Trey Azagthoth is a prankster.
Upon first glance, Kingdoms Disdained appears to be the long-awaited back-to-basics album that fans expected with Dave Vincent’s return on Illud Divinum Insanus. After all, this is the first Morbid Angel album since Altars of Madness nearly 30 years ago to feature no instrumental tracks. And it certainly features less noodling than two thirds of back-again Steve Tucker’s previous albums with the band.
So after the unmitigated disaster that was Illud Divinum Insanus, Trey would seem to have taken the hint and returned to fan service, dropping a pure death metal album. Right? Well, to a point, sure. Every song on here is a death metal song; there are no bits of Evil D machismo, and Tucker didn’t suddenly decide to rap. But to say that this is as straightforward as the band’s early days is also misleading.
It would be nice to think of Dave Vincent’s second stint in Morbid Angel as an elaborate prank. When he came back in 2004, he was met with praise from many fans, as he was the frontman on the band’s most iconic albums. Plus, some felt that they had veered too far from their roots with Heretic, which was poorly produced and absolutely riddled with Trey’s bits of instrumental lava. Hindsight was 20/20, of course, as Vincent’s public persona and image, and influence on the ill-fated Illud Divinum Insanus made fans not only realize that hey, maybe Heretic was actually pretty decent, but also perhaps the band was better off sticking with Tucker.
Trey heard either fans’ cries or his own common sense, because after an 11 year return in which the good part was the band diminishing to legacy live act status (and the bad part was well, you know), Evil D was out again and Tucker was back. The slate was wiped, and fans were eager to forgive the band for their ultimate sin. But then something funny happened… Morbid Angel decided to reject their status as a legacy live act, and played setlists consisting of only Tucker-era songs. On one hand, it was a curious and risky play to ignore their most iconic records (not to mention their part in death metal’s only real flirtation with commercial viability). On the other, it provided further validation for albums that hardcore fans know to be on equal ground with the band’s watershed classics.
After all, upon their original release Formulas Fatal to the Flesh and Gateways to Annihilation expanded upon the Morbid Angel formula, sprinkling in some extra artsiness that, when not overused (as it sometimes was), provided more depth than the band had previously shown. This mindset, more than just the return of Steve Tucker, is the basis for Kingdoms Disdained. Sure, there aren’t any instrumentals making things sound all sci-fi, but the lead work gets pretty out there, and the songs are blunt and brutal, putting Kingdoms closer to Gateways than any other Morbid Angel album.
“Piles of Little Arms” is another prank. As both the lead single and album opener, it was or will be most folks’ first taste of Kingdoms, but it’s basically a decoy. The only other song that is nearly as straightforward is the pseudo-industrial “Declaring New Law” (think second half of Domination minus the synths; it’s the only real low point). Everything else is loaded with various Morbid Angelisms. “D.E.A.D.” oozes malevolence with an almost smartass riff and completely evil groove; “From the Hand of Kings” employs harmonized tremolo riffs to great effect; “Paradigms Warped” gets pretty greasy but stops short of full “swamp death metal”; and several tunes carry a momentum that feels as if it could topple on itself at any time, which greatly enhances the threatening vibe of it all. This album has layers, but because they’re often hidden in plain sight, the details might take a while to fully reveal themselves.
Thankfully, the key ingredient of Kingdoms Disdained is the same as always: the guitar work of Trey Azagthoth. Sometimes he commands the assault, but sometimes he almost sounds minimal, lazy. You can almost picture him sitting in a room, playing whatever comes to mind over a neck wrecking backing track, sporting a big grin because he’s the only person on the planet that could pull off this “evil Eddie Van Halen” quality without sacrificing brutality. The man has a deft touch for riffcraft, and on Kingdoms his craft is surrounded by relentless drives that are probably more relentless than ever. This is among the most relentlessly relentless material the band has ever recorded; it’s relentlesser than a really relentless thing.
Label: Silver Lining Music.
These small variations, surprises, and general bits of “why not?!” are keys to not only pulling in the listener, but also revealing the kinship to Gateways. Another big part of the parallel: Steve Tucker. Other than a thesaurus-load of ways to say “pissed off,” the most apt term for Tucker’s vocals here is hoarse, as if he’s swallowed a desert’s worth of sand. It’s hard to think of a death metal vocal performance that sounds drier, and the tendency to double track deeper growls with higher screeches adds to this effect. Anyone that has seen Morbid Angel live in 2017 can attest to the fact that Tucker is absolutely fired up to be back in the band, and it shows on this record.
Then there’s the actual new guy, drumming journeyman Scott Fuller. While some of Pete Sandoval’s more iconic tendencies are certainly missed — particularly his desire to often ease up on technicality in favor of heft — Fuller does a more than admirable job filling in, and doesn’t just attempt to replicate Sandoval. He’s is huge part of the seemingly unstable momentum, blasting and pummeling the listener constantly while almost adding a Polish death touch to the album. He isn’t Pete, but he also doesn’t need to be.
However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the drum production. The drums are “slightly high in the mix” like Ricky Vaughn’s pitch was “just a bit outside,” and it’s initially a tad startling. Plus, the toms are missing the clear tonality that Sandoval’s drums often provided. It’s the only real flaw in an Erik Rutan studio treatment that is otherwise effectively barren (nice rumble on Tucker’s bass, too), but it also means that Kingdoms benefits from quality speakers or headphones more than most albums.
However, if your first reaction to a new Morbid Angel album is to have gripes about the production, you either 1. Haven’t spent much time with the band, or 2. Need to reset those death metal priorities. Because minor production issues are far less crucial than Trey’s riffs, Tucker’s spews, and the whole goddamn death metal shebang. Thankfully, this record delivers it all in heaps.
Kingdoms Disdained is not a prank, but a curious, indirect bit of fan service. We wanted a new death metal record from Morbid Angel, and we got a new death metal record from Morbid Angel. That it probably isn’t the death metal record some folks expected speaks as much to the band’s talent as it does to how we process the careers of such monumental musicians.
Where it fits within their career is a (silly) question for time to decide. After all, it’s nearly impossible to truly ascertain the status of any album based on a brief period of listening, but even harder when an album is delivered with as much baggage/history as Kingdoms Disdained. Most reactions to this album are destined to range from “relieved because it isn’t another Illud Divinum Insanus” to “hot damn this is great!” For those of us that fit somewhere in between, it’s tough to tell which is the truer statement. It also doesn’t matter any more than a pointless attempt to rank it among the full catalog.
What matters is Trey Azagthoth writing fiery death metal again, with songs good enough to get us to shows to growl and air guitar and generally act the fool for every monstrous second. What matters is sharing in Steve Tucker’s enthusiasm and primal feeling. That more than anything reveals that Kingdoms Disdained is a winner, and fully deserving of the logo on its cover.
To quote an old writer of ours when reviewing another questionably produced record by a legendary band emerging from a very tumultuous period: “This makes me happy. I like to be happy.”
Also, Kingdoms Disdained is better than Death Magnetic. It should make you happy.