Morbid Angel - Altars of Madness (1989)

Morbid Angel - Altars of Madness (1989) Cover
Ben Ben / January 15, 2019 / Comments 0 / 1

Groundbreakingly intense yet entertainingly memorable, Altars of Madness is the best death metal album of all time.

Morbid Angel is the first band that comes to mind when anyone asks me to list my favourite death metal bands. In their prime they recorded albums that very few bands can come even remotely close to, not to mention how amazing their live performances are. But I’m getting way ahead of myself here! After all, I’m reviewing the band’s debut album released some twenty-two years ago (fuck I’m getting old!). How did this infamous band come to be in the first place, and can Altars of Madness possibly live up to its current status on this site as number one death metal album of all time? Formed in Tampa, Florida in 1984, Morbid Angel was originally made up of Dallas Ward (vocals, bass), Trey (George Emmanuel III) Azagthoth (guitar, keyboards) and Mike Browning (drums, vocals). Anyone with any Morbid Angel experience will recognise Azagthoth’s name, being the sole member that has remained with the band to this very day, and one of the finest guitarists to ever play the heavy stuff. If you know your death metal, you might also recognise Mike Browning, who would eventually go on to play a major role in sci-fi influenced technical death metal band Nocturnus. Don’t feel bad if the name Dallas Ward doesn’t ring any bells though, as his involvement with the band was short-lived, and he appears to have disappeared from the scene altogether after his departure.

The first significant change in line-up would come in 1985 when Richard Brunelle and John Ortega were brought in to replace Mr Ward, and this new line-up was responsible for the first Morbid Angel recordings in 1986. A couple of demos appeared titled Bleed for the Devil and Scream Forth Blasphemies, but the most important recording that year was to be called Abominations of Desolation. Intended to be Morbid Angel’s debut full length album, the nine track self-financed recording was to be released on their own record label, Gorque Records, but the band was so unsatisfied with the result they decided not to release it at all (eventually it was released by Earache Records in 1991). Any hopes for a hasty re-recording ended when Ortega and Browning quite the band before the year was out, with the latter apparently leaving because Azagthoth was sleeping with his girlfriend. Their replacements were Wayne Hartsell (nope, I’ve never heard of him either) on drums and a charismatic vocalist/bassist named David Vincent (real name David Struppnig), who had the uninspiring history of having produced the ill-fated Abominations of Desolation. The Vincent, Azagthoth, Brunelle, Hartsell line-up would stick together for a couple of years, recording another demo entitled Thy Kingdom Come in 1987, from which two tracks would make up the 7” single of the same name released by Swiss label Splattermaniac Records in 1988.

They hadn’t quite found the ultimate line-up however and towards the end of 1988, for whatever reason, Hartsell was replaced by Pete Sandoval from grindcore band Terrorizer. This would turn out to be the key to Morbid Angel finally being ready to record (and release) a long overdue debut album. Having already made a name for himself as an extremely talented drummer, it would be the juvenile taunting of the other members of Morbid Angel that would push Sandoval into a realm all his own. Legend has it that they would play recordings of music containing drumming that was faster than he was capable of, which drove the competitive (not to mention gullible) Sandoval to practice to such extreme levels that he would regularly be found asleep in a pile of sweat on the floor. Of course the drums on the material played to him were entirely computerised, but the end result was that Sandoval raised the bar on death metal drumming to a level unparalleled at that time. With Earache Records impressed enough with the material produced so far to offer the band a record deal, Azagthoth, Vincent, Brunelle and Sandoval entered Tampa’s Morrisound Studios early in 1989 to record Altars of Madness. It would be the fourth in a long line of important death metal releases to be recorded in the studio during this period with the first three being Atheist’s Piece of Time, Death’s Leprosy and Sepultura’s Beneath the Remains, although the latter was only mixed at Morrisound.

One can’t underestimate the effect Altars of Madness had on the world of extreme metal when released in May 1989. While other bands, in particular Chuck Schuldiner’s Death, had begun to craft death metal into a genre of its own and not just an intensity-modified version of thrash metal, Morbid Angel took it to a faster, darker and far more evil place. I highly recommend anyone that doubts the above comment to listen to pre 1989 material from the likes of Death, Bolt Thrower, Sepultura and Possessed, and compare it with tracks like Suffocation, Maze of Torment or Blasphemy. The pure intensity and aggression mixed with incredible musical ability and Azagthoth’s interests in the occult, ancient magic and the Necronomicon all combined for a life-changing, not to mention frightening, experience. I distinctly remember as a young teenager being both horrified and morbidly fascinated with photos in the album sleeve of a demonic looking Azagthoth playing guitar with blood all over his face and running down his arms on stage. It felt blasphemous and wicked to be listening to Altars of Madness and the individuals behind it were very clearly messing with unnatural forces beyond my understanding to be able to produce such sounds. I felt dirty after every listen, but I couldn’t help but press play again and again. I still feel the same urge today over twenty years later, and while I may be fairly immune to the discomfort I felt in my unexposed youth, the album is no less effective.

Probably the most amazing thing about Altars of Madness is how memorable and distinctive each track is given the insane level of energy and darkness emanating from each and every one. There are very easily distinguishable features that make up classics such as Immortal Rites, Suffocation, Blasphemy, Evil Spells and the infamous Chapel of Ghoul, and Dave Vincent’s easily decipherable vocals make them all surprisingly sing-along friendly. I’m by no means suggesting that Altars of Madness should be anyone’s choice for karaoke night, but tell me you don’t find yourself raising the horns, scrunching up your face in an apparently evil grimace before roaring “crush the priest, the feeble church, the family of dog, lust upon my altar” before coughing your guts up because only 1% of the world’s population can possibly produce sounds this intense without destroying their vocal chords within seconds! Speaking of Vincent’s vocals, he certainly sounds a lot deeper on future releases, yet his more raspy growls here somehow work perfectly with the Altars of Madness material, so much so that it just doesn’t sound quite right in the live environment when the man roars from the depths. Not that I’d ever complain though, as in my opinion Dave Vincent is hands down the number one death metal vocalist, which makes his recent rejoining into Morbid Angel cause for much excitement.

I could bang on about Azagthoth’s leads, Sandoval’s incredible time changes, the pioneering chunky mid paced rhythms, or any other number of elements, but I’ll cut to the chase and lay it out there nice and clear. Considering the performances of all involved, the unrelentingly intense atmosphere, the memorable songwriting and the sheer groundbreaking ferocity found on Morbid Angel’s debut full length album, I don’t have any hesitation in calling Altars of Madness the best straight death metal album ever created (and by straight I’m intentionally excluding the more progressive subgenre for which there’s no real comparison). So much of what comes out these days, including the band’s own work unfortunately, simply pales in comparison, making its formation so early in the game an amazing achievement. I can’t finish this review without finally mentioning that the cover artwork was the first major piece by the now infamous Dan Seagrave (he had previously only produced work for little known bands Hydra Vein, Lawnmower Deth and Metal Duck). Apparently representing all the different moods of man, the Altars of Madness cover is by no means his best work and in some ways fails to represent the contents within thematically. It is however a warped and mesmerizing piece of work that reveals more every time you experience it, which is a description that can easily be applied to this masterpiece death metal album. Damn essential!

SilentScream213 SilentScream213 / November 05, 2020 / Comments 0 / 0

Since its inception in the late 80’s, Death Metal has become one of the most adaptive and varied subgenres of Metal. The vast amount of styles and incorporations added to it are nothing short of amazing for what was originally a very strict and niche genre. I personally am a huge fan of everything the genre became and what was done with it, and what’s still being done and changed. But sometimes, there’s nothing better than some gold old fashioned honest to Satan Death Metal.

Altars of Madness is Death Metal perfected in its purest form. Every song just consists of masterful playing on every front, and only the very best of evil dissonant riffs shredding one after another. Songwriting and song structures are far from simple, adding in loads of substance between the all-out blast beat riffing. The vocals are some of the best in OSDM, very intelligible growls with decent lyrical writing to back them up.

There’s not much else to say about this beast. Pure Death Metal incarnate.

Vinny Vinny / March 18, 2019 / Comments 0 / 0

"One man's insanity is another man's genius and from these altars of madness the heretic rejoices in things unseen"

According to Trey Azagthoth there was no more fitting a title for their debut album than Altars of Madness. Anyone who has heard it would be hard pushed to disagree. The classic line-up of the aforementioned Azagthoth, fellow guitarist Richard Brunelle (R.I.P 2019), drummer Pete Sandoval and bassist/vocalist David Vincent conjured a mind-bending and horrific opus back in 1989 that to this day retains every last drop of the nefarious intent behind its commital to tape.

Altars of Madness is a timeless release. It will still be as relevant in 60 years time as it is at just over 30 years. The true essence of death metal sits within the very grooves of the vinyl that sits on my shelf today. It is extreme, it is full of menace and shock and yet is skillfully balanced as a full-length. The intensity it generates never rages out of control, even in the more horrorific moments, due in no small part to the proficiency of guitarists to cast sonic spells in the midst of tempestuous and violent tides of riffs that temper and add depth at the same time. 

The riffs on opener Immortal Rites mine the very depths of the earth via the speakers from which their hellish sound emits. The sonics score and scorch the air around them as they fire as brief licks that stoke the flames. 

By his own admission, Trey's non-conformity with certain keys or scales made this the music of pure chaos in the face of known foundational order. The album was his opportunity to challenge the norms he so despised and to commit this distaste to record regardless of the confusion that it spread as a result. 

The performance of Pete Sandoval is a masterclass in blastbeats, a show stopping performance in hyperspeed rhythms and calculated auditory punishment. David Vincent meanwhile sits astride of the engine, reving it with his ghastly vocals, dropping in guttural frequency that could reverberate from the bowels of hades themselves. 

Morbid Angel's debut is a complete experience. It is replete with the finest death metal you could hope to hear and is firmly sat in the top ten death metal albums of all time.  For two albums, Morbid Angel were untouchable. Unique in their sound with that cavernous edge to the riffs that seemed to defy the laws of distance and space and utterly devoted to their task of delivering piercing and racking death metal. 



Release info

Release Site Rating

Ratings: 15 | Reviews: 3


Release Clan Rating

Ratings: 10 | Reviews: 3


Cover Site Rating

Ratings: 7


Cover Clan Rating

Ratings: 4

Altars of Madness
The Horde
Death Metal

Death Metal (conventional)

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