Death is, to most metal fans, the most important band in death metal, but just as Judas Priest rivals Black Sabbath in its influence on metal as a whole, Morbid Angel rivals Death in its influence on death metal. Chuck Schuldiner was a death metal pioneer and visionary, few would claim otherwise, but Chuck’s early records were raw (not that that’s necessarily bad thing) and his supporting cast wasn’t always spectacular. Morbid Angel, on the other hand, emerged fully-formed with its 1989 debut Altars of Madness. The album featured a rock-solid line-up of players, including its own visionary in guitarist Trey Azagthoth, and a sound that combined precision and brutality in a way that had never been heard before. Let us examine some of this precision and brutality via some riffs from the Altars of Madness track “Maze of Torment”.
There’s no better place to start than the beginning, and “Maze of Torment’s” opening riff/main theme is quite interesting. Though it is composed primarily with the basic nuts and bolts of extreme metal – those being palm-muted sixth-string chugging and power chords – the riff sounds rather bright and shimmery, almost hypnotic. The riff fits almost squarely in the key of E-flat-minor, but there is a little hammer-on-pull-off-trill lick in the middle, from E-flat to E, which is harmonized by the second guitar an octave higher. E is not a note in the key of E-flat-minor, so this lick gives the riff an exotic-sounding, seductive little wiggle of the hips. Trey Azagthoth, being a devotee of Jimi Hendrix, isn’t afraid to dabble with effects, so chances are there’s some chorus, or perhaps a flanger or a phaser giving the riff a little more sparkle. Furthermore, Morbid Angel at this juncture only tuned down one half step (more Hendrix influence, perhaps), which is not particularly low for death metal. This relatively high tuning contributes somewhat to this riff’s brighter sound. The overall effect creates a sort of entrancing siren call, luring the listener in. Soon enough, however, the foreplay is over.
At about 00:29 a classic tremolo picked riff enters. The riff is essentially a repeated three-note, chromatic melody, with an alternating low note that gives it a careening, back-and-forth feel. Soon the second guitar adds some ominously stabbing quarter notes, accompanied by some sinister laughter from vocalist/bassist David Vincent. This lets the listener know in no uncertain terms that torment is forthcoming. And right on cue, here comes Pete “The Feet” Sandoval to blast-beat everything into dust. Old Pete once claimed he invented the blast beat, which, with all respect to Pete, isn’t true, but he was definitely one of the first drummers to bring it to death metal. In 1989, there probably wasn’t anyone blasting faster, and with more precision than Pete Sandoval. The synthesis of Pete’s grindcore intensity, and Trey and Rich Brunelle’s lock-tight rhythm playing set a new standard for musicianship in death metal, and in many ways Morbid Angel more than Death, Pestilence, or any other early death metal band, laid the foundation for all the brutality that would follow.
The final “Maze of Torment” riff we will examine enters at around 3:04, sandwiched between several bars of the main theme. Here the band slows the tempo considerably. With its sliding octaves and rhythmic similarity, the riff comes off as a heavier, more demonic re-envisioning of the main theme. Though Morbid Angel would make an art of the slow-grind on later albums like Gateways to Annihilation, even on its early records, the band knew that the trudge could be just as brutal as the blast.
That concludes our “Maze of Torment” lesson, but the professor is on a bit of a Morbid Angel kick lately, so don’t be surprised if we pray a little more at the Altars of Madness in the near future.
Homework: In the comments, post your favorite song on Altars of Madness.
Extra Credit: Learn to play “Maze of Torment”.