Saturday, March 12, 2011

On acceptance: Morbid Angel, past and future

I am unreasonably excited about the forthcoming Morbid Angel album, Illud Divinum Insanus, which comes out June 7 via the godly Season of Mist label. (Details here.)

When news first started circulating, well over two years ago, that Morbid Angel was beginning work on a new album with its classic-era frontman, David Vincent (he left the band in 1996, and from 1998 through 2003, M.A. made three albums with Steve Tucker in his place), I viewed it as a chance for one of my favorite bands to get back on track. The Illud song "Nevermore," which the band debuted live in 2008, seemed to herald a return to the classic sound of records like 1993's Covenant (definitively my favorite metal record ever) and 1995's Domination, i.e., grandly majestic and deeply rooted in the power of the riff. I celebrated "Nevermore" on this blog in February of 2009, and I see now that the record was originally supposed to emerge that year—yes, it's been a hell of a wait.

In that post, I wasn't kind to the three Steve Tucker–era M.A. efforts. I wrote: "…even after giving them each many, many chances, I still found them lifeless, boring and unmemorable." Suddenly, though, I find myself coming around. It's like I'm housecleaning in advance of Illud, and I'm appreciating old furniture I hadn't given a second look to in years. I've always had a hell of a time with personnel changes—I addressed that in this post re: my favorite band, craw—and I was severely bummed when Vincent left M.A. in the mid-’90s. I was even more bummed when the first Tucker-era disc, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, emerged in 1998. It seemed that I was watching a band that had once towered over a genre like a colossus become mired in all of said genre's tired conventions, specifically an utter lack of dynamics and faceless, non-expressive vocals.

Over the past couple of days, though, I've really been coming around to Formulas, as well as the final Tucker effort, Heretic (2003). I can still hear why I had such a problem with this run of discs upon first exposure: The fact remains that the first four Morbid Angel albums (1989's Altars of Madness through 1995's Domination) are marvels of metal songcraft—savagely intense, fantastically diverse, improbably catchy. To some death-metal die-hards, M.A. in the first Vincent phase probably even got too accessible for comfort, specifically on Domination. But I always welcomed the coherence of those records as a respite from the directionless extremity that typifies extreme metal at its worst.

What I'm coming to understand now, though, is that Morbid guitarist/mastermind (and only constant member through the band's 27-year (!) existence) Trey Azagthoth (pictured above) deliberately scaled back the accessibility and the gloss on those records. Here he is discussing Formulas upon its ’98 release:

"Domination is a digital environment, it’s a metronome, a bunch of fancy things and singing and that which has nothing to do with anything I’m into, it is a very clear sound, a little too clean, maybe a little too industrial. All that has nothing to do with what I’m wanting to do. This album, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh has no metronome, very little digital stuff, the drums are proper, as far as their mics, it's not just a bunch of samples. A lot more overhead and ambient mics. A much more living feel as opposed to a mechanical feel, which I think Domination was."

Now rhetoric isn't everything of course, but I'm definitely starting to wake up to the raw extremity of Formulas. It's a crude, ugly, relentless record that trades the meticulous arrangements of early Morbid for chaotic aggression. When detours in tempo, texture and mood do occur, they're not fluid (as on Covenant songs such as "Sworn to the Black"); they're downright awkward and even baffling. Check out where "Invocation of the Continual One" goes at 1:35:

What in the hell, right? There's definitely some genericness swirling about in other sections of the song (I still can't get with the artificiality of those multitracked "demonic" vocals), but stuff like the 1:35 breakdown is really working for me. What I'm realizing is that though Morbid Angel did streamline in the Tucker years, they never turned their backs on the intoxicating, WTF peculiarity that has always made them so fascinating. Azagthoth is simply too weird a character to ever sound normal.

Heretic hit me similarly the other day. It definitely verges on monotony, but there's enough chaos and variety to keep me interested. Plus, it features one of Morbid's most purely anthemic songs, "Enshrined by Grace":

I can't get enough of that second riff (starting at :15 or so), in which a six-beat half-time bar alternates with ten-beat blast bar. Utterly sick stuff.

I still need to revisit the middle Tucker disc, 2000's Gateways to Annihilation, but overall, I feel like I've got a new, healthier (as corny as that sounds) perspective on the impending arrival of Illud Divinum Insanus. In short, I'm not loading it down with unfair baggage, expecting it to be this messianic thing, i.e., the record that Morbid Angel should have released in 1998, had Vincent not left the fold. Instead, I think I've come to terms with the fact that since Covenant, M.A. has always been a curveball band—they go out on limbs to a degree that can make you really uncomfortable. (Witness all the weird interludes and bonus tracks that mark both Formulas and Heretic.) Their experimentation hasn't always seemed fruitful to me, but I'm learning to be thankful simply for the band's sustained ability to surprise.

Moreover, there simply isn't going to be a return to the classic Morbid Angel that captured my imagination, simply because the band's longtime drummer, Pete Sandoval, is currently sidelined with back problems—young hotshot Tim Yeung is filling in for him on Illud. (At his best—Covenant!–Sandoval is a master of injecting his own kind of stiff, eccentric funkiness into death metal drumming.) Since Sandoval has appeared on every single Morbid full-length to date, I could go and brand his absence on Illud as blasphemous (ha, considering M.A.'s satanic proclivities), but I think I'm over all that now. That would be making the same mistake I made re: the Vincent/Tucker swap. I'll do my best to take what this band gives me at face value, not in comparison with what I was hoping or expecting to receive. The fact is that Trey Azagthoth is a true visionary, one of the greatest American artists working today, and he's never made a record that was anything less than extreme, passionate and deeply fucking surreal. Long live this man's madness, and for the love of satan, bring on Illud Divinum Insanus.

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