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“Covenant” is where Florida luminaries Morbid Angel reached the zenith of its writing. Building further upon the groundwork laid with the preceding album, the band sought to push boundaries on all fronts. Marred by interpersonal trouble during pre-production the band had something to prove, and “Covenant” sounds so much better for it. Subtly melodic, highly atmospheric, bone-dustingly heavy and crunchy in its onslaught the band spared no expenses making this the best it could possibly be. It probably has Morbid Angel at its creative peak, and the blood-curdling aggression is offset by its oppressive atmosphere and deeply misanthropic lyrical subject matter. Third time is the charm for these Florida natives, and “Covenant” is a high-water mark for a good reason.

Second guitarist Richard Brunelle had bowed out prior for, to his own admittance, not trying hard enough. Morbid Angel persevered in the face of tribulation and wrote the album as a power trio. Although more straightforward, confrontational and direct compared to its more conceptually and musically ambitious precedessor, it is exactly the hardship that pushed the band to its limits. Combining the best traits of the two preceding records “Covenant” is a highly functional and ornately designed exercise in classic death metal. Not a moment is wasted, and everything is there for a reason. Experimentation had always been the band’s calling card, but it only surfaces here in the form of the ‘Nar Matturu’ instrumental which largely functions as a segue to the epic and lauded album closer ‘God Of Emptiness’. “Covenant” is a refinement of the sound of the preceding album, yet much of the riffing is reminiscent of the thrash-oriented “Altars Of Madness” record. As such it is no surprise that Morbid Angel opted to re-record one of its early demo tracks here, as it was a perfect match for the type riffing this album so heavily capitalized on. Pedro Sandoval is in fine form, and his work behind the kit is among his best next to the out of control sounding debut. Overall there’s a distinct current of thrash metal running beneath these tracks. ‘The Lion’s Den’, for example, opens with a riff that could have been lifted from one of the earlier Sepultura records.

Along with “Blessed Are the Sick” this album holds the best performance from vocalist/bass guitarist David Vincent, whose bellowing grunts and demonic narrations sound truly unearthly here. Although guttural for the time, there’s a serpentine sneer to Vincent’s vocals that wasn’t heard before or since. Of note is how well enunciated his vocals became from “Blessed Are the Sick” onwards. Especially New York pillars Incantation, the lamentable Mortician, and famous technical pioneers Suffocation were pushing the genre in more guttural territory. Morbid Angel was thrashier in its assault at this juncture. Only Yonkers combo Immolation was doing something similar at the time. Despite betting on two horses the band pull it off with remarkable consistency, and nothing of it ever feels contrived or forced. ‘Angel Of Disease’ is a re-recorded cut off the band’s aborted “Abominations Of Desolation” sessions, and another instance of the band recycling archive material that was several years old by this point. The track is custodian to some of the finest and most engrossing bass lines that Vincent would ever commit to tape with this band. Although one is hardpressed to credit Vincent for these particular lines as it was often forgotten bass guitarist John Ortega who’s responsible for writing them. Vincent’s vocal style on this cut also recalls the earlier days of “Altars Of Madness” in that it is higher-pitched and very much reminiscent of Sepultura circa “Beneath the Remains”.  In comparison to the original Vincent’s vocals are still much throatier. The minimalist ambient piece ‘Nar Matturu’ comes in at exactly the right time, and forms a great atmospheric segue to ‘God Of Emptiness’, the lauded signature track of this session. Everything the band attempted on this record is contained within that one cut.

morbid-angel30“Covenant” continues with the occult imagery of the preceding record, and its themes. The album's cover artwork shows a page from “The Book of Ceremonial Magic” by Arthur Edward Waite to the right, and a digital reproduction of "The Pact of Urbain Grandier" on the left. The simplicity of the composition is one of its greatest strengths. It is almost mundane in what in that it depicts a still life of an occultist’s study. There is nothing confrontational, or offensive about it. A feather pen, a still lit white candle, a scroll and an old tome are its primary components, yet coupled with the misanthropic and sometimes Satanic lyrical themes it becomes all the more powerful. On all fronts Morbid Angel has honed its sound to utmost perfection. From ominous dirges to blasting fury and thrashing violence – it’s all here, and not a minute of its feels contrived or uninspired. There was a vision for this record, and within those criterions the trio pushed themselves to the limit of their abilities. The best art is made under duress.

Crafted at Morrisound Studios as a trio with Tom Morris and the band producing. The final tapes were sent to Copenhagen, Denmark for famed thrash metal guru Flemming Rasmussen to mix down at his Sweet Silence Studios. The production is the epitome of the classic 90s sound with audible deep bass guitar lines, a crunchy and concrete rhythm guitar tone along with sparkly sounding leads/solos and a massive but entirely organic sounding drumkit. This rings especially true for the rumbling kickdrums that sound commanding and thundering. Everything gels perfectly and nowhere does the album sound overproduced. In fact there’s an undiluted rawness to the crunchy guitar tone and the vocal production that greatly amplifies the ravenous sound the band had created. Subsequent albums would either push the band into inert sterility or rough and unfinished pre-production territory. It appears that Morbid Angel were never again able to recapture the alchemy present here, although “Gateways to Annihilation” came close.

This is the first of two records to be handled in North America by Giant Records, a Warner Bros. Records subsidiary label that largely dealt with mainstream popular music, r&b and country music. The partnership between both imprints was to bring extreme metal to a wider audience who were clamoring for it, and in the process create revenue for both labels. “Covenant” shifted over 130.000 copies in the US alone, and is widely considered to be one of the best-selling death metal records of all time. It was also the only Morbid Angel record to carry - at least on an early pressing - a “parental advistory” sticker as a fabricated marketing ploy to get more attention for the album. Many artists across a variety of genres were mocking or parodying the PMRC around the time this album hit the market. As a marketing gimmick it was a clever move from all involved, but common sense prevailed and it was removed from later pressings. Due to the increased promotional leverage offered by the major label two promo videos were shot to push the album. ‘Rapture’ and ‘God Of Emptiness’ were chosen for the treatment. It is the last hurrah for a band whose career trajectory took some odd turns in the later years, and with the return of David Vincent. “Covenant” is a testament to brighter days.

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The third Metallica record “Master Of Puppets” is revered and held up to an almost god-like status. It is named as a pinnacle of thrash metal almost as much as Slayer’s venerable “Reign In Blood” record (although I personally prefer the album before and after, “Hell Awaits” and “South Of Heaven”). There are superficial similarities between the two. It is true that both share the same sense of intensity, urgency and songwriting cohesion – but both records set out to fulfill diametrically opposite objectives. “Master Of Puppets” was the second of two albums that the band recorded at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with famed producer Flemming Rasmussen. With an identical structure in terms of pacing it is a solid refinement of the album that preceded it. Sadly, it was the last Metallica album to feature legendary bass guitarist Cliff Burton.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that “Master Of Puppets” is heavier, crunchier and faster than the previous album – although it shares the same construction. The “Ride the Lightning” sound is further perfected and honed into a number of punchy cuts that retain the same storytelling qualities but feel more confrontational and direct. “Master Of Puppets” expands upon the socio-political themes of questioning authority, the abuse of power and breaking free of herd-like behaviours and groupthink, while cutting down the literary influenced songs to a sole number with ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’. The musicianship has improved, notably Ulrich’s drumming is at its most violent, Burton’s rumbling bass lines feature more prominently than ever before and Hammett’s wailing solos are among this era’s best. Hetfield delivers his most spirited vocal performance.

Metallica-Younger-Days-Early-Photo-920x422There are a couple of memorable passages on this album, many near and dear to any self-respecting metalhead’s heart. The albums opens with the acoustic intro from ‘Battery’, there’s the emotional lead break on the title track and its subsequent ‘Master! Master!’ chorus than any metal fan can recite by heart. ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ includes more acoustics and ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ opens with a fragile clean guitar piece that is highly atmospheric and touching. ‘Disposable Heroes’ has its ‘Die! Die! Die!’ finale, and that seems to be a callback to the preceding album’s ‘Creeping Death’ song. ‘Leper Messiah’ is based around one crunchy riff and closer ‘Damage Inc.’ has its catchy chorus and is propelled forward by its immensely rugged central riff.

An absolute highpoint is ‘Orion’, Metallica’s third foray into instrumental pieces after ‘Call Of Ktulu’ and ‘(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth’. As with the preceding record this gargantuan sonic construction is built around material the band wrote but couldn’t use in its traditional song material. It is an atmospheric piece that forms the ideal segue between ‘Leper Messiah’ and the band’s ideological vessel ‘Damage Inc.’. Metallica never sounded more charged than they did here as riffs fly by at a record pace and some of the tempo changes are the absolute best the band have ever penned. “Master Of Puppets” shows a band in control of its instruments, knowledgeable of its skills and with their bodies working as one towards a clearly defined goal: to be the best band at all costs.

The songs cover a wide variety of topics. ‘Battery’ is a track about self-empowerment and overcoming adversity through strife. ‘Master Of Puppets’, the much loved title track for this album, deals with throes of cocaine addiction and the damping effect it has on the mind, ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ concerns the H.P. Lovecraft story “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ is based on Ken Kesey's novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”. ‘Disposable Heroes’ is about the abuse of power in times of war and about able-bodied young men sent into trenches to die as gnarly old men use them as peons to forward their own shady motives. ‘Leper Messiah’ questions the ethical motives of organized religion and televangelism (much in the same way as Genesis’ hit number ‘Jesus He Knows Me’ did) and concludingly ‘Damage Inc.’ is a self-glorifying hymn about Metallica’s stature as reigning practitioners of their genre. These lyrics recall the days of “Kill Em All”, although they are written in a more mature fashion.

Although Metallica were already something of an established brand through rigorous international touring by the time this album hit the shelves, it is sobering to know that the initial songwriting sessions were completed in a garage in El Cerrito, California by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich. Only after these initial writing sessions were completed were Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett invited to add their own ideas to the basic tracks. Despite the glamorous life of excess and debauchery these multimillionaire rockstars live now, they once were one of the many starving young musicians trying to carve their way in the busy Bay Area metal scene. Once again the album was recorded at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark with famed producer Flemming Rasmussen, the record marks a period of creative and personal stability for the band. The cover artwork by Don Brautigam appears to be inspired by the Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Liege, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Interesting to note is that Hammett produced Death Angel’s 1985 demo tape “Kill As One” in the downtime between “Ride the Lightning” and this highly revered album.

Given the similarity in construction and pacing it would probably have served as a template for all Metallica records if it weren’t for the untimely passing of bass guitarist Cliff Burton during the touring campaign for this album. In fact, this album and the one before it are the only Metallica albums in the classic canon to be structurally identical. The follow-up “…And Justice For All” pretty much follows the template as well, although cracks start to appear in the formula due to a lack of Burton’s guidance. “Master Of Puppets” marks the end of Metallica’s classic stint, although the follow-up still is worthy of the praise it gets for pushing the band into a more technical realm. This album is rightly considered a classic in its genre given its history and enduring legacy.