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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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“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.