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A Listening Paradox - 69%

TheBlackClam, February 13th, 2020

It’s really hard to put your finger on why certain riffs can pull your soul through your skin, and some can go in one ear and out the other. Just when we think that maybe historic significance does actually trump genuine musicality (different from skill) when it comes to one’s perception of an album or song, an underground, intentionally retro-styled modern band playing 30-year recycled phrases comes in with genuine spirit and creates something undeniably good and musically interesting. The historic catalogue of all metal almost proves that a single artist, however, simply cannot continue to release quality material, or at least refreshing material. Morbid Angel seems to understand that, and capitalizes on other factors to produce an album that more than once makes you want to listen to it, even when the music itself does not engage you in any way.

Regarding the music itself, it really is hard to find headbanging or underbite frown-face moments amongst the repetitive beats and guitar work. There are a lot of “rolling” type riffs (best word I can think of) and burst-chug power chords that create a steadily moving pace that doesn’t seem to fluctuate much throughout all tracks. Occasionally we hear the classic Azagthoth spider tremolo bursts sprinting off on the higher strings, but they don’t have the same effect without a murderous core riff to spawn from. It’s still a plus to have that variation. The melodies and note choices are for sure intentionally bizarre, and it is understandable, as veteran song and riff-writers sometimes drift towards more obscureness in an attempt to escape their dreaded realization of the limitations of music itself. The drums and rhythms seem to lack of inspiration. The drum work is expertly played and is physically impressive, but does not introduce many varied or unique beats, and the guitar picking rhythms seem to have lost the berserk, frantic flair of classic Morbid Angel. Part of death metal’s duty is to not only grab your attention, but to re-grab your attention many times. This is why shuffling beats and occasionally digging out a primitive funk or jazz beat is a staple of engaging death metal music. The music on Gateways is masterfully crafted, but does not generate very many, if any, strong visceral moments of agonizing riff sorcery. The vocals are fairly generic, but were really only of consistent quality on Altars; most MA vocals, regardless of singer, are usually not a standout aspect of their work.

What carries the album is its atmosphere. It’s conceivable to believe the droning sound was intentionally crafted to create a trance-like feeling. In this case the drums and guitar have a different purpose, and it’s not to create visceral musical breakthroughs in intensity. This makes it a bit more OK to have an intentionally steady and churning pace. The artwork also undeniably plays a big big role. It’s just a great fuckin painting, and itself maintains a buzzing, rolling pace. Certainly the best of their covers next to Altars, the dominance of blacks and browns expresses a certain barrenness, add to that the hyper red evil logo looking like it was melted onto the canvas and it just makes an ace piece of cover artwork. The power of this image genuinely moves the needle a good amount on the overall worth of this work and definitely imparts a noticeable effect on one’s perception of the music on this album.

Side B manages to pull out a few nice riffs, but ultimately it’s the strange atmosphere that makes you give this album repeated spins. It manages to leave enough of an effect that it has become a go-to when discerning what other albums sound like. As Morbid Angel was likely still being worshipped by young, active, 2000’s musicians, it’s easy to say “that sounds like Gateways” when you hear something from around the same time and with similar production and similar churning riffs. Every time I put this on I question why I bother listening to it, but after it ends for some reason the feel of the cover artwork is there and I conclude in some way that I do like this album as a thing, if not for its music, and so the listening paradox continues. It’s worth listening to as this does still stand out as distinctly Morbid Angel in style. Differences in riff taste and/or appreciation for strict machine-like drumming could make this loved by many.