There are twelve notes. There are twenty-six letters. We can form them into combinations/patterns. The ones that stay with us are the ones that communicate. This takes us above the level of riff (metal), harmony (jazz/rock), and into the realm of melody, which uses phrase and harmony as means of strengthening the expression of a melody, or a unique combination which resembles the psychological sensation of a certain experience.
Classic era Morbid Angel — Abominations of Desolation, Altars of Madness, Blessed Are The Sick and even the “b-sides” album Covenant — expressed sentiment and analysis together in this way, joining our imagination to a mythology of a dark underworld that could easily be lurking behind our shiny cellophane world of social and economic thinking. Those songs are alive.
Since that time, there have been moments in which songs “spoke,” but mostly through backward reasoning, meaning that a riff was discovered and a narrative built around it, instead of the riff and song together expressing a journey. As some might phrase it, simplistically, the poetry has gone; the contrast of forces, leading to growth of the soul, has evaporated.
As a result, none of these albums provide what a metalhead desires: the ability to throw an album on the stereo, sit back and be transported to a metaphorical world which clarifies our feelings toward this one, and thus makes it clear how we should approach this world. In the metal culture, we approach it with bombastic heroism united with naturalistic sensitivity; we are the untamed beasts of beyond the land of ice.
Domination followed Covenant, and in it we saw the same thing that ate Slayer during the 1990s, namely watching a band like Pantera simplify speed metal into hard rock and become mega-wealthy doing it, which as bands hit their late 20s or early 30s and get tired of living in dingy rooms and box apartments becomes a concern. Big bands like Sepultura, Slayer, and Morbid Angel went backward in evolution during the 1990s, returning to the choppy bounce-rhythms of Prong (“Whose Fist”) and Metallica (“Harvest of Sorrow”) with a hard rock sensibility.
Perhaps showing a response to the wavering interest of the old school audience, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh showed a return to form, but only form, with death metal songs being used as a backdrop for increasingly varied lead guitar that leaned too far toward harmony, and away from the raw sonic sculpture that made its original form so promising. This album also feels like spare parts, with promising songs that do not complete in a meaningful way and no thematic unity on the album.
Gateways to Annihilation felt like a desire to incorporate the rising tide of “sludge” — slow punk like Flipper mated with stoner doom — but worked in enough death metal and Pantera to almost scratch that itch. The only problem was that while it was musically consistent, perhaps the most conventionally so of any Morbid Angel album, it was artistically random. Thus it faded into the background as a constant texture which caused it to lose any contrast in intensity and become background noise or wallpaper.
Trying to bounce back from that, or maybe not, Heretic seemed to take influence from the rising sphere of more technical black metal at the time, perhaps a belated parallel to Deicide Servants of the Light. Unfortunately, like the previous two, it remained focused too heavily on vocals to unite a collection of riffs without any intent to make a gestalt that expressed an overall experience.
Illud Divinum Insanus received enough bad press that it does not require a roasting here only to say that its real sin, more than experimenting with other genres, was to do so in a random way, like a person trying random tools to see if he can remember what he needed a tool in order to do. This spare parts collection had some moments but ultimately fell into unconvincing disunity.
This leads us to the unfortunate Kingdoms Disdained which exemplifies the “outside in” approach of a band that has forgotten the inspiration for its original music and, without that purpose and ideation, can only emulate techniques in roughly the same order that worked the last time. While the riff forms are closer to original Morbid Angel, this album attempts to unite them with vocal rhythms while making the riffs shorter and heavier on sudden stops, approximating the Pantera ideal but breaking up any continuity of expression.
Jobs consist of doing things to please other people while recognizing that those people dwell in the illusion that matter is more important than spirit. Metal is the resurrection, renewal, and re-centering of spirit which emphasizes the “inside out” view of life, and from this it gains something better than passion in its songs, which is purpose. It unites the spirit of the beast with our desire for meaningfulness and a coherent view of our world that is consistent across all of its parts. How do you kill heavy metal? Make it a job.
Like many metal bands, it is not the time so much as the miles, and every mile carries a band away from its origins when, inspired by the mental sensations created by the imagery projected by the sounds of their favorite bands, the early band focused on those ideas and then played whatever poured out of their subconscious minds in response. They were not trying to control their output, only let it out and have it be as intense as the music of their heroes. When a band becomes a job, this is reversed: the band tries to control its output to make it to order, defining itself by the audience instead of the greatness of the past and what lurks in the souls of the musicians.
As a result, these bands abolish their souls and stunt their creativity, reducing it to the implementation of techniques in certain contexts. This causes them to (unconsciously) work from a template with the listener in mind as a consumer, and their music thus becomes a manipulative product, much like government propaganda or television shows. Not surprisingly, all of the parts of songs are then seen as means to an end, and they become random backdrop for a core expression which is usually verbal and lyrical more than musical.
Kingdoms Disdained shows us how brilliant humans fail. Every part is well-executed, but the parts do not relate to each other except musically, which makes it a competent but empty piece like the rest of mainstream music. None of this music feels like it was played by the band many times except to “get it down” for recording, and each song resounds hollow like a series of committee decisions.
If heavy metal needs a reason to get out of its two-decade slump, it cannot be found in reversing its process, because it will still be using the outside-in approach. It needs to rediscover its purpose. I suggest they all start profitable pop or hip-hop bands and do metal as a hobby, because then it remains free of their control, and their creative minds can rebound and seize the day.