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“Heretic” is on all aspects a milestone is the career of Tampa, Florida death metal institution Morbid Angel. It was the third and final album to feature Steve Tucker on vocals and bass guitar, it was the last for them on long-time contractor Earache Records  (its lacking sales figures led to the band’s termination of contract with said label) and the first to be recorded entirely at Diet Of Worms Studio with engineer/producer Juan “Punchy” Gonzalez, Morbid Angel’s resident live sound engineer. It’s the band’s least appreciated and widely hated record, for any number of perfectly sound reasons. Nigh on a decade would pass before Morbid Angel would enter the studio to lay down another album. Sometimes you just wish the band had packed it up after this debacle.

To wit, Tucker had bowed out of Morbid Angel in 2001 due to personal reasons and the wish to concentrate on his super-group Ceremony, which would ultimately not transpire. Jared Anderson (Hate Eternal, Internecine) had a brief stint replacing Tucker for various tour commitments, and only in 2002 would Steve Tucker re-enter the Morbid Angel fold, after apparent talks with David Vincent fell through. That his vocal performance here sounds tired and exhausted isn’t very surprising. The poor guy is only called upon to perform when the most known frontman isn’t available. Not exactly the most inspiring place to start from. No matter what Tucker will always lose in the end.

MorbidAngel-bandThe first to notice is just how underproduced, basic and rough this album sounds. In the press cycle surrounding this album lead guitarist Trey Azagthoth was talking about a new and revolutionary way of recording guitars for this album – and how it would supposedly change the metal scene in its wake. That the guitar tone is then the most muddied, dry and impotent the band had yet experienced makes it all the more disconcerting. The leads/solos are in fact produced with more care than the riffs. Tucker’s bass guitar cannot be made out under the fuzzy mess that is the guitar tone. Sandoval’s drum kit fares slightly better than the other instruments, but a second coming of “Formulas…” or “Covenant” this certainly is not. Production values similar to those of “Domination” or earlier are even further away from this point onward. As a proof-of-concept/demo session, this would have been passable. As a high-profile, label-backed release from the most important North American death metal band, it is baffling that Earache Records let this disc go to the presses without intervention, or discussion.

Opening track ‘Cleansed in Pestilence (Blade of Elohim)’ is an unremarkable opener that besides the presence of the always-esoteric sounding leads offers little to the memory banks. ‘Enshrined By Grace’ was standard Tucker-era fare at this point, and besides the serpentine hisses of Azagthoth there really isn’t much to hear. The fact that this cut was chosen as the lone video track for this record speaks volumes of the morass of half-assed concepts, tiresome ideas and defeatist attitude and execution that litter this last ditch attempt for the band to remain relevant. In the light of more discerning tastes of its target audience and an ever-changing scene that respected them as pioneers, but no longer revered them as a guiding light, a benchmark of quality or a setter of standards.

Why exactly is this album the embodiment of defeatist attitude? Consider the following. Nearly 60% of this record is made up of instrumental fodder, ergo egotistical masturbation. Incoherent songwriting, poor flow and a lack of unifying vision make up the remaining 40% of this sorry waste of resources and talent. The first three tracks show a reasonable will to recapture the past magic, but these tracks (while the best of this session) would be considered weak in comparison to the band’s first three records, and even as b-sides to the widely scorned “Domination” they even pale. The band wasn’t at the top of its game, and no longer pushing itself to the very limits of their abilities – complacency and laziness run rampant through this record, and the band has never really recovered from the loss of its key secondary members, be they Erik Rutan, or Richard Brunelle. The input of both was vital in the band’s best material, and the absence of their creative input makes this all the more clear, even to the untrained ear.

The biggest problem for this album, as touched upon briefly earlier, is its construction and coherence; both which are lacking. All songs contain individual parts that are nothing short of impressive on their own terms, but lack the surrounding framework to truly blossom. The lack of an over-arching concept is also largely to blame for the lukewarm reception this album tends to get. Where past records had a specific idea or theme that they worked around, “Heretic” is just a collection of songs with nothing to bind them together. It feels artificial, contrived and hollow – the very thing Morbid Angel used to rigorously combat in the past. Even the song titles sound fabricated and empty. ‘Praise the Strength’, ‘Curse the Flesh’, ‘Beneath the Hollow’ and even, I kid you not, ‘God Of Our Own Divinity’. That last title reeks of disinterest and contempt of the blackest kind. It is of little consolation that Karl Sanders (Nile) plays the outro guitar solo on this cut. Why not have him do some guest vocals while we are at it? This is the band that wrote the classic hymn ‘God Of Emptiness’ and followed it up with ‘God Of the Forsaken’ just three years prior. Might as well deliver the final blow and conclude this loosely conceptual trilogy of sorts with the cashing-in on nostalgia and past glories mindset usually associated with long-running has-beens as Megadeth and Metallica.

The six instrumentals that fill up the tracklist are of varying quality, and are hardly as vital to the experience in comparison to the ones on the classic early albums. The key members get their time in the spotlight too. ‘Memories Of the Past’ is Azagthoth’s attempt to do an instrumental on the level of Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen or Eddie Van Halen – which both disappoints and feels widely out of place on an album already on shaky ground. ‘Born Again’ is the outro guitar solo to “Gateways to Annihilation” track ‘Secured Limitations’. Not exactly the most creative thing you expect to hear from one of the most acclaimed guitarists in extreme metal. ‘Drum Check’ is Sandoval’s moment of glory. While not exactly shabby or lacking, it begs the question why it couldn’t be edited and used in an actual song on the album. Notable is also that ‘Drum Check’ has a better drum sound than the rest of the album. Then there are the numerous hidden tracks, including the pointless ‘Doomcreeper’ that is nothing more than an instrumental re-run of ‘Beneath the Hollow’. Why was this included again, to pad out the running time?

The production, or lack thereof, is a hot topic and much maligned (rightly so). The guitars sound fuzzy, washed out and are drenched in copious amounts of needless reverb. The bass guitar is completely inaudible for most of the album’s duration – only Sandoval’s drums fare slightly better, but only by a tiny margin. Where the drums sound the best of all instruments, they are still underproduced and thin sounding – and in comparison to the earlier classic albums the tones of the kit feel artificial, flat and unnatural. Then there’s the fact that the whole just doesn’t mesh together well. I can’t point out what exactly is amiss here, but the instruments sound as if they play ‘next to’ or ‘besides’ each other, and not in unison as they are supposed to. The whole product sounds as if it is about to become undone, ready to fall apart at any moment. That can’t possibly be how it was intended. The production sounds cheap and amateurish in the worst ways imaginable – and this coming from the most important death metal band in North America makes it even more head scratching and unforgiveable. Just imagine what “Heretic” would have sounded like if the band actually cared about the product they put out. Or had they had a producer that busted their collective balls and pushed them to the limits of their skill. I sometimes wonder what this album would have sounded like had it been recorded at Sonic Ranch Studio (Texas), Nightsky Studio (Maryland), Studio One (Wisconsin), or more regionally and acclaimed facilities such as Audiohammer, Castle Ultimate, Fantasy Studio, Trident or Sharkbite Studio.

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Finally, this whole album is nothing more than an extended ego trip for a band well over its due date. As we have come to expect of Tucker-era Morbid Angel the booklet includes liner notes detailing the concept of the album. In these two pages of nonsensical gibberish Azagthoth writes about doctrines, belief systems, paradigms shifts and breaking out of self-imposed limitations and embracing the Creative Force. Everybody knows that Trey was heavily invested into the learnings of Deepak Chopra at the time. Which is all well and good, but despite the weird capitalization he ends his little monologue with the sentence: “whooo hoooooooo let’s have some fun in this game called life!!!!” I know not if he was inebriated or chemically altered when he wrote this, but all the philosophical posturing surely isn’t helped by this misplaced and utterly futile attempt at humor. It undermines his internal monologue on a sour note, reducing it to nothing more than an image and a farce, rather than a reflection of his interior. The artwork by Marc Sasso might suggest this is some Buddhist work, but alas it is not.

The fact that the album was named after one of the band’s early monikers speaks volumes of the egocentrism and has-been-ism on display, and it is testament to exactly how far the band had fallen from the halcyon days of the A, B and C records. At the end of the day “Heretic” is the swansong of a once unattainable and trendsetting band that got swallowed whole by its own ginormous ego. A dire lack of critical thinking and foresight, either by the band, its sycophantic entourage or the people at the label too busy with the bottom line and profit, resulted in this band’s most diluted, confused and poorly executed album up to that point. It’s not to say that “Heretic” is unforgivingly awful, because it is not. It is possible to love this album, given that you approach it on its own terms and not let yourself get clouded by the usual expectations. The sad fact is that Morbid Angel at this point in time was being succeeded and outplayed by its followers. Bands such as Behemoth, Lost Soul, Mithras, Nile, Rebaelliun and Zyklon all had various albums released at this point, which were heavily indebted to this band, and all those did the Morbid Angel sound better than the very band that inspired them.

There’s a reason why Morbid Angel would hide for the next eight years. This is it.

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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.