Welcome back, ladies and gents. It’s time for another lesson in Riffology, and, as I intimated in our last lesson, we will be examining another track from Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, namely, “Chapel of Ghouls”. As the longest track on the album, and with its place in the middle of the running order, “Chapel of Ghouls could be considered the centerpiece of Altars of Madness. Certainly, the lyrics find the band at its most blasphemous, but more to our focus, the music is both quintessentially Morbid Angel, and, at the same time, among the most adventurous on the album.
Let us begin with the intro, for it is a key recurring theme in “Chapel of Ghouls”. The Intro is a two-pronged attack, almost like good cop/bad cop. The left speaker guitar, in conjunction with the rhythm section, pounds out quarter note, palm-muted E-flat power chords. (The guitars on Altars of Madness, as noted in the previous lesson, are tuned down one half-step.) These quarter notes form the bars of a sonic cage, behind which the right guitar rages like a mad dog, ripping through a Slayer-like thrash riff. These forces align, however for the final two beats of the riff’s second measure for a chromatically ascending set of three power chords, before diverging again for one more run through the riff. The cage bursts open at 0:07: the left guitar doubles the right, and the whole band joins the rampage.
The chorus riff, which first appears at 00:16, is interesting because it gives the impression of a key-change without moving the song’s tonal center away from E-flat. Up to this point all the power chords have been rooted on the sixth string, mostly low down on the neck, but the chorus spends significant time banging away on the E-flat power chord at the seventh fret on the fifth string. By simply moving up a string and moving a little higher on the neck the feel of the song shifts significantly; the sound is brighter, more like speed metal than death metal. It is a subtle shift that yields surprisingly dramatic results.
The next riff we’ll examine enters at 1:51. This extended interlude puts the chapel in “Chapel of Ghouls”. This fairly busy, bouncy riff is smoothed out into a haunting, almost hypnotic refrain by some synth lines that seem to mimic a church choir. Morbid Angel has never been afraid to feature keyboards in its music, but to my ears, the band uses them the right way: subtly, sparingly, and primarily for atmosphere. You will notice that when the interlude breaks for the hyper-aggressive, tremolo riff entering at 2:25, the keyboards exit promptly. That is as it should be.
Now, dear readers, we’ve come to the section of “Chapel of Ghouls” that really inspired me to write this lesson. The aforementioned interlude riff is reprised at 2:46 to accompany a guitar solo. At 3:19 the band drops out and the song seems to be sputtering to a stop. But lo, out of a miasma of whammy-bar abuse, a behemoth arises! It is, in fact, the intro riff, this time with both guitars playing the simpler, left-speaker portion. Now, however, the riff is much slower, a massive, magnificent, lumbering evil with a capital “E”.
If you will recall our last lesson on “Maze of Torment”, Morbid Angel pulled a similar trick in that tune, introducing a riff resembling a slower version of the intro, later in the song. And if you want to go way back, to one of the first Riffologies, Carcass did much the same thing in “Forensic Clinicism / The Sanguine Article”. In “Chapel of Ghouls” The actual Intro is reprised for four measures before shifting to a similar but more complex four-bar phrase, which is a beast of a riff in its own right. For our purposes, we will call it the breakdown riff. I’m not sure the term breakdown as we now employ it was in common use in 1989, but this is a mosh riff if there ever was one. The first and third measures feature some palm-muted chugging and some grinding back and forth on low-end power chords. The second measure features an artificial or “pinch” harmonic. This technique, which produces a high pitched squeal an octave, or more, higher than the natural note, has become ubiquitous in heavy metal — Zakk Wylde makes a living off it — but it was still somewhat novel in ’89. The final measure of the riff mimics the chromatically ascending power chords at the end of the intro riff, but here they are played as octaves, giving them a lighter, more open sound.
Dissecting this section with words, of course, can never really do it justice. Suffice it to say that, the moment at 3:32, when the intro riff transitions to the breakdown, and David Vincent roars “Demons attack with hate” is, for my money, one of the most glorious moments in all of death metal. This is the stuff legends are made of.
Homework: In the comments post your favorite death metal mosh riff. What constitutes a mosh riff is up to your interpretation.
Extra credit: Learn to play “Chapel of Ghouls”.