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The prematurely aborted “Abominations Of Desolation” session put back Florida death metal mavens Morbid Angel by a good three years. Interpersonal troubles, and an unsatisfactory studio experience in North Carolina had Azagthoth licking his wounds as he put together a new line-up for his project. “Altars Of Madness” is what “Abominations Of Desolation” should have been. Aided by a newly installed rhythm section the album is a high-speed exercise in unrepentantly evil death/thrash metal, inspired in copious amounts by Slayer, Sepultura and American forebears such as Death and Possessed. Marred by a functional but less than stellar production the sheer level of energy, technical finesse and indifference towards conventional death/thrash metal practices of the time make “Altars Of Madness” the genre standard that it in retrospect became.


In the interim the band enrolled El Salvador-born drummer Pedro ‘Pete’ Sandoval. He was famous for his intense percussive work with early grindcore band Terrorizer. Vincent had played bass guitar as a studio musician on its post-humous “World Downfall” album that was recorded and released in 1989. An album that itself was important to the emerging grindcore movement on both sides of the Atlantic. “Altars Of Madness” was one of the earliest death metal recordings to be cut at Morrisound Studios in Tampa, Florida. A credit the band shares with formative act Death, who recorded “Leprosy” at the same facility in 1988. Sandoval’s debut performance probably stirred Earache’s interest in getting the defunct Terrorizer in the studio to cut its post-humous album in order to capitalize on the drummer's retrospective infamy. Having no concern for traditional keys and scales Azagthoth and Sandoval are the signature players here with Brunelle and Vincent filling their slots appropriately. Vincent’s throbbing bass guitar only gets a few brief spots on the album, although its oozing presence doesn’t quite possess the same sense of body as on later recordings.

“Altars Of Madness” is the fastest, most thrashy album in the early Morbid Angel catalog – and its insistence on constant breakneck speed tends to bury the usage of unconventional keys and scales in a blur of blasts, and screams. The instrumental mastery and finesse is awe-inspiring, but the songwriting tends to be hit-and-miss, and samey in the long run. The record is custodian to a good number of standout tracks, most visibly the likes of ‘Immortal Rites’, ‘Suffocation’, ‘Visions From the Dark Side’, ‘Maze Of Torment’, ‘Lord Of All Fevers and Plague’ and ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’. Only the first four songs of the record are entirely new cuts specifically written for this session, and the remaining six are refurbished demo tracks off the band’s early years. The choice to put together the album this way is understandable given the circumstances. Had the band waited another year to produce all new tracks the record would have sounded dated upon release. “Altars Of Madness” is very much a 80s metal record, with rife influence from Mantas/Death, Possessed, Sepultura and Slayer. David Vincent’s vocals are at their most rabidly intense with an incredible sneer and venom in his rapidfire spits and barks. The vocal stylings are mostly carried over from the preceding “Thy Kingdom Come” sessions, and in parts it mimics Max Cavalera’s work on the second Sepultura album “Schizophrenia”. In all, it is his most mean-spirited performance ever.

This is where Morbid Angel was at its most pointy, direct and confrontational, with only the absolute minimal of atmospherics and experimentation. A malevolent and hateful atmosphere is created throughout the actual songs, and not with instrumental segues or ambient addendums. Whether it’s the usage of inverted guitar riffs, or light washes of keyboards the songs stand on their own merits. That the songs all have the same basic goal, and that the album’s second half is significantly weaker than the first, is only logical in the conclusion that riding one core idea for too long is detrimental no matter how technical or fast said band can play. Morbid Angel is no exception to this rule. Nobody is going to doubt Azagthoth’s or Brunelle’s expertise on lead guitars, but apparently only the newly installed Pete Sandoval seems to diversify his work within the limited framework he is given. Both guitarists deliver some of the most impressive leads/solos, and the most evil sounding crunchy riffs of the time – all of that doesn’t change the fact that “Altars Of Madness” loses its steam and direction after the first six songs. Not that any of these songs are bad per se, but the repetitious writing and constant focus on being the fastest cripple many of good ideas that these songs hold. Ideas that could have been explored further had the band not stared itself blind on being fast all the time. Despite all that “Altars Of Madness” is rightly considered a classic in the genre, but like all widely praised albums it isn’t without its flaws or shortcomings.

One of its more obvious shortcomings is Vincent’s insistence on following the rhythm guitars far too closely. Many of Vincent’s bass lines can’t be made out because they are buried under the crunchy guitars. When his riffs can be made out they are unremarkable at best. Thankfully the bass guitar has deep throbbing tone. The most memorable bass lines on the record weren’t even written by Vincent, but by ousted bass guitarist John Ortega. Next to that Vincent’s vocals were more poignant and convincing on the “Thy Kingdom Come” EP that preceded this record. Here his rasps appear just randomly shouted and barked without any real rhyme or reason, and with no attention paid to the actual flow of the songs. Sandoval makes do with what he is given, and within this limited creative paradigm he able to put some truly fantastic fills, rolls and blasts. The lyrics reference Satanism, the occult and Sumerian deities but the lot of it is steeped in rather juvenile and corny imagery. Immolation would do this much better on its debut “Dawn Of Possession” a few years down the line. The esoteric leads/solos by Azagthoth and Brunelle are the focus of many of the songs, and some of the riffing (especially in the second half of the record) is often considered an afterthought. The effective but goofy artwork by Dan Seagrave is offset by a very crunchy and bass-heavy production courtesy of Tom Morris and Digby Pearson at Morrisound Studios in Tampa, Florida.

In all “Altars Of Madness” is a flawed masterpiece. Unrelenting in its energy, contrarian in its usage of unconventional scales and keys, and blasphemous to the point of silliness - it took the violent thrash metal sound to previously unheard extremes. Together with the early works of Death, Master, Necrophagia and Possessed it laid for the groundwork for what latter would be dubbed death metal. In retrospect the legacy bestowed upon it could make it a tad disappointing for today’s younger metal generation, as it basically is “Show No Mercy” played ten times faster. The band would truly come into its own on the “Blessed Are the Sick” album that was to follow a few years after.  The record is often loved within certain subsets of black metal fandom because of its suffocatingly dark atmosphere, and revered by thrash metal fans because of its unrelenting intensity – the majority of metal fans agree that “Altars Of Madness” was a tipping point for the nascent death metal scene. It would form the template on which much of the infamous Tampa, Florida death metal sound would be build. Other than that it is just a very strong record that redeems its lyrical silliness with highly competent and crunchy evil sounding music.

On its second album Aurora Borealis settled into its own. Retaining the services of drummer Derek Roddy, the duo was now operating as a self-contained unit. Crafting “Northern Lights” on its own terms and in its own time, it is a refining of the sound first heard on “Praise the Archaic Lights Embrace”. Although bass guitarist Jason Ian-Vaughn Eckert didn’t partake in any of the actual recordings, he did contribute minimally to the songwriting of the album. “Northern Lights” puts more emphasis on the black metal aspect of Aurora Borealis’ death/black metal without sacrificing any of its crunchiness.

Undeterred by the defection of bass guitarist Jason Ian-Vaugh Eckert “Northern Lights” increased the overall levels of speed, versatility and technicality in the band’s songwriting without losing any of its death metal foundation. Of the records so far this one is the most overly black metal sounding in terms of riffing. The usage of sparse atmospherics and sound effects should make this readily apparent. Being the second and last appearance for Derek Roddy “Northern Lights” is his star-making performance. The groundwork for the recordings he’d cut with Hate Eternal is laid here. Ron Vento’s rasps are at its most serpentine, and “Northern Lights” exudes a sense of majesty and elegance unlike any other US band on the scene, except for maybe that year’s Immolation album.

More than ever before “Northern Lights” expands upon the subject of European mythology, history and folklore, along with more celestial themes. “Northern Lights” puts more of a focus on Scandinavian and Greek antiquity in its lyrical concepts. ‘Thrice Told’ lyrically references several early Aurora Borealis songs, specifically those of the “Mansions Of Eternity” EP. ‘Enter the Halls’ deals with the Viking interpretation of the afterlife, namely Valhalla. Valhalla is the English equivalent of the Old Icelandic Valhöll meaning "Hall of the Slain”. Valhöll is the abode of the old Norse god Óðinn and the hall in which he welcomes his fallen warriors, the Einherjar. The cut features guest vocals by Kevin Quirion (Council Of the Fallen, that later transformed into Order Of Ennead). ‘Draco’, deriving its name from the Latin denominator for dragon, deals with said mythological creatures. ‘Sky Dweller’ is simultaneously about the Northern Lights of the album title, and the band’s name – as it is about Aurora, the Roman goddess of light. It opens with an acoustic guitar bit as well. The monstrous serpentine creature known as the Lernaean Hydra from the Twelve Labours of Heracles in Greek mythology is the subject of the aptly named ‘Hydrah’. Suprisingly, ‘Dream God’ is more vague as to its origins, but could possibly be inspired by Ole Lukøje, from the Danish folklore tale of the Sandman. ‘Distant’ is an instrumental percussion track that displays Roddy’s versatility as a drummer, and serves as an excellent closing song.

The duo cut the album over a three-month period in late 1999 in an early incarnation of Vento’s own fully professional recording compound Nightsky Studios. “Northern Lights” was released through Vento’s own label imprint Nightsky Productions a year later. The production is leagues better than the Bob Moore produced predecessor. It doesn’t quite have the same organic warmth and fullness that the subsequent albums would have. In comparison to a lot of other American records of the time, it does sound a lot crunchier and not nearly as digitally enhanced. Roddy’s signature snare drum sound can be heard here, and there’s a good organic crunch to the drum production avoiding the overly processed and dry, sterile tones of the day. All music was written by Ron Vento and Derek Roddy, except ‘Images in the Nightsky’, written by Roddy and Small, and part of ‘Dream God’, written by Jason Ian-Vaughn Eckert. As before the artwork was crafted by long-time artist Jay Marsh, and fitting of the greater focus on European antiquity, and mythology central to the canvas is an immense Pantheon-like structure bathed in the typical azure skies that came to characterize the band’s early artworks with Marsh.

In many ways “Northern Lights” is the creative summit of the band’s early phase. Much of its later work, specifically those of the sciencefiction oriented second era, appears to be based upon this album’s template. Like the preceding album, and the debut EP “Northern Lights” is consistently strong, and there’s no weak moment to speak of. In the early 2000s the American death metal scene was stagnating in the creative sense, as bands went out of their way to imitate California outfits Deeds Of Flesh, and Disgorge. Unlike many of its contemporaries Aurora Borealis was unaffected by the trend, and wisely avoided the limitation of imitation that would effectively neuter many that did. While American in execution the spirit of “Northern Lights” is thoroughly European, and Scandinavian above all else. “Northern Lights” further cements Aurora Borealis status as the most underrated, and underappreciated combo of its region. Despite the apparent tribulations the band forged onward.  This headstrongness, determination and conviction in its craft would eventually pay off dividends as the band was now only two records away from its critically acclaimed second era.  The future begins here…