Review Summary: From skilled followers to inspired innovators: an overlooked death metal gem.
The impact that Chuck Schuldiner and his band Death
had on the metal landscape was immediate, profound and resounding. Years of demos, rehearsals, tinkering and refining culminated in the legendary one-two punch of Scream Bloody Gore (1987) and Leprosy (1988). What made these albums so groundbreaking and defining was their marriage of style and substance, codifying the aesthetic of the nascent death metal genre while showing that raw aggression and finesse in songwriting need not be mutually exclusive. This would prove to be both a blueprint and a gold standard for straightforward death metal, inspiring countless bands across the world for years to come.
One band for whom Death
were an important influence was Morgoth, hailing from the modest and often overlooked German scene. If Florida and indeed the United States in general became a hotbed for death metal, Germany wasn't quite so lucky, though it was not without interesting bands: Atrocity
, Jumpin' Jesus
and, you guessed it, Morgoth. Despite being around in some form or another since 1985, it wasn't until June of 1988 that Morgoth released their first demo cassette - Pits of Utumno; a solid effort perhaps best comparable stylistically to the sound of American bands such as Sadus
and Morbid Saint
. It was certainly good enough to catch the attention of a newly-formed little record label called Century Media who were quick to get Morgoth aboard. But the raw death/thrash sound would quickly fall out of fashion, with many bands starting to favour the more refined approach showcased by Death
's Leprosy. And though many did try, few managed to emulate the subtle songwriting brilliance of that album quite like Morgoth. Their two EPs, Resurrection Absurd (1989) and The Eternal Fall (1990) displayed serious knowhow in terms of crafting dynamic songs, with natural tempo changes as well as seamless fills and solos that never feel like they're trying to be too flashy. In other words, they understood the intricacies that made classic Death
, well, classic. And they incorporated that into their music quite adeptly, although the vocals and production did lean perhaps a bit too much on the Florida sound. The full length debut - 1991's Cursed - continued in a similar vein, with an added touch of slower sections much like what Obituary
were also employing at the time. If Morgoth's Story had ended there, they would have still been notable if only for how well and how thoroughly they were able to emulate Death's sound without ever falling into banality.
Luckily their story did continue, which finally brings us to Odium, released in May of 1993. Tasteful tom drums set the pace before quickly giving way to a familiar sound. The production is noticeably different, drier, less primitive, but overall the opening track Resistance doesn't stray much from Morgoth's established sound. The Art of Sinking follows suite, another fairly unassuming song that mixes things up a bit with crunchy mid-tempo grooves somewhat reminiscent of Entombed
. It's solid, it's respectable, it's what you would expect 1993 death metal to sound like for the most part. At this point cynical listeners are likely to wonder: is this a sophomore slump?
No, or at the very least not in the sense of feeling like an uninspired retread of the same old ground. Submission starts with a moody clean guitar, eventually becoming an equally ominous distorted guitar. Toms take the stage again for a protracted, almost Neurosis
-esque build-up that reaches peak tension thanks to some subtle synth usage before exploding back into death metal. Well then, this certainly is different! Under The Surface pulls no punches either, the buzzing opening riff has a distinctive industrial metal feel to it, as does the steady double bass coming in to support it; it has a driving, relentless feel to it without being overpowering. And when the guitars slow down, the Schuldiner-inspired rasp turns to more of a shout, the toms come in yet again, blimey, it's hard not to say Neurosis
. Drowning Sun takes a similar approach but applied to a more deliberate groove affair, chunky and plodding, reveling in guitar noise and melodic soloing alike in its second half.
So it's time to take a step back and recontextualise. Leading with the most straightforward tracks on the album now seems like a clever way of easing fans of pure death metal into Morgoth's more ambitious ideas here. And upon closer inspection, those first two songs also have traces of industrial influence; obviously the guitar and drum sound are consistent across the album, but so is the very rhythmic approach to drumming. And let's not mince words, Rüdiger Hennecke kills it behind the kit all throughout this thing, obvious highlight right there. But really what's most remarkable is how organically the band is able to fit together ideas from other genres, consolidating them around what is ultimately still a robust death metal core. It feels like a natural evolution of their sound. And it seems to have been deliberate, with more recent interviews by different members painting the picture that Morgoth were not content to just make death metal for the sake of death metal, but approached the writing of this album with creativity and with an open mind. The gothic feel of eerie clean guitar, which does feature prominently on the final two tracks as well, makes a lot more sense when the band cites listening to groups like Fields of the Nephilim
and Dead Can Dance
at the time. Likewise the dry, industrial atmosphere that permeates Odium is explained by references to Ministry
. Guitarist Harald Busse told Invisible Oranges that Pantera
were also acts they enjoyed during this period, while singer Marc Grewe confessed great respect for Voivod
and Killing Joke
as bands that constantly evolved and reinvented themselves. Perhaps none of these influences are overt or obvious here, but in aggregate they help complete the puzzle of what makes Odium such a unique album.
It's no small feat to effortlessly integrate so many influences into a cohesive whole; it's no small feat to create an album with a cold, often mechanical sound while keeping the compositions both organic and dynamic; it's no small feat to branch out from death metal and create something this compelling. Though this record remains fairly overlooked in metal history, Morgoth accomplished no small feat here. And they would continue to push the boundary even further with 1996's presciently-titled Feel Sorry for the Fanatic...