Now that they’ve been around for three decades, it’s safe to say that Florida’s Morbid Angel have seen quite a lot of changes as far as critical reception is concerned. Sure, they’re always listed as one of the progenitors of death metal and albums like Altars of Madness and Covenant are frequently cited as essential examples of the style…but the band hasn’t really been on the best of terms with their fans (or even themselves) lately. While the band still continues to tour and pack in crowds the world over, you probably won’t hear anyone in the crowd begging to hear something from Heretic. So when was the last time that Morbid Angel felt as brutally inventive as they’ve ever been? The answer to that has to be 2000’s immensely-underrated Gateways to Annihilation, a murky and oddly-psychedelic slab of pummeling brutality that was unquestionably the best release to ever come out of the Steve Tucker era.

Throughout its eleven tracks, Gateways to Annihilation is an absolute beatdown of epic proportions, packing in just as many memorable riffs and blisteringly fast drums as ever. The opening punch of “Summoning Redemption” is a fantastic summary of what’s to be expected for the remaining thirty-something minutes. Introduce things with a heap of atmospherics, keep the riffs as swampy and filthy as possible, and never forget to kick things up to Mach-eleven. It’s hard to not stand in awe of how unbelievably in-sync guitarist Trey Azagthoth and drummer Pete Sandoval are with one another, who frequently shift between numerous time and tempo changes on a dime (all with live takes, mind you!). “Ageless, Still I Am” is another fantastic example of this natural chemistry, in which Sandoval’s drum work greatly helps link together a ton of riffs that on a surface level feel like they wouldn’t belong together.

It simply can’t be said enough: Azagthoth is one of the most important guitarists in the history of death metal. Whether it’s his barrage of tremolo-picked mayhem, his sludgy 7-string chugfests, or his completely alien approach to guitar solos, it’s all on full display for all 44 minutes. If you’re the type of Morbid Angel fan who digs the evil vibes of “God of Emptiness,” you’ll get plenty of it on “He Who Sleeps,” an insanely cavernous and super-overlooked track that was laying the groundwork for bands like Behemoth and Nile to run with without even knowing it. Azagthoth’s riffing can range from completely apocalyptic to super catchy, all being delivered with a purposefully-muddy tone to make things as suffocatingly-dense as possible.

It also can’t be mentioned enough how important Erik Rutan was to this album, who was probably the best second guitarist the band ever had. Not only was his picking technique perfectly matched with Azagthoth’s, his songwriting talents also come into play on the album’s B-side. Rutan’s keyboard interlude “Awakening” does a great job in breaking up the bedlam and the album’s closer “God of the Forsaken” caps things off perfectly and basically sounds like one of the best Hate Eternal songs you’ve unfortunately forgot about. It’s sad that this was the last album Rutan did with Morbid Angel, but at he went out on such a high note.

Maybe you’re the type of death metal fan that just wants to listen to ripping double-bass until tinnitus sets in. Don’t worry; “To the Victor the Spoils” is one of the finest displays of Pete-The-Feet’s undisputed mastery of extreme metal drumming. The sample-replaced snare drum does sound completely awful and ruins the drum solo in “Opening of the Gates,” but the performances are all that really matter, and they’re here in fucking spades. Sandoval is basically what Dave Lombardo would sound like with seven pounds of cocaine in his system when he’s blasting away, consistently pushing the limits of speed for metal drummers for the first half of his career with the band.

Given the time in which it was released, it makes sense that this album was somewhat doomed to fail. The Florida death metal scene had already peaked and died off in the mid-90s, leaving a lot of smaller bands in the wake and causing even established bands to go through loads of member changes. There were always going to be fans that unquestionably side with the band’s first four albums with David Vincent, and there’s really nothing the band could do to stop that. It’s a damn shame; because Tucker’s throaty growls are at their absolute best on Gateways. Vincent may have been a more dynamic performer in the early days of the band, but Tucker’s consistency on this album is all a Morbid Angel fan can really ask for at this point. His vocals are a perfect match for the band’s 7 string material, and Tucker’s monstrous bellows in “At One with Nothing” set up the tripped-out guitar solo masterfully. He never oversteps his boundaries as a frontman, letting Morbid Angel be all about their original intent: writing amazing riffs to praise the Great Old Ones.

Despite a few obvious flaws, Gateways should still be mentioned alongside the band’s “classic” material in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s far less scatterbrained than Formulas Fatal to the Flesh and has probably helped to inspire a range of atmospheric death metal bands ranging from Portal all the way to Rivers of Nihil. If you’ve slept on this album for any particular reason, go back and check it out as soon as possible! Now that the band has reunited with Steve Tucker, here’s hoping that they’ll revert to this style and level of quality.

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