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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.

Well, the last thing you can accuse Santa Cruz, California act Decrepit Birth of is being productive and prolific in their recorded output. In the 7 years, an eternity in death metal terms, since “Polarity” the band has transformed and re-emerged in a different constellation once again. Not only have they recruited two new members; they also inked a contract with Agonia Records for European territories and remain with Nuclear Blast for their native North America. Lest we forget it has been almost a decade since the seminal “Diminishing Between Worlds” surprised the world with its elegant fusion of Chuck Schuldiner-esque melodies, extensive lead guitar sections and percussive density redolent of early Deeds Of Flesh and the Californian death metal sound at large. On “Axis Mundi” Decrepit Birth has a lot to prove. Whether or not “Axis Mundi” lives up your expectations depends exactly on what you to come, or look, to Decrepit Birth for in the first place…

“Axis Mundi” is more of a continuation than a true progression from past material. It’s a solid, if not exactly riveting, record that recombines the primal pummeling of Decrepit Birth’s not-too-distant past with its more recent sensible, melodic inclinations. Whether or not that proposition is appealling is entirely up to one’s personal preference, but for this scribe it is a rousing success as it mixes the best aspects of the first two albums into readily accessible, densely structured songs with recognizable melodic hooks and Matt Sotelo’s now patented esoteric soloing. Joining founding members Sotelo (lead guitar) and Bill Robinson (vocals) on “Axis Mundi” is the new rhythm section of Sean Martinez (bass guitar) and Samus Paulicelli (drums). Frontman Bill Robinson has always been, and continues to be, the weak link in Decrepit Birth. His vocals have never been particularly compelling and “Axis Mundi” changes little in that regard. Robinson’s vocals are serviceable enough in that they do exactly what is expected of them, but little else beyond covering those basics. They have never been interesting enough to warrant any attention on their own, and “Axis Mundi” doesn’t rock the status-quo by making him the subject of different, or slightly more ambitious, vocal lines. Samus Paulicelli (whose parents probably really liked the Metroid video game franchise) is a more than suitable replacement for KC Howard and session drummer Tim Yeung.

In their defense, at least Decrepit Birth has shown exponential growth in their lyrics since the days of “…And Time Begins”. “Axis Mundi”, as a concept, is found in several belief systems and philosophies and is understood as the center of the world, or the connection between Heaven and Earth. ‘Spirit Guide’ is about Aztlán, the ancestral home of the Aztec peoples and their migration from Aztlan to central Mexico. It also references Sipapu, a Hopi word for the hole through which the "First Peoples" of the Earth and their ancient ancestors first emerged to enter the present world. ‘The Sacred Geometry’ concerns the belief that there are symbolic and sacred meanings to certain geometric shapes and certain geometric proportions, and that a god is the geometer of the world. It has its roots in the study of nature, and the mathematical principles found therein. Sacred geometry can be found in ancient Egyptian, Indian, Greek and Roman structures. ‘Hieroglypic’ details, among other things, the Bindu, or the point at which creation begins and may become unity, in Hinduism. ‘Transcendental Paradox’ is about the Sri Yantra, a mystical diagram that consists of nine interlocking triangles associated with the Shri Vidya school of Hindu tantra. Like their German brethren in Obscura, the Californians understand that death metal can be meaningful on the lyrical front.

‘Vortex Of Infinity – Axis Mundi’ and ‘Spirit Guide’ are at least vocally more ambitious with their sparse narration next to Robinson’s usual growls. Not that Decrepit Birth is venturing into Obscura or “Focus” era Cynic territory anytime soon. The choice of cover songs on the vinyl edition offer up at least one surprise. While one would typically expect Decrepit Birth to cover Death’s ‘Cosmic Sea’ instead they opted for the psychedelic ‘Orion’ from Metallica’s “…And Justice For All” instead, as well as ‘Desperate Cry’ from Sepultura’s “Arise” and ‘Infecting the Crypts’ from Suffocation. The Suffocation cover doesn’t exactly surprise as Robinson has acted as their stand-in frontman in 2012 and Paulicelli already covered the track on his YouTube channel in 2016. The Sepultura cover song proves that Max Cavalera’s gruff barks remain unsurpassed and that Robinson, in all ways his superior, isn’t able to match, let alone improve on, them. It’s testament to the fact that the 1991 Sepultura opus is truly a timeless effort in extreme death/thrash metal mastery. Even two decades later the songwriting and compositions of “Arise” have yet to be surpassed. “Under a pale grey sky, we shall arise…” Indeed. “Axis Mundi” may not be Decrepit Birth’s “Arise” but at least it’s clear they are doing a concerted effort to diversify.

“And Time Begins” was practically an early Deeds Of Flesh record, and about the only interesting thing about it was the stellar Dan Seagrave artwork. “Diminishing Between Worlds” was where Matt Sotelo and his friends finally decided to write actual songs and “Polarity” pushed them into more melodic territory. “Axis Mundi” will be polarizing in the sense that it merges the two directions into one. In terms of intensity it leans closer towards “…And Time Begins”. Not that that is bad. “And Time Begins” was frequently, if not entirely, an undirected projectile of pummeling ferocity. “Diminishing Between Worlds” steered that aggression into recognizable songs with the added bonus of Schuldiner-esque guitar soloing. “Axis Mundi” takes the aggression of the former and the well-developed song constructions of the latter, and then adds to both for extra spice. On “Axis Mundi” Decrepit Birth looks towards its past, present, and future. As such it’s a solid return for them, a band that has probably evolved more than some of its more popular brethren. At least they are significantly more traditionally inspired than, say, an Inherit Disease but Decrepit Birth is the farthest from bands as Insentient and Italian combo Resumed, both of whom take the Death influence beyond mere guitar leads. Why exactly was it again that Leslie Medina (Insentient) wasn't offered a guest lead guitar slot?

“Axis Mundi” will probably be a disappointment to the most die-hard of Decrepit Birth fans. Others might be entirely indifferent to it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. It is a solid return for a band that has shown not to be afraid to evolve on all fronts. Its basis is sturdy and traditional death metal and since “Diminishing Between Worlds” Decrepit Birth has, to its credit, allowed the integration of 90s genre conventions into its decidedly millennial and highly technical approach. “Axis Mundi” pushes those conventions farther than ever before – and its the first Decrepit Birth effort that is enjoyable from front to back. Decrepit Birth has always had a penchant to overcompensate and “Axis Mundi” is no different. There are enough blasts and esoteric guitar leads to satiate anybody’s craving. More importantly, though, is that this time Sotelo and his comrades concentrated on writing consistently strong songs. There was a time not all that long ago when Decrepit Birth was but a meager Deeds Of Flesh clone. Thankfully in more recent years they have started to live up to their innate potential.