Review Summary: Influential? Of course. Good? Hardly.
Morbid Angel's 1989 offering Altars of Madness is widely regarded as a death metal classic. However, this reputation is completely baseless. Altars of Madness is the kind of album that nobody would care about if they heard it for the first time today. This wasn't even that special when it was released. By '89, Death
had already released two albums and every haircut-refusing teenager in Florida was in a death metal band. Death metal was still a fledgling genre though, and any big stylistic changes would be signs of absolute genius. Altars of Madness is regarded more highly than the middle-'90s Death albums that actually displayed these musical revelations.
Drummer Pete Sandoval is easily the best part of Morbid Angel, as his drumming is impeccable. Sandoval holds the ramshackle group together with cleanly executed blast beats, snare rolls, and semi-technical drum fills. He's an excellent drummer, and this is displayed most clearly in his work with deathgrind legend Terrorizer
. If the same could be said for the rest of Morbid Angel, this album's reputation might be warranted.
The next most proficient member of the group is vocalist/bassist David Vincent. His bass playing is either inaudible or very rudimentary work save for a short bass solo in Suffocation. However, his vocals are decent. His screams, shouts, and yelps are your standard old school death metal fare, and are completely unremarkable but not a weak point. However, one of the first glaring flaws with Altars of Madness is Vincent's lyrics. Most of Vincent's lyrics revolve around "the lord of plague," "the feeble church," and the "call of evil." In Lord of All Fevers and Plague, he breaks out into what appears to be a prayer to Cthulu:
"Ia iak sakkakh iak sakkakth
Ia kingu ia cthulu ia azbul
His lyrics are adolescent but passable at best, and downright silly at worst. Death metal isn't exactly the kind of music that should sport "silly" lyrics, yet Vincent's lyrics remain entirely in that realm.
Morbid Angel's guitar work is adequate, but is often lauded as some of the best guitar work in early death metal. This claim is downright laughable. While the riffs early on range from respectable to great, by the fifth track Morbid Angel is already treading water and gasping for ideas. Solos permeate just about every song, and while there's nothing wrong with solos, the guitar tone on Morbid Angel's solos is absolutely disgusting. Any impressive fretwork is marred by an offensively thin tone, and further clouded by a completely superfluous reverb effect. Seriously, just listen to the closing solo in Suffocation for an idea of just how distracting this tone is.
The production, in fact, is the weakest part of the album. Altars of Madness is produced so poorly that the rest of the album is ruined. Some of Sandoval's cymbals are thin or over-compressed, the aforementioned solo tone completely destroys every single solo on the record, and the vocals have an unnecessary reverb effect as well. Beyond all of this, someone decided to put the world's cheesiest keyboards on a few of the tracks, notably Immortal Rites and Chapel of Ghouls. The latter of these two would actually be a fairly cool track, what with all the riffing, if not for the absolutely terrible production.
Is it unfair to complain about the production on a 1989 death metal album? I suppose the lack of bass and some of Sandoval's cymbal issues can be overlooked, but there is no excusing the guitar tone during the solos. Whether that is the choice of engineer Tom Morris or producer Digby Pearson, or even Morbid Angel themselves, it's an incredibly poor choice. Any chance of enjoying a solo or lead is completely and totally wrecked by the combination of a paper-thin tone and completely unnecessary reverb on top of the already god-awful tone. Even after the production issues, there is absolutely no reason this album should be treated like the Holy Grail of death metal. Plenty of Morbid Angel's contemporaries were doing the exact same thing leagues better. Steer clear of this one and ask the nice lady at your local record store to point you towards Pestilence
, or Death
, or Bolt Thrower
, or Atheist
, or Infected
, or really, any other group of musicians playing death metal in 1989.