Welcome to Half-Life, a feature that gives us the chance to celebrate a selection of work from a particular artist’s discography. These acts are still alive and kicking, continuing to provide us with more material to write about and more music to spend our time gushing over. For more installments, click here.
Remember back in 2013, when everyone complained about Summer Slaughter having the “least extreme” lineup to date? Personally, I thought the lineup was great, and I still don’t understand how a tour headlined by Dillinger could be considered anything but extreme. Regardless, everyone ultimately benefited from a self-conscious booking team, as Summer Slaughter 2014 boasted one of the greatest – and yes, most extreme – lineups to date, complete with Decrepit Birth, Origin, Goatwhore, Dying Fetus and (of course) headliners Morbid Angel. While I was ecstatic to see David Vincent and company rip through a set full of classic material, I was disappointed when my friend turned to me in between songs and commented on how many people had left after Dying Fetus. As much as I love the other bands and Dying Fetus especially (Destroy the Opposition is one of my favorite records), arguably none of the opening bands on the bill would exist in their present form without Morbid Angel’s influence. So in an attempt to both analyze and promote their discography, I’ve compiled a much needed Half-Life Morbid Angel to discuss the albums everybody loves, the albums nobody seems to know (but should) and the album everybody hates.
Heavy Blog may not be the biggest supporter of the Metal Establishment, but there’s a good reason why both Decibel and Terorrizer deemed Morbid Angel’s groundbreaking debut the greatest album in the genre. Death metal forefathers like Death and Possessed had released records before Altars of Madness dropped, but Morbid Angel were one of a handful of bands – including Autopsy and Obituary – to take the genre’ heavily thrash-based “extreme metal” sound into a more solidified death metal style. Altars of Madness is perhaps the finest example of this transition, due primarily to Trey Azagthoth’s signature riff writing and Pete Sandoval’s hellbent desire to drum as rapidly as possible. I personally consider a later album to be the band’s crown achievement, but Altars of Madness remains one of the best and most influential pieces of death metal ever recorded.
In the same way that Altars of Madness was a transitional record for death metal, Blessed Are the Sick marked a noticeable shift for Morbid Angel’s sound. Speed – while not entirely abandoned – isn’t the primary focus like it was on Altars, as Azagthoth leads the band into their first true foray into focused and memorable songwriting. Not to mention that David Vincent lowers the octaves on his vocals a bit to craft a death growl out of the yelling style he’d been using up until this point. Yet, if there’s one crucial bit of praise to highlight regarding Blessed, its that it brought the band one step closer to their magnum opus.
Covenant quickly silenced naysayers who criticized the band for “going mainstream” after they signed to Giant Records (a subsidiary of Warner). Not only is Covenant the best-selling death metal album of the Soundscan era, it’s also an easy pick for the peak performance of the band’s career. Homogeneous songwriting is one of the most common critiques levied against death metal, a criticism Azagthoth dispelled effortlessly with distinct, impeccable riffs and some of the catchiest compositional choices in death metal history. The sole misstep on the album is “Angel of Disease,” a re-recorded demo track from the band’s early years that’s solid on its own but doesn’t mesh well with the remainder of the album’s tracks. Otherwise, Covenant is a pillar of death metal, with a near flawless track listing that demolishes the listener from the thundering introductory double bass of “Rapture” to the cataclysmic closing opus that is “God of Emptiness.” If for some reason you have to pick just one Morbid Angel album to spin from this list, make it Covenant.
Prior to spinning Domination, I was under the impression that it was slower, sludgier offering from the band, based mainly upon live staple “Where the Slime Lives,” a putrid track with ugly riffs topped off by a gurgling effect laid upon Vincent’s vocals. Yet, from the first moments of “Dominate,” it’s clear that Domination is just as fast and vicious as any entry in Morbid Angel’s discography. All of the best qualities from Blessed Are the Sick and Covenant make appearances, and while Domination isn’t on the same level as the latter, it’s still one of the strongest entries in the band’s catalogue and a fitting swansong for Vincent’s first – and longest – stretch with the band. And fun fact: Domination marks Erik Rutan’ (Hate Eternal) made his first appearance on a Morbid Angel record, though his touch wouldn’t be apparent until his second appearance.
Formulas Fatal to the Flesh is a shining example why fans should be ecstatic that Steve Tucker is back on the Morbid Angel roster. Tucker took over bass and vocal duties after Vincent left the band in ’95, and whatever he brought into the studio translated into Azagthoth and Sandoval playing faster than ever. Formulas is Morbid Angel’s best marriage of speed and songwriting, with a ton of compositional diversity played at blistering speed and wrapping around Sandoval’s tireless blasts. Anyone who jumped ship after Vincent left should be ashamed at their lack of faith; Formulas is arguably the last great Morbid Angel record currently available.
Azagthoth ushered in the new millennium with a nearly unrecognizable album from his Morbid Angel crew. Sure, Erik Rutan also appeared on Gateways to Annihilation, and the way his style blends with Azagthoth is spectacular. But more notably is the stark drop in tempo present throughout the record, especially considering what Formulas had to offer. Though blasts are scarce, the band still pulls of a mid-paced death-doom romp fairly well, easily producing some of their heaviest material to date. But while speed isn’t a necessity for quality death metal, Azagthoth and Sandoval seemed to forget how much Morbid Angel’s creativity and distinction revolved around varied songwriting. The result is an album that starts of marching boldly through the swamp but ultimately finds itself sinking and trudging along by the time it reaches the opposite shore.
At this point in their career, Azagthoth and Sandoval clearly couldn’t make up their minds when it came to BPM. Heretic is incredibly antithetical to Gateways, bolting by even faster than Formulas as if Sandoval wanted to prove his worth as an aging drummer. Azagthoth’s enthusiasm isn’t so strong, unfortunately, as Sandoval lays the rhythm for some of Morbid Angel’s all-time weakest riff and song writing. There really isn’t much to say about Heretic: it’s a speed-obsessed blur of intensity that pays remarkably little attention to detail in comparison to the records that preceded it.
“Unique” is perhaps the most diplomatic way to describe Vincent’s return to the Morbid Angel lineup. There’s really no use in trashing Illud Divinum Insanus at this point; fans have made it abundantly clear how much they hate this record. But frankly, they’re not wrong to criticize Vincent’s failed vision of making Morbid Angel into an industrial death metal band. Admittedly, if you can make it past “Too Extreme!” (yes, that’s the actual song title), the death metal tracks on Illud are decent; some of them could have passed as one of the weaker cuts during their heyday. As for the rest…Azagthoth should have never let Vincent tinker with his keyboards and make some of these tracks sound like Rammstein attempting to make death metal. Mark this one as a purchase for completionists only.