As part of our Retro Reviews series, DMU looks into one of those classic bands that was on every Gen X death metal fan’s shelf, but probably never made it out for repeated playing after the early 1990s. Some bands just seem to fade… into the background.
In part this is because they were eclipsed by stronger offerings, but more likely, it was partially because they were subtle and nuanced in comparison to the big, clear and obvious statements of death metal. One such band is Morgoth, a German death metal offering that was highly influential as death metal was forming, but never produced the “big album” that would make them a daily staple, and with its followups, was never able to recapture the sense of innovation and frontier exploration that its early EPs offered.
The Dichotomy Between European and North American Death Metal
During the inaugural years of the mid-80s, death metal took shape in parallel forms on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. Despite the fact that practically every 1980s death metal band drew on a shared set of influences, different regional scenes soon began to develop characteristics of their own. These variations did not occur along sharp dividing lines, but certain compositional preferences became clear over time.
In very broad terms it could be argued that North American death metal tend to emphasize rhythm, whereas European bands gravitate towards melody. For example, early US proponents like Death and Master favored a hardcore punk-derived, intensely rhythmic approach, with tightly-knit cycles portioned into simple song structures. Contemporary European group such as Pestilence on the other hand exhibited a more elaborate and elegant style with greater attention to detail and melodic development. This dichotomy echoes back to the previous generation of proto-underground bands (Slayer/Destruction) but also points towards a future greater distinction.
As death metal matured, this chasm widened. In Florida, a new style of speed metal-derived, explosive death metal arose with groups such as Deicide, Death and Monstrosity. In a gesture of deceptive simplicity, these bands channeled enormous force by synchronizing angular riffs – built of broad tonal leaps connected through chromatic passages – and drums to a savagely simple yet precise pulse. The result was compact, direct music that spoke in a language of unmediated violence perfectly understandable to the inner savage.
Meanwhile, a different take on the genre took shape in the Old World. Bands like At the Gates, Therion, Amorphis, Sentenced and Sinister used melody to craft music of epic conflict and devastating conclusion. Building on a riff-syntax incorporating ideas from traditional music and heavy metal music of yore, Euro-death is characterized by expanding songs that gradually unfold through interplay, layering and variations of essential themes carrying the melodic core of the composition.
Germany’s Morgoth differentiated themselves early on by mixing the best of both worlds. Founded in 1985, the band counts as one of the earliest examples of “pure” continental death metal, and they were among the very first German bands playing in the new style if excluding hugely influential but ultimately speed/death hybrid-acts like Kreator, Destruction and Sodom. At the peak of their career, Morgoth combined thundering Florida-styled death metal with the melodic awareness commonly associated with European acts. The result was fluent and memorable songs that still retained a punishing, rhythmic undercurrent. It would not be out of line to suggest that these German boys beat Chuck Schuldiner at his own game by adding a superior sense of structure and melody to the stylistic template laid out on the first three Death albums.
Despite their notable background, Morgoth remains largely ignored. One could find a plethora of reasons to explain their undistinguished status compared to many of their contemporaries. The most common explanation is that the band forever soiled their legacy in the mid-90s by abandoning what little was left of their death metal roots in favor of a more commercially oriented industrial/indie-rock-sound. However, rather than representing the beginning of the decline, the abysmal quality of Morgoth’s later discography should be viewed as a logical end-point to the creative slippery-slope which the band embarked upon after releasing their excellent early material. It is a disheartening task to chronicle a band that peaked early. Therefore, a choice has been made here to focus on Morgoth’s pivotal releases rather than dwelling on the repeated failures of later years.
A more cynical view is that Morgoth failed for reasons of logistics. EPs made economic sense for fans to purchase during the vinyl years, when EPs were smaller records that cost a great deal less. In the CD age, the form factor of the LP and EP were the same, and prices for EPs were not substantially lower than those of full albums. As a result, fans liked to buy full albums. Morgoth put out two promising EPs but never delivered an LP in the classic death metal style at a time when, to be competitive in the market, they would have had to do so. That they followed this up with a series of disappointing rock-hybrids only put icing on the cake.
Pits of Utumno (1988)
When Morgoth’s first demo arrived, time seemed ripe for change. Germany’s “big three” were all turning into full-on speed metal in the wake of Metallica’s success. Destruction, Kreator and Sodom still released reasonably well-crafted albums, but appeared to be slowly retrograding into a safer territories. Pits of Utumno on the other hand points towards future vistas by forging Germanic proto-underground metal with a raw adaption of the extended tremolo-picked lead rhythm guitar style hallmarked by Slayer. Although clearly a product of youth and crude in terms of delivery and songwriting this recording remains relevant not least because it implies the then-urgent need for the next generation of metal bands to move beyond the formulaic song structures and chorus-heavy, recursive bounciness that threatened to assimilate speed metal into mainstream product at the time.
Songs traverse through successions of riffs constructed from streams of rapid, often evenly picked, palm-muted single notes and/or choppier power chord-patterns. Vestiges of previous metal stylings remain especially in the slower chug-sections, but Morgoth generally eschew the predictability of later speed metal by reducing the level of rhythmic expectancy. Instead of working towards obvious climaxes, the real impact lies in the way riffs and chord progressions interact melodically and harmonically, like a puzzle that makes little sense before completion. Take for example the ominous progressions employed on tracks like “Being Boiled” and Morgoth’s signature track “Pits of Utumno.” There are musical ideas to be found here that hints at developments which would show up in both black and death metal a couple of years down the road.
(“Pits of Utumno” from Pits of Utumno)
However, if compared to the architectural, organic complexity of Slayer, many tracks are still on the level of jigsaws with one or two bits (transitional riffs, interludes, layers) missing. It is fortunate that the chorus-element is downplayed, but the alternative musical peaks do not always work out as intended. Furthermore, the EP lacks depth of variation in terms of riff-modulation and internal rhythm, which makes the whole thing sound slightly stale and monochromatic at times. Like for instance in the solo-sections, where a lonely, mixed-up lead-guitar tries to push the right buttons while the rest of the ensemble drops into droning ostinatos, causing serious loss of momentum.
As a result, the less “dense” of the songs on this demo are the most effective. The muddy production does not allow much vertical complexity, true, but the greater problem is that beyond a certain level of complexity the melodic integration of each song falls apart. The intricate riff-salad songs (“From Dusk to Dawn”) do not fully cohere, partly because they lack the simple, yet lucid melodic continuity that Morgoth would develop further on their seminal Resurrection Absurd EP.
Resurrection Absurd (1989)
Allegedly, a record deal was slow in coming after the Pits of Utumno demo, as neither record companies nor magazines showed any interest in the next generation of music, being too focused on the past. This changed when Robert Kampf (of German speed metal band Despair) was farsighted enough to pick up the band for release on his newly founded Century Media label. An agreement was made to re-mix and release Morgoth’s second demo Resurrection Absurd – which had been recorded by the band in the interim-period – as a 5-track EP. Morgoth had not lost faith in themselves while waiting for a deal and spend the last of their savings to record the demo in a proper 24-track studio, which meant it had the production quality to be released into record stores. Featuring a delightfully morbid guitar-tone with a good deal of textural vibrancy retained, the band had found a sound that matched the character of the new compositions.
While the band’s Teutonic pedigree is still discernible to a certain degree, Resurrection Absurd marks a change of stylistic direction. Distinctive influences from Leprosy-era Death permeate the album in terms of technique and overall sound. Take for example the doom-laden introductory riff of “The Travel,” which is built on a similar single-note, triplet sequence as the verse-riff in Leprosy‘s title-track. However, the skank beat-driven and riff-centered approach of early US death metal is transformed into a different beast on Resurrection Absurd by a stronger sense of melodic development in the vein of contemporary Euro-death bands like Pestilence, Torchure and Asphyx.
Morgoth keeps the propulsive and rhythmic onslaught courtesy of Death kept intact while at the same time but steering away from the mind-numbing loops and hook-mentality of the latter. Instead they opt for a more integrated take on death metal, where songs form organic wholes rather than being merely transit between ripping riffs. This represented part of a more general split: American death metal at this time aimed for a fusion of the Tampa and Buffalo sounds, or more percussive speed-metal derived riffing searching for greater extremity in speed and chromatic pounding, somewhat influenced by grindcore as well. European death metal diverged from this into longer melodies, more elaborate song structures and bigger concepts, leaving most of the gore and serial killer themes for the part of the market that was absorbed by Carcass and Cannibal Corpse, instead focusing on the type of ambition seen on the second albums from Deicide, Morbid Angel and Obituary.
(“The Travel” from Resurrection Absurd)
Compositions evolve around limited series of long guitar riffs crafted out of palm-muted single note-melodies emanating from the lower register. We might call them “major themes,” as they form a raw, melodic undercurrent that is essential to the definition and direction of the song. Their arrival are almost always accented by a change of percussive pattern, is if to emphasize their structural importance. Variations on shorter phrases of a more rhythmic character are used as inter-connectors between the longer riffs to add both continuity and contrast. Underneath the guitar work, pummeling drums in the old school death metal tradition lay down a steadfast rhythms that (thankfully) excel in adaptability rather than breakneck velocity or intricacy.
Morgoth’s relatively straightforward approach to death metal songwriting work for the most part thanks to their exceptional sense of pacing coupled with the intrinsic qualities of the individual guitar figures and the meaning invested in them by way of linear juxtaposition and modulation. Each successive riff and its related instrumental/vocal counterparts contributes to establishing an obscure, but exhilarating musical narrative that seem set on finding wisdom in darkness. Thus, when a musical idea is recapitulated later on in the composition, it has acquired a different meaning based on the new context of the expedition.
The beauty of Resurrection Absurd lies in its ability to first clear the mind through relentless intensity and then give room to a more contemplative mode of listening that drills through the morasses of the mind in search for meaning in nothingness. It is a witness to the beginning a new era of dissident music and stands as one of the finest examples of late-80s death metal.
The Eternal Fall (1990)
Perhaps realizing brevity is sometimes for the better, Morgoth swiftly assembled yet another 5-track EP only six months after the release of their debut. The previous release had garnered generally positive feedback from the underground syndicate, but the band received some criticism for sounding perhaps too much like Death.
It might be worth remembering in this context that underground metal journalism was something of a viper’s nest back then. It was imperative for a band to be the thing – in this case, death metal – and derivative entries were viewed with suspicion not because they were different, but because they were not the trend that was selling magazines. This is worth remembering when one considers that a year later black metal bands were railing against “trends,” both in music and politics, as the downfall of humanity. The herd mentality here meant that Resurrection Absurd was under-appreciated because writers could not differentiate between appearance and substance. Even worse, it is possible that this critique influenced the band and label on future releases.
(“Burnt Identity”, from The Eternal Fall)
Production values adapted to market conditions by emulating contemporary Florida death metal production. The sonic panorama has been cleaned up for the sake of instrumental separation and individual notes are audible to a higher degree without losing the much-desired crunchiness of the guitars. It appears as highly plausible that the parties involved wanted this to sound like Death, and it comes as no surprise that Scott Burns is credited for the mixing. All of this contribute to making The Eternal Fall feel less organic than its murky predecessor, but on the other hand it suits the more technical nature of the new compositions, and, speaking of differentiating between appearance and substance, did not conceal the underlying songwriting.
An increased level of intricacy can be observed in the guitar work on this EP. Riff-shapes gravitate towards the compact and angular style of North American bands while simultaneously adhering to the European melodic tradition. Subtle streams of melody are woven into the guitar lines and the players use of clever variations to make the riffs seem to move forward with increased intensity. However, whereas the more stripped-down compositions on Resurrection Absurd had direction, these songs tend to move in circles. The individual riffs are awesome, but they are not arranged to communicate anything beyond being a collection of ripping death metal riffs. As a consequence, the music loses its most important component: purpose.
Vanishing Into The Mists Of History
Although Resurrection Absurd sounded a lot like Death, it still retained a distinctive expression and persona own. Morgoth were probably well aware of the transparency of their pedigree, but had such a strong vision and/or belief in themselves that they did not allow such a thing to hold them back. The Eternal Fall on the other hand gives testimony to a band that really, really want to sound like their main influences (who also happened to be hottest property in the death metal market at the time). It is not a bad album, but it is a step down from what had previously been built up and marks the beginning of Morgoth’s consistent decline.
The band went on to produce a series of stylistically confused albums through the 1990s. The ambiguous purpose present on these albums, both in style and content, caused the compositional flaws to widen rather than contract and as a result, created a riff salad effect that doomed even the best riff- and song-craft of this band to obscurity. Despite finally having the label backing and publicity they needed, the band cranked out miss after miss, and eventually receded into the anonymity of time in the late 1990s.
With Cursed (1991) Morgoth unleashed their full-length debut only two years after their demo, but retained almost none of what made that demo exceptional. This album, which was heavily promoted at the time, is best described as a lethargic conglomerate of various death metal-tropes squeezed into compositions that straddle the line between rock, heavy and death metal. A hard rock sensibility might modify a death metal riff, or a hard rock riff be played as death metal, which seems like it might allow the band to pursue the dream of every label — making the rare into the norm but retaining its cachet of perceived authentic difference — but in fact communicated confusion, disorganization and the sense that each band member was stubbornly pulling in a different direction, which disallowed the band as a whole from putting all of its power behind any single direction. As some have observed, had bands in this position simply recorded a good hard rock album or a good death metal album, they would have gotten a lot farther than by releasing a mediocre hybrid. Labels and fans tend to think otherwise, but then, the products of this hybridizations seem to fade from history faster than other releases. Unfortunately, they also cause fans to stop paying attention, which is what happened to Morgoth.
Odium (1993) doubled-down on the hybrid approach but introduced what every label and flailing band uses to conceal its lack of direction, namely a sense of being “avantgarde” by incorporating techniques from previous generations of popular music and other genres which had established themselves long before. Labels think this makes a band look “open-minded,” and verbiage similar to that was used to convince metal fans to pick up this album, but within a year, it was a staple of used CD racks everywhere, ignored with a grimace by the metalhead flicking through the plastic shells in search of something interesting to hear. At this point, the market essentially put Morgoth on notice: the fans wanted death metal of any form so long as it was good, and the fanbase to which Morgoth specifically appealed liked technical music that held together and disliked riff salad. The band had one more bite at the apple…
Unfortunately, the result was Feel Sorry For The Fanatic (1996) which simply flew under the radar because in a mature metal market with both black metal and death metal in focus, another try-hard avantgarde album which distilled down to being a hard rock hybrid with some techno, funk, jazz, death metal and progressive heavy metal grafted on top really did not inspire anyone. It became clear that political problems within the band prevented members from choosing a direction, with the label probably inserting its own influence toward the trend of the month, and so the result would be a disorganized mess. Fans basically stopped mentioning Morgoth and relegated the first EP to the back of the shelf, from whence it was retrieved on rainy days to relive some of the glory days, despite that EP being highly influential among the more musically-oriented death metal fanatics during the early era.
Band and label essentially recognized the death of the band at this point, and other than sensibly releasing both EPs on one CD just a few years past the point where a large number of people cared, thrust Morgoth on the shelf for another sixteen years. Then, as if confirming its death, the band released the obligatory live work Cursed To Live (2012) which attracted enough notice to justify the release of a full-length, Ungod (2015). Unfortunately, the band failed to learn from its past organizational mistakes, and tried to combine death metal, hard rock and the metalcore/tech-death that was in vogue at the time, which resulted in it disappointing every potential audience it might have had.
As a wise man said once, “some things are better left undiscovered,” and this applies to Morgoth material past the first two EPs. For most death metal fans, the first EP Resurrection Absurd remains both an important marker in the history of death metal and an intriguing, powerful listening experience. The second EP is less convincing and so receives far fewer listens, and everything after that point will be gratefully lost to time if we are lucky. Nonetheless, the first demo and EP define the high-water mark of this band, and make for a compelling listen for any who like to discover treasures in the death metal vault.