The reason for this album’s importance with regards to the history of heavy metal is, in a nutshell, that this album essentially perfected what Possessed
had started with Seven
Churches and what Death had moved towards with their demos and Scream Bloody Gore
. Those works are absolutely excellent albums, don’t get me wrong, but this album was, without a doubt, an album that was an evolution of those works and one that pushed the boundaries farther. But beyond the historical impact this album had – and continues to exert – the reason why people continue to praise it is the fact that it really is a truly incredibly written album, one of those albums in metal that really does deserve all of the praise it receives.
The thing that separated Morbid Angel
from the rest of their contemporaries in death metal was the fact that nobody sounded like them as a whole – Slayer
, and Death are all clear influences in the style of the riffs on here, but the twisted, borderline alien way in which Trey Azagthoth wrote these riffs and his solos sounded like absolutely nobody else then, and even after two decades of being aped by legions of death metal bands, still doesn’t truly sound like anybody else.
It should also be stressed that the musicianship is absolutely outstanding on this album, even when one considers that this album is from 1989. While this album lacks the blatant masturbatory excess that has plagued a lot of technical death metal releases of the last decade, here the technical aspects of Morbid Angel
’s sound, while not as fully-formed as on later releases – particularly in the way the drums interact with the guitars - come off as being absolutely necessary in the frankly alien way these songs progress.
As was noted above, the guitar work of Trey Azagthoth was some of the most groundbreaking stuff occurring in death metal up to this point. The riffs on this album range from the lightning fast and tremolo-picked (where the Possessed
influence really comes into play), to the more midpaced thrashy stuff that resembles Slayer
at times, and finally, the twisted, churning, slower paced riffs that appear at certain moments in the album. The album largely sticks to a frantic pace, but Azagthoth’s songwriting also shows a really keen sense of dynamics on here – there aren’t any sections that feel like they’re blatantly out of place or ill-fitting for the most part within the strange logic this album operates under. On this particular album, Richard Brunelle teamed up with Azagthoth on lead guitar and layed down what still are some of the most absurdly uncanny solos I’ve ever heard. Both
lead players have a strangely alien sort of melody to their leads, and they work incredibly well off of each other (see the solo tradeoff in the last thirty seconds of "Suffocation
Pete Sandoval’s contributions the band, in the form of his drum battery, also cannot be understated either. Sandoval can – and often does – play some mindwarpingly fast blast-beats on this album, but unlike a lot of other (often stupid) drummers, he also proves that he can let up off the gas pedal and let the rest of the arrangement have their space with different beats. The drums on here compliment the guitar work without overpowering them in the mix, something that a lot of other death metal bands should frankly learn from.
Lastly, David Vincent’s vocal delivery on here is one of the most unique in death metal, largely because it ISN’T a conventional death metal growl at all – rather, it’s more of a skeletal rasp than anything else. I would argue that the vocals on here are actually among the best vocals in the entire subgenre, because not only do Vincent’s vocal patterns completely fit the flow of these songs, he is also entirely comprehensible (barring the chorus to “Lord
of All Fevers & Plagues, but that’s in an entirely different language so I’ll let it slide) – the lyrics on this album are completely understandable.
The songwriting on here is frankly some of the greatest ever in all of death metal. Morbid Angel
are a band that are capable of keeping one hooked into listening to the entire album, as these songs, while flowing well into each other as an album, are clearly differentiable enough to keep one’s attention for the entire running time of the album. The songs on here all sound different, be it the way the atmosphere driven opener of “Immortal Rites
” goes into the faster, more frantic “Suffocation
”, or the outright demented intro riff of “Maze
”, or even how the atmospheric, keyboard laden parts of “Chapel
flow into each other (the keys only appear twice on this album, in both “Immortal Rites
” and this song, but they’re used exactly as they should be used: as atmospheric pieces that compliment the rest of the arrangement). Or how the blasting moments of “Damnation
” are counterpointed by stomping, thrashy sections, or how the lead guitar work goes into the churning, almost snaking ride-out on the last song, there are no shortages of utterly brilliant moments on this album. When the worst song on here is merely ‘good’ (“Bleed for the Devil
”) and the rest is completely amazing in every way, you’ve a great album.
The production values on this album are certainly not the best; while most other death metal albums tend to have something of a bass presence, Altars of Madness
has little of that, largely being thinner and reedier than most DM albums. While one could argue that is a bad thing, I entirely disagree as it gives this album a grimy, haunting quality to it that I don't think a slicker production job would've captured.
Admittedly, the album is somewhat difficult to get into, largely because of the weird ways in which the songs flow into each other. When one can understand the way in which these songs unfold, after numerous listens, the sheer quality of this album finally becomes totally apparent. This is an absolutely essential album overall. (the recent Earache re-issue actually includes a live DVD from 1989 in London
– it’s in surprisingly great quality and it shows that Morbid Angel
were every bit as potent on the live stage as they were on album.)