Conceived in rehearsals between 1984 and 1985, Abominations of Desolation was completed and recorded by 1986, showcasing the most concentrated and solid (in composition) release either Trey Azagthoth or Mike Browning have put out until now (or likely to ever release, for that matter). I hesitate to use the word refined here as that would imply a correcting of minute details at every level, which this album obviously does not posses. The next three albums make use of this material and refine it in different ways and distinct directions, filling out the rest of the albums with some good ideas and mostly filler.
On Altars of Madness, the most significant changes to the music besides the studio production (including tone and what no) and vocals were to tempo. The composition of the songs themselves remained the same. Basically they were played much faster and the drumming was made more “tight”. The new songs that were not taken from Abominations of Desolation were essentially inferior filler, although the songs were not necessarily bad, just not as good as the earlier material. There are two things to be said regarding the tempo changes. On the one hand, Altars of Madness is mandatory study material for any true fan of the genre and even more so for the aspiring death metal musician because it is a textbook example of excellent technical accomplishment of flexible death metal compositions. On the other hand, accelerating so much destroyed the original character of the songs which no longer sounded mystically infused with darkness but rather comically colorful. The tempo also obfuscated the structural features rather than highlighting and exploiting them, lending a flatter and more pop-oriented sound that emphasized hooks in the middle of a maelstrom of madness.
In 1991, Morbid Angel released Blessed are the Sick, which sees the band attempting to regain the spirit they lost in Altars of Madness in search of a more professionally competitive tone and production. The early songs used in this album were not as distorted, retaining their original aura, but they were re-recorded with very soft and mellow guitar and drum sound. The new songs composed for the album also matched the dense atmosphere and dynamics of the older songs. A concept orientation was adopted and the result was the artistic peak of Morbid Angel, presenting the highest refinement of the material in balance with a whole-work oriented album rather than a simple collection of songs. Here we find the best of Azagthoth’s collaboration with Browning meeting the best of Morbid Angel’s later work. While Altars of Madness came out as slightly comical, Abominations of Desolation seemed dark and serious about its occult nature and Blessed are the Sick made a serious attempt at recovering that.
Then came Covenant, the last album to use seminal material from Abominations of Desolation. This album is a strong attempt at bringing the best from the two previous albums, it is Morbid Angel attempting to summarize, solidify their voice, carving a new path after having released their magnum opus. This is always the most difficult album in a classic band’s career. It often results in an emphasizing of technical aspects while the band tries to discover how they can continue after they have achieved greatness. The result is often undeniably outstanding material that lacks spirit. It happened to Yes after Close to the Edge, the greatest and most ambitious organic expression of who they were. Becoming self-referential in Tales from Topographic Oceans and then, not knowing where to go artistically, Yes used the best of their technical abilities to produce their technical highlight: Relayer. Covenant is Morbid Angel’s Relayer.
I am tempted to say that the best work these two artists ever did was together. It is a pity that personal problems had to come between them. Same sad story of Celtic Frost’s, who also never reached its early heights after the dynamic duo at its center separated. It is hard to tell how each of these artists complement each other, but judging from their projects away from each other we can observe that without Browning, Azagthoth becomes streamlined and even sterile, while without the latter Browning indulges in an adventurous music full of life that is unfortunately musically crippled by a lack of discipline and organization. Perhaps this is also related to a merely technical appreciation of Mozart by Azagthoth and the excited yet musically uninformed admiration of Rush on Browning’s side.
Complaining about the production and tone in Abominations of Desolation and overlooking the whole composition is like missing a great book of classic literature because you do not like the cover and the font in which it is written. You can complain about the font, but the font is not the organized information that literature is. So it is that production values do not make up what music is, only a medium. This does not mean that we should not criticize this, but it seems to me that it is over the top and superficial to say that, for instance, Altars of Madness is superior because the tone and production is better there. In fact, since the best songs in that “first” album are taken from Abominations of Desolation, and the rest are second-rate filler in comparison, I would say that in terms of content this early output is the best release to ever come out under the name of Morbid Angel.
The extent to which the artist’s belief in what he says and does, and how much he is actually familiar and imbued with the material, affects the final result of the music. While the young band fervently believed in the Ancients and the Arabic magic spells referenced in their lyrics, the more “mature” band only held on to these in a more tongue-in-cheek, ironic or perhaps metaphorical sense. Abominations of Desolation concentrates and summarizes all the power Morbid Angel had to give at that point which unfortunately only dissipated in future releases. This 1986 release, and no other, is the embodiment of what Morbid Angel is.