Friday, May 20, 2011
Defending the indefensible: Morbid Angel's Illud Divinum Insanus, pre-release
[Ed.: After I wrote this post, I continued my Illud-related ranting at That's How Kids Die. I posted a lengthy comment there—also reprinted below—after I'd spent more time with the record.]
Like every other extreme-metal fan with an internet connection, I've had Morbid Angel on the brain recently. I discussed the build-up to their new album, Illud Divinum Insanus (out in early June), in an earlier post, but now that the record has actually circulated among reviewers and fans—I heard a "beeped" streaming version—aesthetic debates are raging.
To summarize: Basically Morbid Angel—a veteran death-metal band, one of the most respected in its field—has embraced the left-field influence of industrial music (think pounding electronic beats) on this record, and folks are calling foul, portraying this as some kind of jumping-the-shark move. My basic feeling, having spent quality time with their entire catalog, is that this point holds no water, simply because Morbid Angel has always mingled straightforward death-metal badassery with elements of severely questionable taste. Below is a slightly cleaned-up and augmented version of a comment I posted on Invisible Oranges this morning, in response to a flood of blanket hater-type remarks left by prior commenters. Check out the original post for context.
I think it’s worth revisiting the original point made by Invisible Oranges ed. Cosmo Lee: “…every Morbid Angel record sounds drastically different, and also “bad” in some way (too clean, too murky, too strong, too weak).…” [See this prior Invisible Oranges post for context.] To expand upon that, being a fan of this band in the David Vincent years—I’ve been a die-hard since about ’93—has always been about reconciling the incredibly savage and awesome (all of Covenant, basically) with the borderline cheesy. Think of Vincent’s goofball laugh on “Maze of Torment,” or the MIDI-style instrumentals on Blessed Are the Sick or the—for lack of a better term—radio-friendly tracks like “Dawn of the Angry” or Caesar’s Palace” on Domination, both of which I love, but they still walk the line of questionable taste in pretty much the exact same way that “I Am Morbid” does. Then there’s the whole matter of Trey’s constant shouting-out of folks like Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra, or the band’s horrific graphic sense (people have been ripping on the cover of Illud, but what about the cover of Domination?!?). What I’m saying is that, as Cosmo implied, it’s not like Morbid Angel has ever really been some sort of bastion of stone-faced death-metal purism and that this new twist is some sort of huge, shocking concession. Since the early ’90s at least, they’ve portrayed themselves as a bunch of extremely loopy, out-there dudes who happen to be great at writing death metal. They’ve always been completely willing to fall on their face if it meant trying out something different, and I deeply respect them for that. That Trey is so willing to let his dorkiness hang out there—the Super Nintendo shout-outs in the Domination thank-you list, e.g.!—totally endears him to me. I'm a big proponent of "Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself" in any kind of art, and Morbid Angel embodies that in spades.
I think the important counterweight to all this is the Steve Tucker period. While I enjoy Formulas and Gateways, both are far more generic albums than anything from the Vincent years. To me, there are no tracks on either of those albums that can hold a candle to core Morbid Angel masterpieces like “Rapture” or “Lord of All Fevers and Plagues,” and if that was all I knew of Morbid Angel, they wouldn’t really mean anything to me at all. (As it stands, they’re probably my favorite metal band, period.) During the Tucker period, you saw what a “pure” Morbid Angel would look like, i.e., one with a lot of that lovable loopiness stripped away, and honestly I found it somewhat boring. Heretic is another matter—the songwriting and production improved by leaps and bounds on that—but think of all the insane filler on that album! I just don’t understand why people are pretending that this new left turn is any more weird, surprising or (if you want to look at this way) disappointing than any other oddball aesthetic move they’ve ever pulled. The fact is that I'd infinitely prefer a Morbid record sprinkled with weird industrial detours than with tacked-on throwaway tracks like "Drum Check".
I’m withholding full judgment of Illud until I can really spend time w/ the unbeeped tracks. But I can say that I LOVED the wild unpredictability of it the first few times I checked out the stream, and that the more straight-up death metal material sounded completely raging and state-of-the-art. Honestly, I think we should start thinking of this album as a return to form rather than some sort of bizarre derailment.
In response to this review of Illud:
I don’t agree with your assessment of the record, but this a well-written and -argued review. I was glad you mentioned your enjoyment of Heretic in particular b/c a lot of people commenting on Illud seem to sort of wave their hand backward and refer to “old Morbid Angel” as if it were a single monolithic thing. The fact is that while so many people are calling this album out as a jumping of the shark, I felt that exact same way about the trio of Steve Tucker albums at the time they were released. I’ve since come around on Heretic, and there are some decent moments on Gateways and some very intriguing oddball outbursts on Formulas (that swing breakdown in “Invocation of the Continual One” gets me every time), but honestly I think it’s just as easy to accuse those albums of sullying the legacy of the earlier releases as it is to say the same of Illud.
Yes, there’s an awful lot of cheese on this record, but I don’t agree with you that the death-metal tracks are negligible. I actually think the slower songs, like “I Am Morbid” and “Beauty Meets Beast” are extremely fun, not to mention heavy and catchy, very much in the vein of “Caesar’s Palace” from Domination, i.e., this sort of poppy doom/death vibe. And the fast stuff, like “Nevermore” and “Blades for Baal,” sounds totally brutal and committed to me, if not as memorable compositionally as similar stuff from the Domination era (which is clearly the closest point of comparison in terms of the MA back catalog).
As for the industrial tracks, I definitely don’t love them, but I don’t think they’re throwaways. I actually think some of Trey’s most interesting and unusual playing on the record comes on these, esp. “Too Extreme!” The electronic beats are definitely fueling his creativity and songwriting, however dated and silly they might come off. As I’ve written on my own blog—http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2011/05/defending-indefensible-morbid-angels.html—I really think people need to step back and think about how much filler there is in the Morbid Angel back catalog. The last Vincent full-length contained two pointless instrumentals, as well as several uninteresting or negligible songs (“Hatework,” “Inquisition,” “This Means War”). Heretic, as often been pointed out, contains a ton of skippable nonsongs, as does Formulas. Even Blessed Are the Sick has a number of these. Basically the band has always gotten off on throwing these sorts of curveballs, it’s just that here they seem to have spent a lot more time and energy on said curveballs.
I think Cosmo Lee made a good point here: http://www.invisibleoranges.com/2011/04/new-morbid-angel-song. Namely that each Morbid album has its own weird idiosyncrasies, whether it’s terrible production (Blessed Are the Sick) or a totally generic veneer (Gateways). To me, the only flawless one is Covenant, which I think is literally the best metal album ever made. The fact is that almost any of the albums since then could be viewed as a travesty in light of that masterpiece. I totally understand your negative feelings toward Illud, and I share some of the annoyance at the pervasive cheese, but I don’t think this album is an embarrassment or a letdown to long-time fans. Trey sounds great on it, for one (way more unhinged than on the previous three albums, in my opinion) and Vincent sounds extremely intense, whether or not you agree with how that intensity is channeled. I just think that the left-field nature of this album has led people to forget that there have been some very unusual and in some cases inconsistent entries in the Morbid discography up till now. In other words, it’s not as though you’re dealing with an “all killer no filler” band up that has all of a sudden turned into a loopy and unpredictable one.
To sum up: As a longtime Morbid devotee, I think Illud is an exciting and substantial album, if also a frustrating one in spots.
Thanks for reading,