Retrospective: Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness

Despite the almost mythical allure they have maintained for over three decades, the career of Morbid Angel has been anything but uncomplicated. However, beyond line-up changes and a hysterical reactionary outcry to the industrial rock club stomp of 2011’s not-a-little mischievous Illud Divinum Insanus, a deliberately subversive discography and disregard for the sonic rule-book has done little to blunt the fact that these Florida veterans still harness the demonic spirit of pure, unfiltered death metal with the sort of haughty command that makes many of their peers sound half arsed. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019, many purists still argue that their debut full length Altars Of Madness remains unmatched in its arcane atmosphere and still sets the standard by which all underground, Satanic extremity should be measured.

As with most of the epoch shattering classics emerging from the nascent scene in ’89, there is more than a faint whiff of vicious, heads-down thrash about Morbid Angels early assault. Yet even from the beginning there was a distinct, unearthly presence surrounding these bright eyed newcomers, the virulent stench of evil intent billowing from every riff and blast-beat like the teeming mists of the neighbouring Everglade swamplands. Indeed, whilst it is somewhat bizarre that death metal found its most fertile breeding ground in the picture-postcard surrounding of Florida’s lush orchards and stunning coast-line, the brain-warping heat triggered something not only in Trey Azagthoth’s unhinged psyche, but a host of seminal bands from Obituary‘s sludge dwelling spirit to Deicide‘s Christ-slaughtering violence. And whilst death metal was certainly alive at this time, roiling alongside both grindcore and thrash in a murky metallic soup, the distinction between genres remained a blur of shared ideas. It was 1989 when death metal truly progressed from an ill-defined ear-sore into a genuine movement, and Altars Of Madness led the charge with an unholy banquet of delights.

Just a cursory glance at the track-list will reveal what seems to be an overtly Satan obsessed, anti-religious record, with song titles such as ‘Bleed For The Devil’, ‘Blasphemy’ and ‘Damnation’. However whilst this would be de rigueur for a death metal debut at the time, Morbid Angel were able to conjurer a signature brand of otherworldly atmosphere and occult vibes which was patently beyond their contemporaries. Pouring over H.P Lovecraft’s ‘Necronomicon’ (an allegedly ancient textbook filled with dark magic ) for inspiration, it is perhaps the combination of the resulting lyrics, or the undercurrent of wonky psychedelia and left of centre weirdness to their songwriting approach that means there has been little before or since which captures the ceremonial, Cthulhu summoning darkness that bleeds from Altars Of Madness’ every note. Similarly unprecedented, this scowling foursome were legitimate instrumental dynamos

A steroidically extreme metal battalion, Morbid Angel were better equipped than any to compete for the title of fastest, heaviest and most technical band on earth, and they attacked these tunes like a nest of marines on a crystal-meth killing spree. Capitulating out of the gate with the timelessly confusing reverse riffed intro of ‘Immortal Rites’, the flailing fury displayed is matched by their age-defying musical chops, and whilst the frankly ridiculous metallic pedigree featured in the band’s iron-clad ranks may have suggested ingenuity and brutality in equal measure (drummer Pete Sandoval had already garnered something of a reputation as a founding member of grindcore legends Terrorizer), few could have foreseen the gleefully unhallowed racket served up here. We need look no further than the records highlight triumvirate, ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’, ‘Maze Of Torment’, ‘Lord Of Fevers And Plagues’, for proof that the sheer technical proficiency offered here is staggering, all bona-fide death metal staples spilling over with pitiless hell-blasting, ferocious and joyously incisive riffs and numerous ripping guitar leads. Indeed, special mention must go to six string deity Trey Azagthoth, who not only announced himself to the metal underground as a next generation soul shredder, but one of the most accomplished songwriters in the game. His spiralling, alien guitar solos call to mind a Pazuzu possessed Eddie Van Halen, and it was his unique strain of wayward musicality and dynamic finesse which played a vital role in separating Altars Of Madness from the tunnel vision brutality of their peers, and fired a warning shot to all competing death metallers – Morbid Angel were simply working on a higher plain.

Although death metal has long since splintered into a myriad of sub-genres and side-strains, a recent resurgence of the old school sound and principles has given a timely reminder of why many consider the pioneering Tampa-death scene as still unsurpassed. Whether true or not (and admittedly a lot of purist bollocks is spoken about what does or does not constitute ‘real’ death metal) extreme music undoubtedly remains as creative and fascinating as ever, yet when revisiting Altars Of Madness it is clear that no one, to this day, wields the same sense of power and superiority with such diabolical conviction.

Words: Tony Bliss

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