Let’s get this out of the way: Morbid Angel shat the bed thoroughly with its last album, the title of which we shall not bother to mention. However, rather than reflect on how the mighty have fallen, or at least stumbled badly, let us remember the good times, for they surely outnumber the bad.
Formed in the death metal hot-bed of Tampa, Florida, in 1983, Morbid Angel endured several line-up changes, produced a handful of demos and even recorded an aborted full-length album in 1986, before settling on the line-up of guitarist/mastermind Trey Azagthoth, bassist/vocalist David Vincent, drummer Pete Sandoval, and guitarist Richard Brunelle. With this line-up the group finally released its official debut, Altars of Madness, in 1989. With Altars, and its follow-up, Blessed Are the Sick, Morbid Angel established itself as one of the premier death metal acts in the world. Despite the late start, the band would prove just as influential as fellow Floridian act Death in shaping the sound of death metal going forward.
1993’s Covenant was an unlikely commercial triumph, as the uncompromisingly brutal work stands as the best-selling death metal album of all time. 95’s Domination was somewhat less well-regarded, but not without its high points.
David Vincent’s departure from Morbid Angel in 1996 could have proven a crippling blow, but the band found a solid replacement in Steve Tucker and went on to make some of the most challenging and adventurous music of its career with Formulas Fatal to the Flesh in ’98, Gateways to Annihilation in 2000 and Heretic in 2003.
Let us pretend the story ends there and celebrate Morbid Angel’s music thirteen times over.
IMMORTAL RITES[Altars of Madness, 1989]
Altars Of Madness was a shot in the arm. Death had already released two albums up until this point, but Altars Of Madness solidified the idea of a scene in Florida in my mind. To these ears, the album’s opener, “Immortal Rites”, was Possessed on steroids. Possessed had earlier demonstrated that an angular form of hyper speed death metal was a musical possibility, but was not fully realized due to only average musicianship. “Immortal Rites” was Morbid Angel’s claim to the wide open death metal throne, a song anchored by the angular riffs of Trey Azagthoth and Richard Brunelle, and by the whirlwind drumming of prodigy Pete Sandoval. David Vincent was able to demonstrate power and presence on vocals, a presence that even reverberated from the back slip of my original cassette copy of the album on Earache. [Dave Schalek]
PAIN DIVINE[Covenant, 1993]
Covenant is the best selling death metal album of all time not simply because of its major label release, but because it features songs like “Pain Divine.” The verse seems to say: “Thrash? Sure, but isn’t Slayer kind of slow?” The harmonized tremolo riff is one of the most infectious that Azagthoth ever penned, and the unrelenting guitar solos unleash a demonic fury that twenty years later, thousands of guitarists are still trying to imitate. Dave Vincent’s simplistic vocal delivery couldn’t be better suited to a track extoling the pleasures of a BDSM lifestyle. Here, Morbid Angel’s glory still shines. [Keith Ross]
DAWN OF THE ANGRY[Domination, 1995]
By 1995, Nirvana was long dead, Pantera and Machine Head were on the rise, and the pop-punk craze was in full swing. It was also the year that Morbid Angel’s second major label effort, Domination, was released. One would think that they would be the last band to let the new hot thing influence them, but it’s hard to deny the mainstream sensibilities of “Dawn of the Angry”. The main riff is simple yet ridiculously catchy; the musical progressions building from verse to bridge to chorus and back are almost textbook; the lyrics are based on modern warfare and provide a feeling of tough-guy bravado, a far cry from the usual themes of Satanism and the occult. Yet, the solos are still unmistakably Trey Azagthoth, and somehow the whole package ends up being unmistakably Morbid Angel. I dare say there is even a bit of swagger here. Yes – death metal swagger. Didn’t see that one coming; and after seeing a gothed-up David Vincent doing pelvic struts to this one onstage in 2005, I will never be able to un-see it. [Dave Pirtle]
DAY OF SUFFERING[Blessed are the Sick, 1991]
At one minute and fifty two seconds, “Day of Suffering” is perhaps the shortest non-instrumental track in the Morbid Angel catalog, but it is nonetheless devastating for its brevity. The trudging, skull-crushing riff that opens the song foreshadows the group’s later excursions into lower and slower material such as “God of Emptiness” and a great deal of its Steve Tucker-era work. Once David Vincent yells “DIE!”, however, it’s go-time: The group whips through several break-neck riff changes and even squeezes in a maniacal Azagthoth solo, in a harrowing eighty-second hell-ride. This one is a shining example of concentrated brutality. [Jeremy Morse]
COVENANT OF DEATH[Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, 1998]
After David Vincent left Morbid Angel after the release of Domination, the band wasted no time in finding a suitable replacement in Steve Tucker. Taking over both the bass and vocal duties from Vincent, Tucker had a similar vocal delivery and presence within a reinvigorated band. Formulas Fatal To The Flesh is an underrated album; tighter and more varied than the plodding, heavy Domination, “Covenant Of Death” showcases the album’s strengths. Very tight musicianship, a clean sound, and a varied approach to songwriting are all highlighted within “Covenant Of Death”. [Dave Schalek]
BLESSED ARE THE SICK / LEADING THE RATS
[Blessed are the Sick, 1991]
The title track (and more) from Morbid Angel’s sophomore effort, “Blessed Are The Sick / Leading The Rats” is a two-part trudger through the band’s patented twisted riffing and devilish themes. Opening with a brief and deceptively speedy riff, “Blessed” quickly settles into a driving groove, anchored by Sandoval’s flying kick drums, their speed propelling the churning pace of Azagthoth’s sliding, atonal guitar work. At around the 3:00 mark, the band stops dead, re-entering shortly with an even slower drive, further churning the fires of hell, with woozy, oozing riffs and the occasional furnace-blast growl from David Vincent. Morbid Angel does slow as well as any death metal band ever has, and here’s a grand example of how. [Andrew Edmunds]
GOD OF EMPTINESS[Covenant, 1993]
After the first 33.5 minutes of Covenant decimates you with speed, the eerie instrumental interlude “Nar Mattaru” dumps you directly into the staggering B-flat chord of “God of Emptiness.” When the drums come bursting in like three knocks on the Door of Doom, you realize that a whole new metal paradigm has just been established. Sure, Morbid Angel had slowed down before, but these seething riffs were completely new. The watery phaser effect on Vincent’s vocals only increases the swampy murk of the song. “God of Emptiness” crawled straight out of the Florida swamps, and it was here to slay. [Keith Ross]
CHAPEL OF GHOULS[Altars of Madness, 1989]
“Chapel of Ghouls” is an able demonstration of Morbid Angel’s compositional smarts, even at this early stage in the band’s career. The song shifts from the near-stutter of the opening riff into a smooth groove, and then back again, making space for several guitar solos that accent the primal brutality of early death metal with a keen sense of melodic fluidity and oddly searching exploration. And then, of course, there’s the mid-song break, with its utterly classic (and downright swinging) keyboard/guitar riff, which exits, then returns, and then finally gives way to a demonically head-snapping slow thrash break. The kingly climax? Shouting along with all your might: “Saaataaaaaaaaaaaaaan! In the fires of hell awaits!” [Danhammer Obstkrieg]
The leadoff for Morbid Angel’s major-label debut Covenant is what one might call a ‘doozy’. Pete Sandoval hits the ground running and sprints for nearly the entirety of this 4-minute attack, and all Trey Azagthoth and David Vincent can do is hope to keep up. They do, of course—Trey’s combination of meaty riffwork and completely off the planet solos serve to entice and disorient, while good ol’ Mr. Vincent may as well be a cobra with the amount of venom dripping from his mouth. This album has moved a fuck-ton of units in its 20-year existence, and with an opener that’s arguably their best spearheading a relatively clunk-free ride, it’s easy to see why. [Chris Redar]
SUMMONING REDEMPTION[Gateways to Annihilation, 2000]
Leave it to Morbid Angel to open an album with a 7-plus minute hypnotist’s pocket watch of a song. But rather than serve to lull one into a near-catatonic state, “Summoning Redemption” serves to make the listener piss his or her self in fear for the duration. Steve Tucker’s vocals sound downright threatening, made all the more so by Trey Azgathoth and Erik Rutan’s nearly singular repetition of a triple-picked riff akin to a slow and methodical carpet bombing. And that solo?? Fughedaboudit. This is how you do it right here, kids. [Chris Redar]
FALL FROM GRACE[Blessed are the Sick, 1991]
Blessed Are the Sick represented a substantial progression in Morbid Angel’s attack, and the album’s first proper song “Fall from Grace” wastes no time in throwing speed-fiends off the scent. The opening riff is slow, plodding, and sinister, and although the song quickly shifts into more traditionally speedy tempo, the song’s central theme is that hot, slow burn. Things get even slower when David Vincent uncurls his most lascivious rasp for the line “Whores long for my flesh / And my desire.” Death metal as booty music? Why not. Covenant would go on to be Morbid Angel’s biggest commercial success–and with good reason: it rules–but Blessed Are the Sick was a gauntlet of sorts already laid down: “Death metal can be like this, too.” [Danhammer Obstkrieg]
WHERE THE SLIME LIVE[Domination, 1995]
By the 1995 release of Domination, Morbid Angel had long since established themselves as masters of slow death metal. Naming a song “Where the Slime Live” was basically them confirming their lordship over the style. Sure, it’s a metaphor for corruption in all levels of society… but come on, that title is about the creeping, crawling, oozing death metal. One of Trey Azagthoth’s most recognizable riffs highlights the intro and catchy chorus, while Pete Sandoval’s pummeling tom hits showed that the master skinsman may actually have been even better when the tempo was reduced. Seriously, how fucking wicked is that simple step-down into the verse? Extremely wicked, that’s how wicked. For a tune that often sounds like the slow march of some molten substance, “Where the Slime Live” defined the cool factor within death metal. [Zach Duvall]
MAZE OF TORMENT[Altars of Madness, 1989]
From an intro riff that just screams “big time” (and showed that trills weren’t just for Iron Maiden) to the irresistible chorus and every blast beat in between, “Maze of Torment” saw Morbid Angel putting on a master class in exactly how to be great at death metal. And they did this by understanding one simple truth: memorable material requires a balance between the unrelenting violence and the (gasp) catchy elements in play. The former is manifested in a torrent of blastbeats and speedpicking, while the latter shows up during a twitchy, slick bridge riff and a muddier incarnation of the intro lodged between the solos. And that first Trey solo? Him at his “Kerry King doing coked-up jazz” best. [Zach Duvall]