By Antony Illingworth
Florida. The idealistic place for sand, sea, and of course…death metal! The date is May 12th 1989, and the metal scene has just been split wide open by four musicians, who have just released an iconic piece of music to the unsuspecting public like a crouching tiger. The album, titled Altars Of Madness, is and always will be Morbid Angels' finest hour. Although I didn't get into the death metal scene until I hit my teens, the minute I hit play on this album, it commanded me to sit down, shut up and listen; and that's exactly what I did.
If you enjoy thunderous riffs that blow you away then the opening of "Immortal Rites" will slake your thirst, with guitarists Azagthoth and Brunelle delivering a blow that makes you sit up and take a breath; whilst Vincent growls out lyrics such as "Lords of Death, I summon you, Reside within our brains". I instantly understood why so many death metal bands today cite Morbid Angel as a major influence. Immortal Rites has got a groove that makes you want to stop what you are doing, throw the horns and bang your head regardless of where you are.
"Suffocation" is next on the list, and hits harder than its predecessor -starting off slow and heavy. This time drummer Sandoval shows what he is made of, and throws everything right out the window; here you can hear the thrash roots behind the tempo and beat changes. There’s even a thrash style solo battered out by Brunelle that could rival The Big 4. Songs like this are what helped define the death metal genre to what it is today. While the lyrics are not amazingly written, it's the vocals and superb bass playing by Vincent that give this song what would soon be characteristic of death metal.
Proving there’s no rest for the wicked - "Visions from the Dark Side" is our next stop on this album; with a drum opening from Sandoval that’s so good it makes me wonder why many metal drummers don't list him as an influence. Azagthoth tears Visions a new one at the two minute mark, with a blistering solo that rivals the best work of thrash’s greatest (Mustaine, Skolnick, etc.); proving that speed metal is one of the founding factors and major influences behind the band’s music. Everything about this song screams that is a thrash song, it’s only due to Sandoval’s drum fills and Vincent’s guttural growling of the title lyric throughout that you realise that it is something far beyond that!
"Maze Of Torment" is track four of our journey into madness, and if you haven't yet started or given yourself severe whiplash from the amazing opportunities to bang your head, then I'm afraid, my friends, that you are paralysed from the neck up. The opening riff and the satanic laugh make this track in all sense of the word - evil. Vincent growls constantly over the screaming riffs of Azagthoth and Brunelle, which is layered over the amazing blast beats given by Sandoval; making for perfect headbanging material.
"Lord of All Fevers and Plague" is probably the only track on this album that takes the basic rules of the genre, chews and spits them out. Lord consists mainly of solos, blistering blast beats, and a Sumerian chant that is repeated throughout which is pretty much indecipherable unless you happen to be reading the lyric sheet. This song is a complex creation but shows that speed metal is very much alive and kicking. Whilst the runtime is unfortunately short, the guitarwork displayed by Azagthoth and Brunelle in the solos alone prove that they are a force to be reckoned with, and could easily go head to head with Hanneman and King (I’m sure people will think that I'd to be smoking something to make a claim like that.)
"Chapel of Ghouls" is, by far, the track which stands out the most for me; the lyrics are fantastic, yet so simple. With the lyrics such as "Useless prayers of lies, Behold Satan's rise" this track takes pot shots at religious sects, and is a no-holds barred, all-out war against extremist religion. Though it is the guitarwork that is again what makes this song memorable; this is the song that 95% of metalheads will name when asked to name a Morbid Angel song. Chapel is my personal favourite on the album and I consider this to be death metal perfection and to be honest, my words can't do it enough justice.
"Bleed for the Devil" is another song with an overtly Satanical theme, which appears to be one of the foundations in the building of a good death metal song. Upon hearing the track, I couldn't help but feel that it seemed rushed, and that the guitarwork wasn't as good as the blistering work from previous tracks; causing me to not dislike it as such, but rather give it a wide berth. It has a few standout moments near the end with a dual solo and has a fantastic drum beat throughout, but other than that, this is a track that I would usually skip.
"Damnation" is track eight on Altars Of Madness and upon hearing Vincent screaming the title of the track over amazing drumming from Sandoval, I knew I had found my second favourite track on this album. Once again this is a showcase for the skills of the insane Azagthoth and Brunelle, but this time it is Vincent that shines through the most. With his wicked vocals he shakes this song to its core, making it as gritty and disturbing as physically possible, along with a meaty bassline, the man is a vocal and lyrical genius, and this track proves it. The basslines are flawless as is the guitarwork and drumming, and with lyrics that could easily incite riots and hatred against the band; Damnation easily shows why the album has held its own, stood its ground and laughed at the haters throughout the years.
Opening with a barrage of gunfire that leads into a blast beat which carries on throughout the track, "Blasphemy" continues the theme of Satanism that this album has delved into; this time straight up attacking the holy spirit. This track is the most melodic on the album, yet still manages to grip you by the throat and before you know it, it’s over, leaving you breathless and thirsting for more from the quartet.
If, like me, you only own the original release of this album then track ten entitled "Evil Spells" is the end of our journey; but by no means is it a slow ride to a shuddering stop, this track is just as heavy and unforgiving as the previous nine. With chunkier sounding riffs and a more technical drumbeat, the band still gives it their all; giving us an onslaught of mini solos dotted throughout the track and a beat that just invites you to headbang along to, (and trust me when I say that you will, whether you like it or not).
This song is a perfect track to end an amazing album and it does this extremely well, with a fade out which signifies the end...
Few metalheads would disagree with Altars if Madness’ status as the album which carved the path for many other death metal bands all over the world, particularly European bands. Given the fact that it was released in the late 80's, it does have its flaws but the production is otherwise exceeding; and any self-respecting metalhead will undoubtedly own this album, in one format or another, or will at the very least have heard Chapel of Ghouls.
Both album and band have stood the test of time. Although they have undergone numerous line-up changes, they still to this day play the classics from this album, and I had the pleasure of hearing two of these tracks live at the Bloodstock festival; an experience that is unforgettable. But as I said earlier, my words do not give this timeless classic the respect or adoration it needs; Altars was one of the keys to the start of the death metal movement. So grab a copy, throw up the volume and be ready to bang your head continuously for the next 40 minutes.
Devil-horns Rating (out of five): \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/