Review Summary: They’re good too.
Once you start burrowing a bit deeper into death metal, looking under the crust of established and well-known bands, you’re bound to get a recommendation of the Altar / Cartilage split sooner than later. With reason, too – Cartilage is one of the finest Finnish groups to represent the style, and it’s a heinous crime that they never recorded an album full of their mildly esoteric, yet ballsy brand of music. Reviews of the split uniformly focus on their side of the record, bypassing Altar altogether or shunning their songs with a brief comment along the lines of “they’re good too”.
In a way, this fleeting dismissal manages to sum up the life and times of Altar pretty well. The band was adequate, showing they knew their way around their instruments, but their music lacked that spark of genius and originality that differentiates the leaders from the followers. They lose out against other Swedish death metal acts (has anybody ever name-dropped Altar as one of the country’s finest death ensembles?), they lose out on the split, they even lose out against their death-thrash namesake from Holland, always briefly acknowledged as “good too” before the conversation shifts to more notable acts. Not without reason, though.
The band’s early work, as documented on the famous split, showcases their take on the classic death metal template that’s been hammered to death, and resurrected recently for yet more abuse courtesy of retro acts. Tremolo runs? Check. Mid-paced riffs with more breathing room? Check. Characteristic drum patterns? Check. Simple underlying musical content? Check. It’s all competently executed, yet standard to the core. Every now and then, a riff sounds a bit more futuristic than the standard Swedish pack at the time, but it’s nowhere near the “okay, guys, where did you hide the time machine?” vibe one gets from Maimed’s lone 1991 demo. You’ve heard this before, there are few deviations from the norm. It’s executed well though, so if you don’t mind the fact that this isn’t anywhere near the best death metal you’ll ever listen to, you won’t be let down.
Not long after the split dropped, a new wave of death metal acts started getting attention, a more refined focus on melody their defining trait. Monkey hear, monkey do – Altar started experimenting with their sound. That’s not to say they turned everything upside down, as their prior approach is still firmly in place. They just casually laced it with various amounts of melody. This little-known side of the band makes for a more enjoyable listen, even though the all-important spark is still nowhere to be found. Their new style is just as studious and workmanlike as their previous sound, but the occasional flowing melodies make for a nice change of pace from the more stripped-down material of old. It also helps that there’s less bands that lived long enough to supply such a transition tape, so it’s interesting to witness Altar morphing a little, not completely unlike the visibly superior Obscure Infinity did with their 1994 promo.
With all that said, it’s not really surprising the highlight of Altar’s career was that one split, and they never managed to have anything else on a label. Until 2012, that is – the constant stream of re-releases and discography compilations (it’s a good time to be into old school death metal) generated the complete works of Altar on CD. Dan Swanö did a mighty fine job with the old tapes, giving them a well-deserved aural facelift that doesn’t ruin the organic vibe 90’s demos had. Clarity is added, you can actually hear every instrument perfectly well. Some muddiness shows up in places, but there’s only so much you can do with an ancient demo recording and the restoration is incredible as is. Thus, if you enjoy your death metal the old way, without fierce sweeps and robotic blasting, give Altar a shot. They’re good too, just not really remarkable.