Review Summary: Altars Of Madness is an album that, at one time, pushed the limits of metal, and changed the genre forever. Whether or not you enjoy death metal, it may push the limits of your patience and/or sanity. In the end, you'll enjoy it. Satan wants you to.
In the late 80s and early 90s, death metal began to emerge from the vein of Slayer, cranking all the speed and gore to the next level. Early pioneers included, among others, Death, Possessed, Deicide, and Obituary. With them followed dozens, then hundreds of bands, trying to front the new scene of metal quickly rising. Though death metal today is widely recognized around the globe, in the early stages, the music was very much underground, and the music reflected this. What began as an expansion of thrash rapidly evolved into something more extreme. Gone were the political lyrics and rock inclined vocals; replaced by grunts and growls, entailing the apocalypse of us all and Satan, Satan, Satan. While each band added their own perspective to the genre, none were as crucial as one Tampa, Florida, group. Morbid Angel, and their brilliant, unstoppable debut, Altars of Madness, crashed onto the scene and changed (extreme) music forever.
Looking aside from the cultural aspect, and more towards what matters, is the music itself. The first thing you’ll notice, is that the music has a muddy feel to it, but not so much that it isn’t crisp either. The guitars are loud and upfront, mixing their distorted, twisted melodies, and switch between lightning fast playing, to slow, entrancing, sludgy riffs. The drums, which drive the songs forward at an incredibly fast pace, are easy to hear, and often play in time with the bass, creating a demented rhythm of destruction. The double bass pedals (courtesy of Pete Sandoval, the Godfather) are fast, and give the songs purpose in certain passages, never standing out over the other instruments, unlike much of modern metal. And finally, those ghoul-ish growls, barking out satanic drivel. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the growls on this album is that they’re, for the most part, understandable, and decipherable. Never going low or high, they stay at a medium level, which is a welcome change from typical death metal acts. All of the instruments come together, in a mould of evil and talent, and the production simply adds to the feel of them. The gritty mixing makes this album even more unique, and to many, more enjoyable.
Apart from the superb production on this album, the most perfect aspect is the music itself. First of all, every single member of the band is extremely talented. Pete Sandoval’s drumming is quick, precise, and carries the melodies, seamlessly going from chaos to melody. The bass, though often drowned in guitar, has certain moments when it shines, and follows the guitars flawlessly. Not to mention the hellish cries of David Vincent, seemingly from the devil himself. The greatest element of all these, are the riffs created by Trey Azagthoth. Truly haunting, yet at the same, time, catchy. You’ll find yourself humming to “Maze Of Torment” days after you listened to it, much to the annoyance of your coworkers. Every single song on the album has something interesting in it, be it a rather outstanding bass line (Suffocation), a blazing solo (Immoral Rites), or the eerie cries of war (Blasphemy). The most memorable song on the album, however, is “Chapel Of Ghouls.” In the middle of the song, the instruments create one melody as a bridge from the chorus, and a demonic, congregation-like chant starts to sing along. You imagine yourself joined in a dark communion, of unholy acts, far below the world, in your cousin’s basement. That’s right, the crazy one who bit you when you were five. And then you listen to it again.
The lyrics are something I haven’t really touched upon, despite mentioning them a little. There’s not a lot to say; they’re pretty much a bunch of horror-movie style lines. Simple, straightforward, and evil, they’re a little bit like power metal with a twist. “Ghouls, attack the church, Crush, the holy priest, Turning, the cross towards hell, Writhe, in Satan's flames” The lyrics have no real rhyme scheme, and no real order. But the lyrics are made awe inspiring by David Vincent’s ability to growl them; he does so in such a way that they flow with the songs. Instead of speaking them much like you would read them, he sings with them along to whichever melody happens to be writhing around. His delivery turns chaotic, unprofessional lyrics, the likes of which Steve Harris would scoff upon, into twisted words of wonder and lust.
The flaws in this album are few; many can quip over which elements they didn’t enjoy, and what the album should have added. But I say that it has just enough musical talent, creative genius (accidental or not), and unique moments to be revered by many. Overall, Altars Of Madness is an incredible album, and any fan of metal needs to listen to it. Certainly more extreme than your average fair of metal, but also a great gateway album to enter the dark world of death metal. Truly a classic. But I’m sure you already knew that.
All of them, but “Maze Of Torment” and “Chapel Of Ghouls” rank among the greatest