The metal community has historically reacted in a swift, uniformly negative fashion when a major band takes a sharp stylistic turn. Albums like Paradise Lost‘s Host and Believe in Nothing, Entombed‘s Same Difference and (of course) Metallica‘s St. Anger and Lulu all saw either a drastic departure in sound and/or quality that left fans feeling wronged and ravenous, sometimes deservedly. Lulu wasn’t the only example of this phenomenon in 2011, as death metal legends Morbid Angel broke an eight year hiatus (and their fan’s spirits) with industrial death metal monstrosity Illud Divinum Insanus. Armed with garish electro-metal romps like “Too Extreme!” and “Destructos vs. the Earth / Attack,” cock rock on “I Am Morbid” and a southern-tinged combination of the two on “Radikult,” the album gave longtime fans more than enough reasons to start marching on the warpath. Granted, fans generally forget there were some decent death metal tracks on the album like”Existo Vulgoré,” “Blades for Baal, “10 More Dead” and “Nevermore,” none of which were extraordinary but certainly kept the album from being a complete, unmitigated disaster.
Now, as with any falling out, there’s always the chance for redemption, as has happened among fans of all the aforementioned artists; depending on which fan you ask, Metallica has made a noteworthy comeback not once (Death Magnetic), but twice (Hardwired…to Self-Destruct). But then again, that truly does depend on which fans you poll on the issue, as you’ll likely garner one of three popular results—”It’s good,” “It’s bad” or “It’s not as ugly as the last one.” These reactions happen with every album, obviously, but the responses in these kinds of “trash to treasure” situations are defined much more strongly by context than your typical release. When a fan ranks the last album a band put out toward the bottom of their discography, it’s almost effortless for a band to return with a competent, no frills return-to-form and end up winning these fans back. Because as metal fans as a unit have demonstrated, they’re perfectly content with repackaged goods (see: Cannibal Corpse).
Seeing as all of this applies to Morbid Angel—and this happens to be a review of their new album—suffice it to say that Kingdoms Disdained falls into this archetype perfectly. Though the band are rivaled by only Death as the most important band in death metal history, interest in their output has been waning for quite some time. Heretic was met with lukewarm reception from fans back in 2003, and after following it with an eight-year hiatus, Illud Divinum Insanus in 2011 and then six more years of silence, it’s hard to argue they left fans with much reason to expect another Altars of Madness or Covenant any time soon, if ever. That is, until 2017, when OG death metal savior Steve Tucker returned to the roster to kick out David Vincent and his silly cowboy hat and restore Morbid Angel to their former glory (or something like that). The news was met with understandable intrigue and excitement, considering the Tucker era is an extremely underrated part of the band’s career that spawned the blistering, blast beat obsessed Formulas Fatal to the Flesh and borderline death doom of Gateways to Annihilation. So with the band rejuvenated by a fresh-but-familiar perspective and inspired to rectify their standing with fans, Kingdoms Disdained seemingly had everything going for it on both sides of the ball. The band knew what they had to do to return to fans’ good graces, and fans had both rock bottom expectations and every reason to expect a return to form.
Yet, after finally listening to Kingdoms Disdained, its clear that guitarist Trey Azagthoth’s deterioration as a songwriter has been a key, unaddressed factor that’s affected Morbid Angel’s recent output. While he may have written some of death metal’s greatest riffs during the band’s heyday, Kingdoms Disdained is the best case study thus far in terms of demonstrating Azagthoth’s slipping capability as the driving force of Morbid Angel’s sound. It was easy to overlook Heretic given how generally forgettable it was, and the predominant critiques of Illud Divinum Insanus revolved more around the band’s decision making than anything else. But now that Morbid Angel have entered into the perfect setup for a successful comeback, it’s difficult to overlook how complacent Azagthoth’s songwriting is across the entirety of Kingdoms Disdained. There’s no denying the album is an incomparable improvement over their industrial metal excursions, but it’s also difficult to avoid comparing the album’s aggressively average delivery with the milestone records that have preceded it in the band’s discography.
This isn’t to say the album is without its highlights and standout tracks. Lead single “Piles of Little Arms” is a brutal revival of the Formulas Fatal to the Flesh blueprint, complete with Azagthoth’s signature, riff-heavy chops. His ability to synthesize brutality and groove with catchy chord progressions has defined his and Morbid Angel’s career, and while the riffs on the this track aren’t among his best, its still a solid display that’s bolstered by Scott Fuller’s capable ferocity behind the drum kit. The band alternate between thundering, sludgy riffs married with rolling double kicks and rushes of blasts and tremolos, offering a promising start that should justifiably excite fans upon their first listen of the album (more on this point later). Deeper in the track list, the band offers another gem with the surprising ” Declaring New Law (Secret Hell),” a unique addition to the Morbid Angel canon that sees the band synthesizing Godflesh-style grooves and death metal (perhaps this is the industrial-inspired direction they should have taken on Illud Divinum Insanus). It’s a restless, churning track replete with head-bobbing heaviness and some of the most genuinely fun grooves ever laid to tape for a Morbid Angel record. And while the surrounding shell of “Paradigms Warped” is just passable mid-paced death metal, the prominent, crunching bass riff that periodically shines through the murk produces some incredibly satisfying moments that help save the track from total mediocrity.
Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, as the bulk of the track list barely ever warrants praise stronger than baseline satisfaction. “Piles of Little Arms” may be charmingly by-the-numbers on first listen, but after spending more time with the track list, songs like “Garden of Disdain” and “Architect and Iconoclast” reveal how uncharacteristically one-note Azagthoth’s delivery is throughout the entire album. The tracks merely trudge along as inoffensively as possible without being truly below average. Morbid Angel’s albums used to be defined by Azagthoth’s distinct, memorable songwriting; on an album like Covenant or a more comparable parallel like Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, each song presented it’s own distinct evolution that revolved around a unique, earworm riff that was always a textbook example of death metal at its best. Yet, perhaps for the first time in the band’s discography, nearly all the songs on Kingdoms Disdained begin to ram into one another as the album drags on. Hardly any of the album’s tracks are terrible by any means, but in terms of distinctiveness and memorability, there’s hardly a single riff on here that’s worthwhile on its own, a problem that only becomes worse as the listener engages with the album as a whole and especially during repeat listens.
And even when the band attempts to just stay the course and play it safe, much of the underlying, structural components of these songs feel clunky and uninspired. “The Righteous Voice” evolves into a serviceable death metal romp, but the track’s sluggish, plodding introduction forces the eventual blast beat propulsion to do all the heavy lifting to try and launch the band’s performance off the ground. And on “For No Master” and “From the Hand of Kings,” every aspect of the band’s performance feels just a bit underbaked; the transitions are clunkier, the instrumentation feels slightly incohesive and the general energy seems diminished.
Despite the album being more or less middling as a whole, there are still a few clear missteps. “D.E.A.D.” is easily the worst titled and constructed song on the album, due largely to the band’s apparent uncertainty regarding what exactly they’re supposed to be doing. The track opens with a stuttering mess of gravity blasts and chaotic riffing that starts and stops seemingly at random, eventually moving on to bland mid-paced death metal and groove metal riffing before circling back to reiterate its disastrous intro. Though the experimentation is commendable considering the album’s general blandness, risks are only praiseworthy if they pay off. Similar things could be said of “The Pillars Crumbling,” as it begins decently enough before closing out with what’s either one of Azagthoth’s worst guitar solos or a subpar attempt at melodic riffing. It implodes any momentum the track had going for it, a fate shared by album closer “The Fall of Idols.” The song’s main riff feels like Azagthoth forgot to cut off his chord progression and let it awkwardly ascend for too long, and after a meandering, limping midsection, the song and album receive an anticlimactic conclusion with what sounds like Azagthoth short-circuiting his guitar and amp. In some ways, it’s a fitting end to the way in which the album as a whole unraveled up to this point.
Ultimately, the verdict fans will reach regarding Kingdoms Disdained will depend on what they expect from the band at this point in their career. As stated earlier, there will likely be three major schools of thought among longtime fans—those who think the album is genuinely good, those who think it’s genuinely bad and those who point to Illud Divinum Insanus, shrug, and continue bobbing their head while letting out a periodic sigh of relief. In some ways, this third position is understandable; when your favorite band releases a dud on the level of Illud Divinum Insanus, it’s easy to welcome anything resembling their former selves with open arms.
But beyond the mixed quality of Kingdoms Disdained, it’s worth also considering the multiple layers of context at play here, the most obvious of which is Morbid Angel’s own career. With so many established death metal classics in their discography, it’s difficult to argue that Kingdoms Disdained falls anywhere close to virtually any of the band’s previous efforts, calling into question the longevity it could possibly retain as the years go on. Yet, more importantly, it’s perhaps even more difficult to justify awarding Morbid Angel much praise for such a safe, uninspired effort like Kingdoms Disdained considering the absolutely unbelievable state of the modern death metal landscape. It’s what we highlighted several months ago with our piece on Decibel’s “Year of Death Metal,” where we critiqued their regressive adoration of death metal veterans treading water in place of the incredible volume of voracious young bands who put out exceptional, fresh takes on the genre this year. Regardless of where longtime Morbid Angel fans stand on Kingdoms Disdained, the hyper-competitive landscape of modern death metal is an undeniable truth. And while they can certainly argue that the band’s comeback has earned a place in a crowded race to the top of the pack, the actual music they’ve presented on Kingdoms Disdained makes that a pretty questionable argument to make.
Kingdoms Disdained is available now via Silver Lining Music. You can purchase the album here.