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In between the disintegration of the “Abominations Of Desolation” line-up - which saw the ousting of drummer/vocalist Mike Browning and bass guitarist John Ortega - and its Earache debut, the band recorded a demo, and a single called “Thy Kingdom Come” to keep the name alive. For this session Wayne Hartsell sat behind the drumkit and Charlotte, North Carolina native David Alexander Stuppnig (David Vincent) assumed the role of frontman and bass guitarist. Morbid Angel was based out of genre hotbed Florida and North Carolina, this due to their association with Stuppnig who had financed and co-produced the ill-fated “Abominations Of Desolation” sessions the year before. Only lead guitarist duo George Emmanuel III (Trey Azagthoth) and Richard Brunelle remain of the previous incarnation of the band. “Thy Kingdom Come” is a brief time capsule to a transitional period in the band’s early years. The single version of this (which excludes the track ‘Blasphemy Of the Holy Ghost’ and a few live cuts) demo tape was re-released in 1988 on Swiss label Splattermaniac Records. This vinyl was issued a mere year before the band’s relocation to Tampa, Florida and the formation of its most recognizable and enduring line-up.

1017456_758387117519182_216579888_nAt this point Morbid Angel was still more a thrash – than a genuine death metal band. The sound is virtually identical to that of the “Abominations Of Desolation” session, and newly acquired frontman David Vincent hadn’t yet found his true voice. The new rhythm section makes a serviceable debut as Hartsell and Vincent both deliver a passionate performance in their respective slots. Azagthoth and Brunelle are in fine form as much of the guitar riffing that would come to characterize “Altars Of Madness” is present here. Wayne Hartsell’s debut behind the drums is a great one, as he is much more intense and diverse than Browning. His style is reminiscent of a more technically refined Bill Andrews (Massacre) and Chris Reifert (Autopsy). Vincent’s voice is more serpentine and raspier compared to the “Beneath the Remains” alike snarl he would adopt for “Altars Of Madness”. Both tracks of this vinyl would be re-recorded for the 1991 “Blessed Are the Sick” sessions. The only real difference is Vincent’s hissing vocal style, and the increased speed with which both cuts are played. This evolution would be completed on “Altars Of Madness”, the band’s label debut on British imprint Earache Records. For a stopgap release this EP is pretty solid, even though it is over before you very well realize it.

1897724_758388344185726_325742434_nGiven that this was the early era of the band before they made the choice to locate itself at Azagthoth’s home turf in Tampa, Florida - one assumes that this was recorded at Central Recording Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. Information is sketchy at best, but it seems like the most logical choice given the band’s then-current whereabouts. The thick production is gritty and earthy, and very redolent of Death’s seminal “Scream Bloody Gore”. The handdrawn artwork by John Rainey is stunning in its simplicity. Both releases came out in 1987, although this vinyl edition would arrive in 1988. With half the band located in North Carolina, and the other in Florida a decision was to be made as to where base operations. The consensus was Florida (as this was where Azagthoth was based), which resulted in freshly drafted drummer Wayne Hartsell being cut loose from the band as either he was getting married and/or didn’t want to relocate. In that sense it is interesting that “Thy Kingdom Come” is the only release to feature Wayne Hartsell, who possessed a similar drumming style as his more recognized successor Pedro Sandoval. The difference with previous skinsman Mike Browning is night and day. It makes you wonder what Morbid Angel would have sounded like had they remained in North Carolina.

“Thy Kingdom Come” is generally an often-neglected footnote in the band’s long history, but one that was pivotal in what it set up for the future. The seeds for “Altars Of Madness” are planted here, although they would change drummers one more time before settling into its classic line-up. The vinyl was the only release by Swiss imprint Splattemaniac Records, the label operated by Erich Keller of the band Fear Of God, who ran the fanzine of the same name. On the basis of its preceding demo recordings and the “Thy Kingdom Come” single/EP the band was contracted by British label imprint Earache Records. The relationship with Earache would be a long-standing one, until the underperformance of 2003’s “Heretic” forced the band off the label. Although Morbid Angel would grow in status with every record they put out, the band isn’t nearly as flawless as their reputation would suggest. Every album post-“Altars Of Madness” signals stagnation and regression in varying degrees – even though the visuals and production values drastically increased. This vinyl is incredibly limited, and the band ended up owning most of them. As an “in-between” release this single/EP is interesting for what it is, but hardly mandatory unless you are a completist. It is the evolutional gap between “Abomations Of Desolation” and “Altars Of Madness” – but the curiosity of a different drummer is hardly worth the expense of tracking a physical copy of this down.

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The full-length debut of Waldorf, Maryland death/black metal combo Aurora Borealis is where the band largely etched out its musical niche, but was still searching for its identity lyrically. “Praise the Archaic Lights Embrace” introduced bass guitarist Jason Ian-Vaughn Eckert, who would reconnect with the band many years later and become a trustworthy ally for mainman Ron Vento. In comparison to the preceding EP the debut increases the overall level of speed and technicality, and is much more bass-heavier due to the addition of a dedicated bass guitarist. “Praise the Archaic Lights Embrace” follows the template laid out with the preceding EP, and expands upon its central ideas while further cementing the band’s keen sense of European melodicism and riff construction.

Substituting for the defected Tony Laureano is South Carolina native Derek Roddy, who in the years before had made a name for himself through his work with Malevolent Creation and its splinter project Divine Empire. It is the first of two Aurora Borealis albums featuring his percussive skills. With the genre in a state of flux a lot of bands were pushing the genre into heavier and faster territory Aurora Borealis, to its credit, remained tasteful in its elegant and fully realized epic death/black metal paradigm. Leading the charge of blast-oriented death metal bands were the likes of “Depise the Sun” era Suffocation, Krisiun, Centurian and the Erik Rutan-led Hate Eternal. Much like long-running Florida death metal combo Monstrosity, Aurora Borealis was a proving ground for both Derek Roddy and Tim Yeung before moving onto bigger opportunities.

“Praise the Archaic Lights Embrace” is a consistently strong record that has no lowpoints, or notable defects to speak of. In comparison to what come later the album is squarely in the death metal end of the spectrum. Coming to the fore than on the EP is Vento’s sense for melodicism and structure. By this time the American death metal was undergoing a transformation as forces such as Deeds Of Flesh, and Disgorge pushed for new extremes. There’s a distinct European flair about “Praise the Archaic Lights Embrace” while its sense of structural melodicism is Swedish in construction. Much like institutions such as Unleashed, and to a lesser degree John Zwetsloot-era Dissection (“The Somberlain”) without said band’s overt Iron Maiden stylings, and its tendency to sound like a death metal focused NWOBHM outfit. What makes Aurora Borealis different as a band from actual European outfits is that it sets its European stylings within a solid American death metal framework. While the material is technical it never forgets that songwriting is the key priority. The album is uniformly strong, and internally consistent. The standout tracks for the session are ‘Offerings Of Jade and Blood’, ‘For Your Comprehension’ and the instrumental ‘Constellations Embellished With Chaos’.

The glaring omission of an apostrophe in the album title aside, the lyrics are well crafted and largely deal with mythology, ancient cultures and history. Unlike many underground metal lyrics these are intelligently written, and from them can be gleaned that Vento is an enthusiast of the subject. Only ‘War Of the Rings’ and ‘For Your Comprehension’ differ from the bulk in that the former deals with the Lord Of the Rings novels and the latter is more introspective and personal compared to the rest of the record. The album is paced masterfully in every sense. Even though it contains two back-to-back instrumentals with ‘Constellations Embellished With Chaos’ and ‘Calm Before’ it never takes away from the record’s overall effectiveness. There were definitely heavier, and faster alternatives available on the American scene when this record saw release, but none of them captured the European death/black metal sound as distinctively and effective as Aurora Borealis did here. That the band never really was able to get a footing in its own continent is probably due to the same reason. Aurora Borealis after all has its roots in European death – and thrash metal instead of the American ones as its competitors.

Although the album was recorded at Sound Lab in South Carolina with producer Bob Moore it should have sounded far better than it actually does. The production is on the thin side, and misses much of the preceding EP’s crunch. Moore had made a name for himself engineering the first Nile albums, but apparently didn’t give his all in producing this record. The album doesn’t sound bad in any way imagineable, but it only possesses a mere fraction of the power it should have held due to the fairly weak production job. However, all the instruments are distributed evenly across the mix, and each holds a clear and adequately fitting tone – yet none of it carries any real weight or heft in the grander scheme of things. The production is a mere sum of its parts, and nothing more. Neither was Bob Moore able to capture the band’s European tones. It was probably this experience that drove mainman Ron Vento into setting up his own Nightsky recording facility in order to properly capture his own vision, and those of his direct associates. Once again artwork was by rendered by Jay Marsh. This time around the vista seems to be set during nighttime inside of the Colosseum walls near an angelic statue

“Praise the Archaic Lights Embrace” builds upon the initial promise of the “Mansions Of Eternity” EP, and further fleshes out its concept, lyrically and musically. A number of tracks expand upon the preceding EP’s Egyptian theme, while others introduce the first celestial, and Scandinavian themes. Compared to its predecessors the songs are better structured, faster paced, and the overall melodic sensibility has increased. Despite its melodic leanings the music stays squarely within the American death metal format, although Vento’s serpentine rasp gives the whole a black metal aura. With the increased expansion of lyrical subjects Aurora Borealis is finally coming into its own. The band would unlock its full potential on “Northern Lights”, the successor to this debut, which is the penultimate Aurora Borealis record of the first era in every conceivable way. As far as debuts go “Praise the Archaic Lights Embrace” is exceptionally strong in what it does.