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At one point Morbid Angel were untouchable innovators of their craft, gods among mortals, and the golden standard to which all things death metal, American and otherwise, were measured. The new millennium hasn’t been very kind to the once-infallible Floridians and they haven’t exactly been productive either. Their sporadic output has been spotty at best and completely indefensible at worst. Still every time Morbid Angel releases a new album the world waits with bated breath. Now three decades into their existence the question lingers whether Morbid Angel still is relevant to the genre they helped define – or whether they have become a relic of a bygone era, a legacy act running on empty. Second, and not any less important, is “Kingdoms Disdained” the much pined after return-to-form after the unmitigated disaster that was “Illud Divinum Insanus” – or is it something else entirely?

“Kingdoms Disdained” heralds the return of there-and-back-again frontman Steve Tucker and two new recruits. Dan Vadim replaces illustrious lead guitarists Richard Brunelle, Erik Rutan, and Thor Anders Myhren and substituting for Pedro ‘Pete’ Sandoval (whose newfound faith as a born-again Christian apparently makes him incompatible with the Morbid Angel business venture) is Scott Fuller, formerly of Relapse Records artists Abysmal Dawn, among others. “Kingdoms Disdained” is the first recording on German imprint Silver Lining Music (the recently rebranded UDR Music), the label by Ulrike Rudolph, formerly of distributor Steamhammer (SPV GmbH), and the first not to feature a canvas by long-serving painters Dan Seagrave or Nizin R. Lopez. It’s also the strongest and most combative that Morbid Angel has sounded in a long time - or at least since 1998, which is truly the best we can expect of these swamp dwellers this deep into their notoriously bumpy career.

Either way you slice it “Kingdoms Disdained” is obviously intended as a return-to-form. Indeed, the crux of “Kingdoms Disdained” is efficiency and brevity. In age-old tradition the entire thing is robustly composed and excruciatingly oppressive sounding, but this time around it is also cohesive and unbelievably streamlined like this band's records seldom tend to be. “Kingdoms Disdained” boasts a level of barbarity last heard on “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh” and combines it with the doom-laden aura of “Gateways to Annihilation”. When did Morbid Angel last sound anything like this? Oh yeah, all the way back on “Covenant” and the groove slogfest that was “Domination”. It sports none of Azagthoth’s ambient soundscapes and even his twisted, chaotic Van Halen soloing has been reined in. The record never loses itself in masturbatory excess, a problem endemic of 2003’s uneven “Heretic”. In 2011 “Illud Divinum Insanus” – the band’s shockingly, appallingly terrible foray into dated 90s industrial/dance and stadium rock all but killed the brand and “Kingdoms Disdained” is an act of restoration more than anything else. “Kingdoms Disdained” is remarkably consistent and focused. It’s an effort of conservation and restraint. Moreso perhaps than we’d to like give Azagthoth credit for. Had it followed “Heretic” the blemish would’ve been neglegible. Does it come close to matching any of the band’s classic Earache era records? No. Far from it. At times it’s nigh on impossible to distinguish from “Kingdoms Disdained” from Warfather’s ominous lurcher “The Grey Eminence” that was released just months before.

So how do the new members fare? Dan Vadim is given his moment to shine on ‘Declaring New Law (Secret Hell)’ and drummer Scott Fuller has adopted all of Pedro Sandoval’s signature moves and given them 21st century make-over. It also helps tremendously that this record has the best drum tones since “Blessed Are the Sick”, “Covenant” and “Domination”. Production hasn’t always been on Morbid Angel’s side in the new millennium and it was a wise decision on the band’s part to record at Mana Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida, the facility of former associate Erik Rutan. The digital artwork by Ken Coleman is uncharacteristically Morbid Angel as this is band usually associated with macabre canvasses from Dan Seagrave and Nizin R. Lopez. Much like Malevolent Creation the Floridians have adopted a war-based thematic and the lyrics reflect it with ditties as ‘The Righteous Voice’, ‘D.E.A.D. (Department of Eradication And Disposal)’, ‘For No Master’ and ‘From the Hand Of Kings’. The Ancient Ones and the Most High Triumvirate of the Living Continuum are nowhere to be found on here. What it does cement is that Morbid Angel, it seems, has finally awoken from slumber and now is more hungry and combative than ever before. That just leaves us with the uncomfortable realization that death metal as a genre has since passed Morbid Angel by. One of the genre’s most defining bands has become nothing but a relic of bygone times.

“Kingdoms Disdained” is a solid, serviceable record that does exactly what it promises. However people have rightfully come to expect more of a Morbid Angel record than just that, especially in light of the classic three records with David Vincent. Age has started to catch up with Trey Azagthoth and the band that once led the genre through some of its greatest victories is now outplayed by an entire generation of younger bands. In their defense at least Morbid Angel is clearly trying their darndest to stay with the times. Fuller and Tucker are in no small part responsible for the sheer lethality of the majority of these cuts. Yet despite its brevity and streamlined efficiency “Kingdoms Disdained” misses some of that signature slithering Morbid Angel aura. There’s a distinct lack of esoterica on “Kingdoms Disdained”. For better or worse, it’s the most grounded Morbid Angel record since “Domination”. The fact that it’s so chained in reality is perhaps one of its greatest undoings. Despite all that it’s a solid return for a band that had been a lost cause for about a decade and a half. “Kingdoms Disdained” might not be the pined after rejuvenation of Morbid Angel, but a stark reminder that Azagthoth and his comrades can still deliver the goods when they set their minds to it. Now if only they’d channel that newfound focus towards a more consistent productivity.

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It took Steve Tucker about a decade to launch his post-Morbid Angel project. While his tenure with Morbid Angel met its fair share of criticism (some of which was completely substantial and founded), his new international project Warfather is marred by faults of its own, be they inconsistent songwriting or a rather unflattering production. “Orchestrating the Apocalypse” is an adequate traditional death metal effort with its heart in the right place, but given his stature (and the collective experience present in the line-up) that simply won’t cut it anymore. That the very same ailments that crippled his swansong with Morbid Angel are present here once again, makes one wonder whether the project was rushed to completion, and if so: why? There’s certainly room for improvement, but this could, no, should have been such much more than it is – and it is a pity to see a promising new death metal unit not reaching its promised potential.

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Warfather is led by vocalist/rhythm guitarist Steve Tucker, along with scene veteran and former Sinister vocalist Eric de Windt (he appeared on the band’s divisive 1998 album “Aggressive Measures”) behind the drums. Filling the remaining positions are bass guitarist and backing vocalist slot Felipe Augusto (a Brazilian national appearing under the stage name Avgvstvs) and a masked guitarist known as Armatura. Only Tucker uses his civilian name as skinsman de Windt goes by the stage name Deimos in this project. There’s certainly no shortage of talent nor experience within this constellation. For an international unit the quartet sounds incredibly tight-knit and together, both in songwriting as in actual performance. What it lacks in punch and bite due to an overly dry and sterile production it makes up in actual engrossing songwriting. “Orchestrating the Apocalypse” reflects its key members’ experience and expertise, and while the lack of weight and oomph is detrimental to the overall presentation of the product the passionate songwriting redeems its glaring technical shortcomings. The martial and unearthly atmosphere that many of the songs hold hasn’t been heard in quite some time in both established - and underground bands in this genre. Warfather isn’t about instrumental wizardry - but honesty, integrity and passion above all else.

While the production completely robs Warfather of its concrete impact and bottom-end heaviness, the songwriting is an interesting mix of older and modern forms of death metal. The primary influences seem to be the expected Morbid Angel and early Deicide, but the strongest material recalls “In Their Darkened Shrines” era Nile, “Choronzonic Chaos Gods” Centurian and middle era Behemoth (“Pandemonic Incantations” onto “Demigod” era) while the wonderful guitar work is reminiscent of Death’s later works. The solo’ing itself is especially worth the price of admission as it done with sophistication and finesse, dripping with emotion through out the myriad leads that appear on the album. Tucker’s vocals are as venomous and bellowing as they have always been, but they too appear to be robbed off their inborn power due to the questionable production choices. The drumming is traditional, and refrains from constant blasting instead relying on thrashing beats and creative fills. This is no doubt thanks to the old school sensibilities of de Windt who cut his teeth with Sinister at the tall end of its creative high mark. “Orchestrating the Apocalypse” consists of 9 original songs, and 3 fairly inconsequential atmospheric instrumentals of varying lengths. Why most of these instrumental segues weren’t incorporated into the songs they introduce is a question worth asking as neither of them even reach the one minute mark.

The biggest strike against “Orchestrating the Apocalypse” is its proof-of-concept demo production job. The vocal production is more than commendable, but the guitar sound - while retaining that much needed crunchiness - lacks all sorts of weight and heft. The bass guitar is completely inaudible at any given time, which is a missed opportunity to say the least. One can only imagine what this record would have sounded like with a meaty, thundering bass guitar tone reminiscent of Gorefest’s “Erase”, any Bolt Thrower and Death record, Demilich’s very bass-centric “Nespithe” or Marduk’s booming “Nightwing”. The drums sound sterile and processed with rather flat sounding toms, and impotent, clicky sounding kickdrums that provide no meaningful bottom end heaviness whatsoever. All the instruments sound decent enough on their own, but the whole never gels into a unified sound. Next to that there’s no weight to any of it, which is a major shortcoming for a traditional death metal band like this. The album was recorded and mixed at TME Studios, and mastered at Maor Applebaum Mastering – so there wasn’t any shortage of resources or talent to make this sound fuller than what ended up on the finished product. If only it had been recorded at Sonic Ranch Studio (Texas), Nightsky Studio (Maryland), Studio One (Wisconsin), Audiohammer (Florida) or Californian facilities such as Castle Ultimate, Fantasy Studio, Trident or Sharkbite Studio. The biomechnical artwork by Irish artist Ken Coleman perfectly fits the band’s traditional yet modern sound. It is somewhat reminiscent of the late H.R. Giger’s work. The grotesque (vaguely human looking) deformity is intertwined with unearthly technology in a vista that is both horrifying as it is fascinating. That it avoids both the tired and expected gore/horror and blasphemic connotations usually related to this genre is a definite plus.

“Orchestrating the Apocalypse” is a commendable return for both Tucker and de Windt. It is a pity that the unflattering bassless production robs what are essentially good songs off their intended power and nuance. That Warfather refrains from playing at constant high speed is a bold move, as most of the death metal scene for some reason is still obsessed outplaying each other in terms of sheer speed. Thankfully Warfather remembers that death metal isn’t about speed, but about engaging songwriting. The record isn’t going to reinvent the wheel, and instead relies on conventions of the genre to sell its wares. There aren’t any arbitrary sound experiments, or left field excesses to be found on this album, and that is ultimately its biggest strength. Hopefully by the time its second album is released Warfather will have duly rectified its production problems to unleash a truly massive and commanding death metal effort that it rightly deserves. For a debut record “Orchestrating the Apocalypse” is far from bad, but one can’t shake the impression that this could, no, should have been so much more powerful than it is.