Wow, death metal albums hitting thirty is a sure sign of the times flying by. I’ve probably drilled the significance of heavy metal from 1989 into your heads by now, and if not, you’re either clueless or not reading my material (probably the latter). Rather than reinstating everything about glam metal dying, grunge on the horizon, and thrash metal getting heavier, why not just fill in the missing piece? There wasn’t an abundant amount of death metal releases in the ‘80s in general, but the few bands that managed to kick one out in time managed to change the entire scene for the decade to come. Case in point, Morbid Angel’s Altars Of Madness, which so happens to be thirty years old.
Actually, the band would head into the late ‘80s with songs already in the works that date back to 1986, namely the album Abominations Of Desolation. Unhappy with how it turned out, Trey Azagthoth and co. decided to hit the studio and just shelf it without releasing it (although it would drop anyway in 1991). The world of metal seemed to compete to outdo each other, which we probably could thank Slayer for. This ship was bound to capsize and sink into the waters of a new genre in order to identify the sounds easier. Luckily for Morbid Angel, this had already begun with Death and Possessed, which paved the perfect path to the creation of Altars Of Madness.
With vocals heavily inspired by their fellow Florida contemporary Chuck Schuldiner, frontman David Vincent would bring on a new level of threat. With this, psychedelic-inspired guitar shredding done in odd scales would do wonders once boosted with unsettling distortion and splitting speed. “Chapel Of Ghouls” is a horrific entity of a song, as it capitalizes on Trey’s abilities throughout the entire run-time. It can be found anywhere from immediately after the first verse to the solos before the brooding and monstrous outro. But without David’s hot and crispy vocals, these unholy attacks wouldn’t be the same. A song around demons and ghouls attacking a church is already fucking terrifying (and badass) as is.
The tempo shifts are what really maintain the intricacy throughout the entire album. “Suffocation” opens with blasting drum kicks beneath speed metal riffs, but its descent into the first verse brings the speed to a halt. Fast forward to the chorus, and it combines both angles, with the vocals running parallel to the incredible drum kicks. The bridge is the best part thanks to the bass lead that introduces a slow and menacing outburst of blasphemy. Tremolos and speed-picking aren’t left out of the game, as many of these are pressed deep into the grooves of “Visions From The Dark Side.” Really, most tactics that built death metal are found here.
Classic and more simplified shredders can still be found despite the level of involvement the musicians have on Altars Of Madness. “Lord Of All Fevers & Plague” was the first Morbid Angel song I ever fell in love with thanks to its accessibility and straightforward approach. Tracks like this one reflect the evolving punch that made thrash metal hit a critical mass of heaviness. Album opener “Immortal Rites” takes a similar approach which includes a melodic intro and synths that resemble a string section. For those that are just hopping onto the train of evil spells, I’d recommend starting with those two songs.
I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it many more times; the best albums come from multiple angles that remain consistent. The amount of songwriting tactics that this beast has to offer is pretty high, but every song sounds like it belongs. The hellish overlays are just icing on the cake, and if you ask me, Altars Of Madness boosted what Possessed, and Venom had already started. It was all part of the big push for the Norwegian black metal gimmicks, despite not being black metal itself. The overly satanic imagery would give the corpse-painters a bar to top, which Deicide managed to do a year later as well. Without the extreme nature of albums like this, the heaviness and the horrors could have died down. Instead, it’s still going today. And although death metal was already well on its way by this point, Altars cemented it for good.
Altars Of Madness was released through Combat/Earache on May 12th, 1989. Some old vinyl pressings are floating around, as well as many CD and cassette versions. A CD remaster that includes the Live Madness DVD and some bonus material, as well as some colored vinyl reissues, are also available. Plenty of options to choose from, and as usual, all can be found here.