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After stretching its wings with the exercise in technicality and experimentation that was “Schizophrenia” Sepultura streamlined its sound for maximum effect and impact. On its Roadrunner Records debut from 1989 Sepultura perfected its death/thrash metal sound to widespread acclaim and accolades. Structured in the same way as the legendary Cliff Burton-era Metallica albums “Ride the Lightning” and “Master Of Puppets", “Beneath the Remains” trimmed off all excess ballast. With a singular focus on efficient song construction compared to the overly technical but scattershot “Schizophrenia”, it was the album that broke Sepultura to a global audience thanks to the partnership with its American label.

“Beneath the Remains” is famous for applying speed metal techniques within a nascent death metal format. “Schizophrenia” already toyed with the idea, but the distribution of ideas is more effective here thanks to the solidified and more confident writing. Thanks to the increased songwriting expertise and technical skills within the ranks. On “Beneath the Remains” Portugal remains underutilized but he would get his moment in the spotlight on this album’s successor. “Beneath the Remains” forgoes the instrumental tracks of the preceding record, and is very much like Slayer’s iconic “Reign In Blood” in spirit while being influenced by Cliff Burton-era Metallica in construction.

The notion of an obvious Metallica influence in the writing is strenghtened by the brief acoustic guitar intro on the title track. In fact ‘Beneath the Remains’ is structured nearly identical to Metallica’s high velocity thrash epics ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ or ‘Battery’. ‘Slaves Of Pain’ was a song originally by Kisser’s former band Pestilence, but its lyrics were rewritten to fit better with Sepultura. ‘Stronger than Hate’ features vocal contributions from Kelly Shaefer (Atheist), who also wrote the lyrics, John Tardy (Obituary) plus Scott Latour and Francis Howard (Incubus). Kisser continues his ascent as a leadplayer. His best contributions can be heard on ‘Stronger than Hate’, ‘Mass Hypnosis’, ‘Slaves Of Pain’, ‘Lobotomy’, and ‘Hungry’. ‘Inner Self’, ‘Mass Hypnosis’, ‘Slaves Of Pain’, and ‘Hungry’ has Sepultura at its most rabidly efficient.

At this point Sepultura fully moved away from its nascent death metal imagery, and headlong into the socio-political arena with its lyrics. ‘Beneath the Remains’ is about the horrors of war. ‘Inner Self’, ‘Stronger than Hate’, ‘Slaves Of Pain’, and ‘Hungry’ are about overcoming personal limitations and tribulations. ‘Sarcastic Existence’ deals with isolation and depression. ‘Mass Hypnosis’ and ‘Lobotomy’ concern political demagoguery and the military-industrial complex. ‘Primitive Future’ is interesting in that it combines the post-apocalyptic imagery of its none-too-distant past with abstract socio-political musings that would define “Arise”. At any rate, Sepultura had drastically improved on the lyrical front by abandoning its anti-religious charade, and tackling relevant socio-political problems of its home country.

The artwork for “Beneath the Remains” was created by Michael Whelan. Given the choice between two Whelan works the band reluctantly agreed to use ‘Nightmare in Red’. When the label pushed Sepultura towards chosing the current artwork it led to some embarrassment for drummer Igor Cavalera who had part of the canvas tattooed on his body at that time. This, understandably, led to some friction between band and label. The artwork originally intended for “Beneath the Remains”, a ghastly piece named ‘Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre’, was eventually used to Tampa, Florida death metal combo Obituary on their second album “Cause Of Death”.

For this session the band decided to record at Nas Nuvens Studio in Rio de Janeiro with engineers Scott Burns and Antoine Midani. The greatest improvement is that the instruments are balanced better against each other while being tonally richer and more defined. Especially the drums, the bane of earlier Sepultura records, sound crunchy and commanding with a deep rumbling bass drums. Tom Morris and Scott Burns mixed the album at the famed Morrisound Studio in death metal capital Tampa, Florida. “Beneath the Remains” was mastered at Fullersound in Tampa, Florida by Mike Fuller. Although credited in the production notes Paulo Xisto Pinto Jr. did not play bass guitar on the record. Andreas Kisser recorded studio bass parts for the album.

By slightly reducing the amount of riffs, and giving each riff a specific function, allows Sepultura a greater dexterity in its songwriting. No longer overcompensating by sheer number - each chord, riff, solo or transition is embued with a greater sense of purpose within the song. Where the band previously sounded unhinged and out of control “Beneath the Remains” does not so much streamline the band’s sound, as much as putting the band’s convoluted writing style in a more efficient and lean form. The title track shows that the band has lost none of its belligerence, or speed, but it is distinctly more individual than any of the band’s prior works. “Beneath the Remains” not only was a good deal faster and more aggressive than the thrash metal of the day, it also cemented the promise and potential of the preceding “Schizophrenia”.

“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, 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.