Death Metal Underground is proud to host this interview between legendary writer D.A.R.G and Christopher from brilliant young band Ectovoid that have managed to stand far above the hordes of useless charlatans and trendhoppers with their brilliant release Dark Abstraction.
An often underrated trademark of Death Metal music is the use of vocals as an instrument for their often inhumane force and sound which enhances the message behind the dark lyrics and the right way to provide them. Outsiders often consider them to be indistinguishable, although everyone who has spent some time exploring the genre will realize that many vocalists have certain characteristics or techniques.
Earache Records is doing another one of their brief, ultra-limited record sales. This time, they are releasing Morbid Angel’s classic Altars of Madness on vinyl; they claim that this release will be one of their “Full Dynamic Range” remasters, which purport to not be afflicted by the brickwalling that took over popular music with the advent of digital recording. Needless to say, this is certainly a classic of death metal, although many on DMU prefer the versions of the songs here that appeared on Abominations of Desolation. Anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to grab this vinyl and wants a version of this album with improved dynamic range regardless will probably have to scrounge up some cash for an original pressing.
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.
Chapel of Ghouls is a very interesting metal song to start with for several reasons. First of all, it is the epitome of the traditional death metal song and displays the marks of excellent composition by way of being balanced and maintaining perfect mood. Second and related to this mood evocation is the fact that this is a song written for guitars tuned to E-flat standard tuning and uses the open low string often but is not in the key of E-flat, giving the low-chug a very distinctive aura that comes from the sharpened leading tone being emphasized so much that is not the comforting home tonic we hear in commonplace metal. In general, this song also gives us a very special opportunity to see how attention to the use of scale degrees in the right places lends a very specific purpose to different passages with a very powerful effect.
My exposition and analysis of Chapel of Ghouls parts from the a posteriori premise that the key in which it is written is E minor. While making frequent use of chromatism, this piece is undeniably tonal and by that very nature it has a tonal center. It is up to the analyst to unearth just what that center is. The next most important assumption which applies to a lot of metal, is that the playing of fifths is decorative, making use of the sonorous effect this interval has when played on the distorted electric guitar. We do not consider this as an important element of functional harmony and we should only consider the main bass note as pertinent to our discussion of motifs and patterns.
We may observe that if we take riff-groups as sections and we ignore the variations in number of repetitions, the general structure of the song can be summarized in the following manner:
A-A’-B-C A-A’-B-C | D-E D-E | F | B-C-A
We can see the artistic abstraction and application of Classical-era concepts in Morbid Angel’s use of chromaticism for emotional effect within a clearly tonal framework. Even more telling and importantly, Chapel of Ghouls’ structure reveals an adapted classical sonata form. The sonata form is characterized by being divided into three sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. An exposition generally presented the main materials that would be used to develop the piece. These were usually stated and then repeated once with small variations. The development traditionally implied a modulation into a different key and a development of the ideas into more foreign territory. After a flourish in the development section called a retransition that would bring the song back to the tonic area, the recapitulation was a restatement in an abridged way, of the main ideas stated in the exposition. Chapel of Ghouls fills all these requirements to the letter:
Exposition: A-A’-B-C presents the main ideas, and is repeated again with a small divergence in the number of repetitions of the riff. The second time around it is played, it is repeated more times, a simple and primitive way to echo an expansion.
Development: While part “D” is still in the same key, it starts a shift in the importance of the notes which can be considered a modulation. When we reach E, the song is in a different key than the rest of the song, and a different theme defines this section as well, even though we can hear an affinity with the motif of part “B”. Ironically, we call this type of development monothematic, although it may have more than one theme of its own (as this one demonstrably does).
Retransition: part “F”, a slowed down section treading the same some of of the tones (degrees 2 and 3, specifically) that have been used again and again in succession in this song, only to round it off by clearly stating the main motif and theme of the song decorated with an octave doubling rather than with the typical fifth used elsewhere in the song.
Recapitulation: re-use of “A”, “B” and “C” in different order and condensed number of repetitions. The final use of A incurs in a variation that heavily emphasizes the main theme as its final phrase.
Furthermore, the way solos run over more stable rhythm sections and moments when the rest of the music is quiet resembles the tutti-solo-tutti exchanges typical of works from the Classical era. The piece displays an adept of use of pauses and brief silences to enhance expectation and stress unstable tones at inflection points to promote forward movement.
Another little trick that is worth highlighting is that when they make tempo changes either to a faster or a slower, Morbid Angel will shorten or stretch average note length in order to counter the change (if we change to a faster tempo, the notes become longer, and the opposite in the same manner). This helps make transitions much more smooth sounding, pulling the length of the notes towards an central average despite the difference in tempos in different sections.
Lastly, every one of the riffs/parts we defined above with letters of the alphabet are written in period form. A period contains an antecedent and a consequent. The second one of these is a repetition of the first with variations in the end goal, the harmony or anything else that does not destroy the identity of the original idea. Traditionally, the antecedent ends in the dominant or a transition to the dominant and the consequent ends in the tonic, coming back to stability. In the case of Morbid Angel’s Chapel of Ghouls, all the periods’ antecedents, except those that make up parts “D” and “E”, finish on tones that are not part of the E-minor scale, while the consequents all end on in-scale tones. In the case of the exceptions just mentioned, this is inverted and D# is tonicized, effectively constituting a modulation to a different key.
Trey Azagthoth’s early infatuation with Mozart is often taken lightly even by fans of Morbid Angel but Chapel of Ghouls is a clear example of how this claimed influence went deep and affected the way motif, theme and development were handled. Trey did not just copy the classical style of Mozart, but adapted methods perfected by the late master to the needs of the budding death metal genre Morbid Angel helped define.
Back in 1986, one lineup of Morbid Angel recorded what that lineup considers the first Morbid Angel album, Abominations of Desolation, which was later re-released on Earache Records in 1991. But three years later, the band re-recorded most of the songs in a streamlined form and released it as Altars of Madness, which the lineup of the band as was at the time through the present considers to be the first Morbid Angel album.
Avoiding a peek into the controversy and the clash of personalities behind it, metal archaeologists today can look at the musical differences between these two albums. Altars of Madness focuses on a tighter and more streamlined style that too often slips into the type of verse-chorus with bridge that was used extensively on speed metal/death metal hybrids like Seven Churches and Rigor Mortis. This may show the influence of Texas band Necrovore, who established a more aggressive aesthetic but kept song structures closer to the NWOBHM model that speed metal used.
At the same time, other bands were taking a hint from Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and writing songs which had some repeated passages which could be used as verse and chorus, but behind those varied the riffs to give the song a unique structure. This opened up new possibilities that all bands entrenched in the rock ‘n roll “verse, chorus, bridge, solo, repeat” pop song format could not reach. In that new frontier, bands saw new musical and artistic possibilities, and the form of modern death metal began.
The first Morbid Angel album contained many of these aspects, particular in some of the odd structures used on the first track. For the most part however it stuck to good old fashioned pop song format with a few modifications, using the Slayer technique of introductory riffs and some hints from Possessed. This showed a dramatically different side of the band than the extended compositions of Abominations of Desolation which, while many used verse/chorus at their center, were more likely to vary riff form and use solos as a kind of second layer to the rhythm guitars.
Controversy continues to this day regarding which is the “true” Morbid Angel. As strange as it seems, the first recording may be the one that opened up more historical space, although its lesser production and expanded song structures made it less hard-hitting at any instance and thus less “heavy” or “brutal” to the audience, which is why the band wants it to be the first album: it is a better product. For many of us however Abominations of Desolation has long surpassed the first two Morbid Angel albums as the one most frequently listened to because of the depths of its complexity and musical imagination.
We previously posted an article about Mike Browning being disgruntled over some happenings with David Vincent and his wife. DeathMetal.org has offered to give Mr. Browning an outlet to shed some light on the happenings of the early days of Morbid Angel, as well as clear up any confusion that may be encircling the metal underground.
Not many people have such an extensive resume when it comes to being involved with innovative bands in Death Metal. Mike Browning helped mold Morbid Angel, then he helped to create Nocturnus. He has also played and recorded with Incubus, Acheron and After Death.
We are fortunate that Mr. Browning has given us his time to answer these questions.
Hi Mike. Thank you for your time. I have often thought of early Morbid Angel as Slayer on steroids. Why did you guys decide to take the music in such an extreme manner?
It was really what was just coming out of us naturally. Back then we weren’t trying to do or be anything other than an evil chaotic band that was real. We literally did Necronomicon rituals before we played invoking the Ancient Ones and then with that energy we would start playing. We even did it for rehearsals as well as live shows.
There have been confusing recounts of the Abominations of Desolation recording session. Was this Morbid Angel’s first official album? If so, why has the band referred to it as a demo?
Abominations of Desolation was the first Morbid Angel album recorded. We signed to David Vincent’s label Goreque Records and we went to North Carolina to record and David even hired the legendary Bill Metoyer to engineer the record. So even though it was not released until later, it really is the first Morbid Angel record and not a demo.
I don’t know why the band says it’s only a demo. You would have to ask them that. They also claim that Sterling Scarborough played bass on the recording, which is not true either. It was John Ortega.
After Abominations of Desolation was recorded you returned to Florida and Trey stayed with David Vincent in North Carolina. Why did he stay there?
Yes the rest of the band went back to Tampa after we recorded while Trey stayed alone with David to do the mixing. It was told to us that it would be cheaper to just keep Trey there for the mixing, but when Trey came back he acted like a completely different person. He said we had to fire John Ortega and that David had found a new bass player for us which was Sterling Scarborough.
What was the actual reason for your departure from Morbid Angel? I heard that there was a physical fight with you and Trey.
Yes that is what happened. I stopped by his house one afternoon on my lunch hour from work and saw my girlfriends car there so I kicked the door in and found them on the couch kissing and I beat up Trey pretty bad. We were all pretty young back then so that is how I handled it by kicking his ass, but by doing that it caused the band to split up and that is when Richard and Trey moved to North Carolina and started playing with David, Wayne Hartsell and Sterling. I got Gino Marino and reformed Sterling’s old band Incubus.
Morbid Angel appear to be twirling into Skrillex influences more than Death Metal. Their last album Illud Divinum Insanus has been mocked by fans from all over the world. Why do you think they recorded such a weird album?
Well from what I heard that most of the music was written by Trey and he let David do all the lyrics. I’m not really sure if that is the truth, but it came from a pretty reliable source.
David Vincent has signed on to be in a film about pornstar Vaness Del Rio. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t even want to have any thoughts about it!!! Seriously though I think it will only damage his reputation with Morbid Angel, but hey I am sure all he cares about is that he will make money and maybe turn it into a new career for himself.
Gen Vincent (David Vincent’s wife) has gotten you banned from the nightclub ‘The Castle’ in Ybor City. Why has she gone to such measures?
It’s because I made fun of David and their last album, but of course I didn’t start it all. There were so many people already making fun of it before it even came out that when I finally heard some of it I started making fun of it too. But I guess since I live in the same town and actually just a few blocks away from his house and that I was actually in the band that it was me that started all the jokes about him and the last album. So I guess Gen thought she would try to get back at me by having me banned from the local Gothic club because Gen is very personal friends with the owner of the club. I rarely go there anymore. Just once or twice a year when they have the bigger yearly events there, so it’s no big deal being banned. It was more about the point of it.
Thank you for clearing up some of the confusion that has been encircling the metal community. What are your plans for the near future?
Just staying busy doing both After Death and some live Nocturnus shows. There has been so much interest in people wanting to see the old Nocturnus stuff live that my band After Death has learned the whole The Key album and we are doing these shows and playing the entire album straight through. Then we’re throwing in some old Morbid Angel songs from Abominations of Desolation versions for the encores.
I also want to say THANKS to everyone who has supported all the music I have done over all these years and hopefully I will be able to continue the chaos for many more!