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More important for its role than its music - 82%

Noktorn, September 19th, 2006

And so the era was over. The impossible had occurred; David Vincent had left Morbid Angel. Certainly the question circa 1998 was how such a man could be replaced: indeed, his bass, vocals, and writings were a defining portion of the entity known as Morbid Angel. A replacement was found in the form of Steve Tucker, ex-bassist/vocalist of little known (and unproductive) death metal band Ceremony. However, could such an unknown figure possibly replace one of the most legendary frontmen in death metal history?

To be fair, such doubt was not only logical but a product of the era. After the near disintegration of death metal in the mid-90’s, the latter part of the decade, while the genre rose to its feet again, was shaky and doubtful. A severe brush with commerciality in the form of the attempted Earache/Giant deal left most metallers rather paranoid of mainstream influence afterwards. Although such incidences did not kill death metal, they certainly brought the genre to its knees, awaiting the executioner’s blade. If ‘Formulas Fatal To The Flesh’, the sixth LP by Morbid Angel, had failed, death metal would likely have collapsed under its own weight and today would be a mostly forgotten genre.

Luckily, it was not to be the case. Perhaps ‘Formulas Fatal To The Flesh’ is not so much important on its own terms, but as to what it allowed from the future. By being so willingly anti-commercial and esoteric in nature, this LP proved that death metal wasn’t dead yet. And this is what the scene needed at that time: reassurance that the legends were still powerful. While a certain segment of the metal-listening population derided this release (most likely out of a rather self-fulfilling prophecy of theoretical failure), the vast majority saw it for what it was: not brilliant, but solid in a genre that had been anything but for a few years past.

Aesthetically, ‘Formulas Fatal To The Flesh’ is specifically designed to resemble ‘Covenant’. The music is sharp and very dark in tones, an element which is used to distance the music from morbid Angel’s previous LP, ‘Domination’, which was overly bright and clear. One of the most noticable examples of this is in timing: ‘Domination’ was done entirely with electronic metronomes, whereas ‘Formulas Fatal To The Flesh’ has no artificial timing mechanisms, giving it a rougher, more organic sound overall; this ‘back to basics’ aesthetic was another reassuring element of this album, eschewing popularly accepted modernity in order to appeal to a metal scene that wanted none such inclusion. Production, too, is murkier than that found on ‘Domination’; perhaps obvious, but still effective for its purposes.

And it’s a fast, fast album, possibly the fastest and most frantic of any of Morbid Angel’s music since the chaotic frenzy of early tracks such as ‘Bleed For The Devil’. This (admittedly somewhat artificial) extremity combined with the rougher sound and instrumentation was precisely what death metal needed in 1998: a return to ‘Altars Of Madness’ and, in a way, ‘Seven Churches’. ‘Formulas Fatal To the Flesh’ matches the musical and ideological ideals of death metal in order to represent itself as the genre in its carnal state. Once again, precisely what death metal needed. There was no time or room for ‘progression’; dependability was needed above all.

Steve Tucker is most importantly described as ‘capable’. He is deeper, more gravel-throated and less distinctive than David Vincent, but an attempt to replace the latter with someone as stylistically specific as he would have been to risky at such a phase. Tucker’s voice represents ‘Formulas Fatal To The Flesh’ as a whole: extreme, yet foundational in nature, without unnecessary departures or movements away from the commonly accepted formula. His basswork is, like Vincent’s, buried in the morass of Azagthoth’s guitars. Tucker is conceptually flexible to Azagthoth’s bidding, and it can be seen in the far higher than typical influence of H.P. Lovecraft’s work on the music and lyrics here. Azagthoth controls this album down to the last letter but shows admirable restraint in his music: it does not meander to much nor stray from its goals. Probably the only example of Azagthoth restraining his ego throughout his musical history. His guitarwork is intensely remniscient of previous Morbid Angel works (critical to the success of the album), but not entirely unoriginal: the riffing present here is not heard on other albums, though it does bear more than a passing resemblance to that found on ‘Covenant’.

Sandoval’s drumming is simpler than usual, with less obscure fills present than usual. It serves its purpose, like all things; the binary formula of blast/double bass forms the critical platform for the rest of the instruments to ride upon and does not distract from the melody-based nature of this album. One could almost call this Morbid Angel’s black metal album, as the general atmosphere and instrumentation could be said to match it in many ways, though the thicker sound does something to throw off such comparisons.

‘Heaving Earth’, opener of ‘Formulas Fatal To the Flesh’ is tight and percussive, and begins on one of the major themes that is present in the album: that of ancient Sumeria. Frequently throughout the LP Tucker will use ancient Sumerian in his lyrics, alternating from typical English to further the archaic feel of the album. Such words are tight, percussive and guttural, composed almost exclusively of one or two-syllable words. It matches the music perfectly in these dimension, almost sounding like an additional drum of Pete Sandoval’s kit, where rhythms are used to carry the meaning of the melodies. This album is violently rhythmic, like ‘Covenant’, and particularly violent in this respect.

This album showcases the highest use of ambience in Morbid Angel’s work to date: a full five tracks are dedicated to such works, with a block of three composing the ending of the album. Such tracks are highly varied: ‘Hymn To A Gas Giant’ to a very strange, wafting guitar piece, ‘Hymnos Rituales De Guerra’ is entirely composed of percussion, and ‘Ascent Through The Spheres’ functions as a bridge in between. Closer ‘Trooper’ is pure synths and sound effects of warfare and is likely the most powerful ambient work that Morbid Angel has ever composed.

However, ambient works, while more important here than on any previous Morbid Angel album, still take a back seat to death metal. Songs such as ‘Bil Ur-Sag’ and ‘Chambers Of Dis’ are savage in their intensity and conviction; a very, very appreciated return post-’Domination’. On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Nothing Is Not’ is the sole slow track that would set the pattern for their next album ‘Gateways To Annihilation’s devastating sludge. However, despite these mild departures, the emphasis is squarely on high-sped, ripping death metal exemplified by tracks such as ‘Hellspawn: The Rebirth’ (a redux of an ancient, demo-era track) and ‘Covenant Of Death’ (the name of which is no coincidence at all). Tracks such as these are fast, punishing, and strong. There is no impartiality or weakness on this album. It is a proud, strong album, fitting the otherworldly atmosphere and philosophical implications of this LP.

On its own terms, ‘Formulas Fatal To the Flesh’ is good, but not stunning. But when taken into account with the time of its release, this album can be appreciated much more for what it is: one of the albums that saved death metal.