pops on out to be a little louder like a jack-in-the-box that grabs you by the collar and screams, “this is death metal, fucker!”. Richard Brunelle’s solo turn in the song is chromatically satanic with a hint of speed metal. It’s a little muted compared to everything else but only slightly less so than Azathoth’s unmistakable pitch bends with those crucifying squeals of torment that he can pick away so effortlessly. David wrote the lyrics on this album and Immortal Rites is one of those songs he authored where it sounds authentically like an actual satanic invocation.

Suffocation is a more fine-tuned and aggressive display than Immortal Rites and the core trio of Azagthoth-Sandoval-Vincent is evidently the focus and leadership as shown on the song since Trey’s guitar dominates. Morbid Angel is and will always be one deadly cocktail of those three. Musically, Trey is the overriding force of this band but without David’s evil shape-shifting vocals and satanically accusing lyrics, this song evidences that Morbid Angel is best heard with them and only them. Nothing against Brunelle but he is little more than good hired help on Altars. It was also nice to see David’s bass lose the shyness with his little solo in the middle of Suffocation.

The record doesn’t really get going until Maze of Torment. I have always loved looking at the cover of this album. I remember it well back when it came out. It’s still the coolest one done by Dan Seagrave. Anyways, the song Maze of Torment pretty much is representative of the album cover. I love that kind of shit. And besides all that, the opening riff is classic brutality. If I don’t count Lord of All Plagues and Fevers, this one song takes the prize as best track on Altars. Brunelle’s riffing and Pete’s hits are clearly set up for Trey to blast out some breakneck soloing. Lord of All Plagues is another incantational death metal song but it’s more along for the worship of evil Sumerian deities. What metal fan couldn’t love a chorus like that? Really, it has to be one of those things that made other bands wonder why they didn’t think of that first! Pete Sandoval is to death metal what Dave Lombardo is to thrash metal once you first hear Lord of All Plagues. Those succinct sharp blast rolls sound like a machine gun ambush from 300 meters away. I declare thee, LoAPaF, the true track of this album without taking anything away to the other fine songs that were originally placed. Remember that old Wendy’s commercial catch phrase ‘Where’s the beef!?’ Well, just consider Lord of All Plagues the slab of new and improved paddy on Altars of Madness and I will have less of a beef (no pun intended) with it. The song is a nice airlift that drops the ungodly goods. I heard the original album release and was only satisfied. But when I heard the new version with the track, there were visions of Tattoo yelping, 'Ze plane! Ze plane!'.

Bleed for the Devil takes many cues from early Slayer but does the solos in a more technical fashion to show off the newfangled death metal destruction to contrast thrash. And I believe Damnation has an influential black metal styling in it if you were to pare it all down riff by riff and in the verse placement.

I think we tend to remember things as better than they really were at the time. Altars of Madness is fondly revered as great death metal. I think it has greatness in it, yes. The record is a great start and it is part of a classic trilogy of the band’s early output but it is not perfect from top to bottom. Morbid Angel’s more recent albums probably make this album look even more golden than it probably is. That isn’t a bad thing. Overall, I have to say I love David Vincent’s vocals and the satanic riffing and destruction that attacks bleeding eardrums. It’s better for an album to be too short than too long but did it have to be this short? If you love death metal, then you must have this in your collection and have already heard it. This is not a love it or hate it album. This album is like a woman who is so undeniably hot that if you declined to fuck her in a hypothetical scenario, your orientation would be called into question. That’s the nature of this beast. That’s Altars of Madness. You don’t have to fall in love with it but you do have to give it some props if only at a superficial level if you love extreme metal.