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 announced a reissue of Morbid Angel‘s last great record, Blessed Are the Sick, as part of their “Full Dynamic Range” series. The Full Dynamic Range reissues are sourced directly from the analog mix tapes or digital Betamax or DAT ones with no compression applied in mastering when released on CD, LP, or lossless FLAC formats. They all sound great for the most part and far better than most other vinyl reissues that just print whatever the current CD master is to wax using direct metal mastering. The digital (CD/FLAC) Carnage, Carcass, Realm of Chaos, and Altars of Madness ones are the best sounding versions of those albums by far.
Nirvana’s Nevermind turned twenty five yesterday but since we at the Death Metal Underground condemn pop-punk Boston worship, we will celebrate a different anniversary today. Morbid Angel‘s Blessed Are the Sick was released twenty-five summers ago. Blessed Are the Sick was the last Morbid Angel record focused on inwardly improving the music rather than compromising it for commercial appeal to a mainstream market. The band had been obsessed with refining and expanding upon their compositions since Trey Azagthoth shelved the release of 1986’s Abominations of Desolation and fired then drummer/vocalist Mike Browning.
On their first album, Obsequiae made use of very simple but consistent and creative melodies in a harmony emulating that of early western music from the late medieval period. Under the Brume of Eos consisted of songs that were essentially folk-heavy metal in the vein of Primordial with black metal vocals. Each few songs an interlude played in an acoustic instrument was inserted. The material was fine for the first fifteen minutes, after that it just boiled down to a collection of songs which were merely collections of riffs. Aria of Vernal Tombs unfortunately did not move beyond this same strategy.
It is important to go back to the just-mentioned style of Primordial. Primordial is one of those bands that is really ideology first, aura and image of the band first, and then music. The music itself is flat, only serving to carry a mood while the image that the listener has in mind (given by lyrics and song names — concept) is imprinted on it from the outside. Obsequiae work in a similar way, except that they take it a step further and actually make use of musical patterns that evoke the era they are using as theme. They also surpass Primordial in that in the short-term, songs are far more dynamic and in Aria of Vernal Tombs particularly coordinate wonderfully with the vocal pulse.
Obsequiae could still move beyond this “cool-riff” sequence approach and give us much stronger songs — and perhaps a conceptual album extending beyond the lyrical and well into the music. Inserting interludes is only the easy way to do this. Metal bands like Blind Guardian, Rhapsody and even Morbid Angel (on Blessed are the Sick) have done this light and easy concept album arranging, each going further in different ways. Obsequiae and any band looking for using relatively simple yet self-contained and solid songs as the bricks for a strong concept album can look up to Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Until now Obsequiae have only given us scattered ideas in an obviously consistent and distinguishable language. And if music is a language of some kind, Aria of Vernal Tombs is one message in a loop of synonyms and like-words drawn from a thesaurus.
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.
When receiving descriptions of new releases from labels, one can read all sort of outrageous and preposterous claims on par with “the beginning of a new era in metal”, “unprecedented innovation”, “I’m tougher than Vladimir Putin” or “We went to Afghanistan to bring democracy to the people”. It wasn’t all that surprising, then, to read the first introductory line and find that young Indonesian band Exhumation was being hailed as a classic. I rolled my eyes at this and proceeded to get my face punched.
Exhumation plays a violent proto-black metal in the vein of Sarcófago and an aftertaste of Blasphemy. I will stress that they play in the vein of those bands. But they escape the clone-curse and give the listener a familiar but altogether new and original experience. As underground metal styles death and black have moved well past the initial stages of formation and definition, most bands have turned to simple rehashing or attempts at innovation. Unfortunately innovation is often perceived superficially. We should talk about progress and not innovation, which is often confused with novelty. I would not hesitate to call this album true progress. Albeit a conservative, cautious progress in this particular style.
Opus Death, a silly title which made me seriously doubt the album at first, is Exhumation’s second album. Exhumation understand the language and are proficient users of the same, knowing how to formulate their own statements. Not only are they original in what they say, but they also learn from the classics by avoiding their errors and carefully expanding where there is potential to expand. Ideas and the riffs they span let the listener become familiar with them as is required in the black metal tradition, but they do not overstay their visit nor overstep their roles. Transition riffs are adequately unstable and work effectively with drum patterns to create the gasping effect so that the listener can breath before the music goes on, unrelenting.
Both highly chromatic, Slayeresque solos as well the simple, rough and tonal melodies make an appearance in the record without sounding disparate in any way. The balance of taste and style always carefully preserved. Much can be said of the placing of the solos which is always optimal and contributing to the emotional upheaval they cause within the emotional predictability of this kind of music.
Another feature of this album that should not be overlooked or underestimated is the use of piano and guitar interludes right at the middle and at the end of the album, respectively. It is hard not to draw a parallel with Blessed are the Sick, but I am willing to venture and say that as to their contribution to the album as a whole, they are much more powerful and relevant in Opus Death. Both beautiful in their minimalist rendition of the harmonic skeleton behind the ripping black metal of the band, they contrast the slaughtering slashes of the rest of the album and serve as inverted climaxes.
Trying to praise this as uncompromising is an insult to Exhumation. Rather, the mature and sensible compromises Exhumation incurs in are what account for the steady and sure steps of their music. It might be too soon to call it a classic, but it sure feels like one. Far from naive or wanting in any technical respect, Opus Death shows us that even though traditional and true underground metal may be difficult to carry on whilst being original, it is not impossible, but we need to look beyond juvenile feelings of rebellion to do so. Metal is not young anymore, act accordingly.
Many reissues of underground Metal CDs, especially onto the digipack format of packaging, have removed much of the experience of being immersed in the total artistic presentation that was part and parcel of the infernal sounds it contained on the disc. This is seemingly symptomatic of casual, background, mp3 listening, which feigns a disregard of anything external to the music itself, while at the same time a reduction of whatever’s being heard, to exactly that: ornament. There’s something to be said about the honest ritualism of setting time and space aside in this multi-tasking age of lifestreams and other such convergences of different faced distractions, in order to access deeper and darker worlds. Interesting cover art and a booklet complete with lyrics and liner notes all aid to this end. Peaceville records reissued a large selection of their early 90′s back catalogue several years ago, with some classic albums missing lyrics or important liner notes. Roadrunner records’ budget ‘Two from the Vault’ series were even less impressive, with their dual-offering reducing the content that once accompanied each album to something of infomercial ‘Best of Country Music’ standards. Peaceville, to their credit, did include some interesting bonus material on their digipacked CDs of the first four Darkthrone albums. This was a series of interviews conducted by the Black Metallers themselves, reflecting on the circumstances surrounding each album.
The reissue we’re concerned with has captured the best of both worlds, heeding the traditional benefit of drawing a listener into the experience of the album with detailed and faithfully imported contents, as well as providing bonus material in the form of a full-length documentary about the Death Metal classic that is Morbid Angel’s ‘Blessed are the Sick’. This commemoration of the great work features a fold-out design that replaces the pages of a booklet with new and old artwork appearing more vibrantly than it would on glossy paper. Delville’s depiction especially, of Satan ensnaring fallen humanity, has not looked more powerful on any previous pressing. Demanding almost childlike interactivity, the digipack is an enjoyable format to get lost in Vincent’s amoral and blasphemous sermons more so than in-sleeve booklets. Full liner notes are included, and like those of the previous album, they intimately reveal more about the intentions and the attitude of these artists, even dedicating the entire work to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
One unavoidable sacrifice to the presentation is the lack of art or logo on the CD itself, because it’s not technically a CD, but a dual-layered CD/DVD. This brings us to ‘Tales of the Sick’, an hour-length documentary about the making of the album, the subsequent touring of the new tracks and its lasting legacy. Conversations with Morbid Angel are limited to insights from David Vincent, whose articulation isn’t quite enough to compensate for the lack of ‘Blessed are the Sick’s lead song-writer and sonic shaman, Trey Azagthoth. And although he doesn’t quite resemble the same blonde-haired Hessian that upheld the Nietzschean spirit of Death Metal since it’s golden age, Vincent provides an interesting commentary on why the album sounds like it does and the obstacles the band faced to achieve this sound. Further to Azagthoth’s tribute in the liner notes, Vincent goes on to describe ‘Blessed are the Sick’ as an attempt to approach Mozart’s compositional style through the lens of Death Metal. Tom Morris of the reknowned Morrissound studios reveals the more technical challenges in engineering one of the most astoundingly crisp and clear sounding Death Metal albums, despite its speed and complexity. Other interviews feature the following generation of Death Metal musicians such as Nile’s Karl Sanders, and a lot of memories from the tours are shared by former managers and sound technicians. As an additional bonus, Earache have included the official music video for ‘Blessed are the Sick/Leading the Rats’, though in it’s original 4:3 aspect ratio. This is a great supplement to an highly influential album, and any real fan of Morbid Angel would do well to add this reissue to their collection.