Morbid Angel – Altars Of Madness

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The prematurely aborted “Abominations Of Desolation” session put back Florida death metal mavens Morbid Angel by a good three years. Interpersonal troubles, and an unsatisfactory studio experience in North Carolina had Azagthoth licking his wounds as he put together a new line-up for his project. “Altars Of Madness” is what “Abominations Of Desolation” should have been. Aided by a newly installed rhythm section the album is a high-speed exercise in unrepentantly evil death/thrash metal, inspired in copious amounts by Slayer, Sepultura and American forebears such as Death and Possessed. Marred by a functional but less than stellar production the sheer level of energy, technical finesse and indifference towards conventional death/thrash metal practices of the time make “Altars Of Madness” the genre standard that it in retrospect became.

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In the interim the band enrolled El Salvador-born drummer Pedro ‘Pete’ Sandoval. He was famous for his intense percussive work with early grindcore band Terrorizer. Vincent had played bass guitar as a studio musician on its post-humous “World Downfall” album that was recorded and released in 1989. An album that itself was important to the emerging grindcore movement on both sides of the Atlantic. “Altars Of Madness” was one of the earliest death metal recordings to be cut at Morrisound Studios in Tampa, Florida. A credit the band shares with formative act Death, who recorded “Leprosy” at the same facility in 1988. Sandoval’s debut performance probably stirred Earache’s interest in getting the defunct Terrorizer in the studio to cut its post-humous album in order to capitalize on the drummer's retrospective infamy. Having no concern for traditional keys and scales Azagthoth and Sandoval are the signature players here with Brunelle and Vincent filling their slots appropriately. Vincent’s throbbing bass guitar only gets a few brief spots on the album, although its oozing presence doesn’t quite possess the same sense of body as on later recordings.

“Altars Of Madness” is the fastest, most thrashy album in the early Morbid Angel catalog – and its insistence on constant breakneck speed tends to bury the usage of unconventional keys and scales in a blur of blasts, and screams. The instrumental mastery and finesse is awe-inspiring, but the songwriting tends to be hit-and-miss, and samey in the long run. The record is custodian to a good number of standout tracks, most visibly the likes of ‘Immortal Rites’, ‘Suffocation’, ‘Visions From the Dark Side’, ‘Maze Of Torment’, ‘Lord Of All Fevers and Plague’ and ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’. Only the first four songs of the record are entirely new cuts specifically written for this session, and the remaining six are refurbished demo tracks off the band’s early years. The choice to put together the album this way is understandable given the circumstances. Had the band waited another year to produce all new tracks the record would have sounded dated upon release. “Altars Of Madness” is very much a 80s metal record, with rife influence from Mantas/Death, Possessed, Sepultura and Slayer. David Vincent’s vocals are at their most rabidly intense with an incredible sneer and venom in his rapidfire spits and barks. The vocal stylings are mostly carried over from the preceding “Thy Kingdom Come” sessions, and in parts it mimics Max Cavalera’s work on the second Sepultura album “Schizophrenia”. In all, it is his most mean-spirited performance ever.

This is where Morbid Angel was at its most pointy, direct and confrontational, with only the absolute minimal of atmospherics and experimentation. A malevolent and hateful atmosphere is created throughout the actual songs, and not with instrumental segues or ambient addendums. Whether it’s the usage of inverted guitar riffs, or light washes of keyboards the songs stand on their own merits. That the songs all have the same basic goal, and that the album’s second half is significantly weaker than the first, is only logical in the conclusion that riding one core idea for too long is detrimental no matter how technical or fast said band can play. Morbid Angel is no exception to this rule. Nobody is going to doubt Azagthoth’s or Brunelle’s expertise on lead guitars, but apparently only the newly installed Pete Sandoval seems to diversify his work within the limited framework he is given. Both guitarists deliver some of the most impressive leads/solos, and the most evil sounding crunchy riffs of the time – all of that doesn’t change the fact that “Altars Of Madness” loses its steam and direction after the first six songs. Not that any of these songs are bad per se, but the repetitious writing and constant focus on being the fastest cripple many of good ideas that these songs hold. Ideas that could have been explored further had the band not stared itself blind on being fast all the time. Despite all that “Altars Of Madness” is rightly considered a classic in the genre, but like all widely praised albums it isn’t without its flaws or shortcomings.

One of its more obvious shortcomings is Vincent’s insistence on following the rhythm guitars far too closely. Many of Vincent’s bass lines can’t be made out because they are buried under the crunchy guitars. When his riffs can be made out they are unremarkable at best. Thankfully the bass guitar has deep throbbing tone. The most memorable bass lines on the record weren’t even written by Vincent, but by ousted bass guitarist John Ortega. Next to that Vincent’s vocals were more poignant and convincing on the “Thy Kingdom Come” EP that preceded this record. Here his rasps appear just randomly shouted and barked without any real rhyme or reason, and with no attention paid to the actual flow of the songs. Sandoval makes do with what he is given, and within this limited creative paradigm he able to put some truly fantastic fills, rolls and blasts. The lyrics reference Satanism, the occult and Sumerian deities but the lot of it is steeped in rather juvenile and corny imagery. Immolation would do this much better on its debut “Dawn Of Possession” a few years down the line. The esoteric leads/solos by Azagthoth and Brunelle are the focus of many of the songs, and some of the riffing (especially in the second half of the record) is often considered an afterthought. The effective but goofy artwork by Dan Seagrave is offset by a very crunchy and bass-heavy production courtesy of Tom Morris and Digby Pearson at Morrisound Studios in Tampa, Florida.

In all “Altars Of Madness” is a flawed masterpiece. Unrelenting in its energy, contrarian in its usage of unconventional scales and keys, and blasphemous to the point of silliness - it took the violent thrash metal sound to previously unheard extremes. Together with the early works of Death, Master, Necrophagia and Possessed it laid for the groundwork for what latter would be dubbed death metal. In retrospect the legacy bestowed upon it could make it a tad disappointing for today’s younger metal generation, as it basically is “Show No Mercy” played ten times faster. The band would truly come into its own on the “Blessed Are the Sick” album that was to follow a few years after.  The record is often loved within certain subsets of black metal fandom because of its suffocatingly dark atmosphere, and revered by thrash metal fans because of its unrelenting intensity – the majority of metal fans agree that “Altars Of Madness” was a tipping point for the nascent death metal scene. It would form the template on which much of the infamous Tampa, Florida death metal sound would be build. Other than that it is just a very strong record that redeems its lyrical silliness with highly competent and crunchy evil sounding music.