Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Morbid Angel - Blessed Are the Sick (1991)

In the early winter months of 1991, Morbid Angel entered Morrisound to record the follow-up to their seminal debut, Altars of Madness. By that summer, Blessed Are the Sick was unleashed upon the unsuspecting metal community. From the guitar tone to the vocals, the overall sound is much thicker, lacking the thin and sharp qualities found on the previous album. For some, this is the primary complaint; that the individual instruments fail to stand out as they once did, instead blending together and being somewhat flat. Regardless of this matter, the musical progression present on this masterpiece more than makes up for any such grievance. Whereas Altars of Madness bears an overtly Satanic approach and seems to be more raw and aggressive, Blessed Are the Sick takes you down to a darker place.

It was a dark and gloomy November night when first I obtained Morbid Angel's sophomore effort. Nearly a year had passed since I was introduced to the band, through their brilliant debut. I had absolutely no expectations, going in. Of only one thing was I truly certain; I was set to experience something very significant. Just looking at the cover art, I could tell that something was different. As opposed to the hellish, abysmal image that adorned the cover of Altars of Madness, Blessed Are the Sick greeted me with J. Delville's painting, "Les Tresors De Satan". From this alone, one might discern that a more atmospheric and sophisticated approach might be lingering within. As a result of the time period during which I discovered this album, and despite any failings with regard to the production, I consider this one to be on fairly even ground with the first one.

The first time that I listened to this, the darkness of night encompassed all. Only a few candles illuminated the room as the introduction carried forth sounds of screeching Hell, accompanied by random cries. Almost reminiscent of the early moments of Slayer's Hell Awaits, this set the tone for what was to come. You can almost feel yourself being flayed, as the skin is torn and burned from your tortured remains. The screams get louder until the realization hits that they're your own. A journey has just begun; one that shall take you through the darkest depths.

"Fall From Grace" begins with mid-paced riffs that convey a sense of doom and despair. Sandoval's drumming does well to crush any bits of hope from your withering soul. Just under a minute in, the pace quickens and it becomes apparent that David Vincent's vocals have altered, to an extent. They are still, easily, recognizable while being a bit deeper than before. The images that come to mind are not so much of suffering souls, burning at the fiery depths. No, here one gets the sense of damned souls reveling in the decadence of their own damnation. Trey Azagthoth and Richard Brunelle compliment one another's guitar-playing very well, as the solos flow naturally throughout the soundscape. Near the end, clean and ominous vocals make a sinister declaration:

"I ride the flesh and the sinners of hell
I am Belial
I bend my knee not but for my selfish desire"

Following this, "Brainstorm" unleashes its fury at top speed, hearkening back to the first album. Even the vocals possess more of a throaty rasp that on the previous song. Filled with searing solos and scathing vocals, one would hardly even notice that this track is as short as it is. The pace slows, very briefly, before returning to the blistering speed of before. Structurally, this song is comprised of all the same elements as the others, though the delivery is so lightning fast that it is gone before you know it. Yet, part of the beauty of this album is that the songs may or may not stand on their own. They can, if need be, but they form a cohesive work that serves the principal aspiration of the album, itself.

"Rebel Lands" appears to maintain the frenetic pace from the preceding song, though it quickly adopts a slower technique. For a song that clocks in under three minutes, it is amazing how well these musicians managed to infuse it with an epic sensibility. The solos are utterly brilliant, weaving through like snakes of fire, almost hypnotizing the listener. The hauntingly memorable melodies act as the perfect lead-in for the track that follows.

The title, "Doomsday Celebration", really seems to be like a mission statement for the album, in its entirety. What is heard here isn't so much an anger-filled war upon Christianity, yet the complete and total rejoicing in those ways which serve as the antithesis of those morals held by such feeble sheep. Trey Azagthoth handles the keyboards that sound very much like an old organ, creating some dismal atmosphere befitting of an old horror movie. Transiently, there is some strange imagery created of a war, long ago, but this spectre only burns like an old photograph, lost to the ages. The somber, horrifying feeling returns with the cold winds, as this interlude flows into the next song.

Commencing with, perhaps, one of the most memorable riffs of the album, "Day of Suffering" crushes all in its path. The heavy guitar riffs and pounding drums are accentuated by the deep and hateful vocals. After less than a minute, the speed increases to an almost frenzied pace, and the malice truly bleeds through.

"Lord of light
I will swarm against you now
Gods perverse
Wickeds at my side
Thorns to lance your every word
Now I crown you king in pain"

This is followed by, what may well be, the finest piece on the record; "Blessed Are the Sick / Leading the Rats". Much slower than the previous songs, this one proceeds at a sinister crawl. The blood trickles from your eyes as this hellish atmosphere drags you into the murky depths. The refrain sums up the feeling conveyed by this record.

"World of sickness
Blessed are we to taste
This life of sin"

The song slowly drifts further down into the abyss, toward the realm of the suffering souls and the dreaming dead. Claw and grasp as you might, resistance is utterly futile. Leaving trails of blood behind you, it will only suffice as a lasting tribute to the frailty of the human condition. The song ends with a beautiful and serene flute passage, of some sort, no doubt another trick of Azagthoth's keyboards. It's like watching this terrifying spectacle of a damned soul being dragged beneath the surface, into the grave that shall lead down toward the realm of total suffering. Once the earth closes up, a bird lands on that very spot, unaware of the danger... just then, a hand reaches up and takes the weak creature without struggle. Such images that this powerful music conveys. The lyrics still echo within your mind, reinforcing the dark and grim feeling.

"My touch is inhumane
Nocturnal beast inside
Is void of light
And empty shall remain"

"Thy Kingdom Come" speeds things back up, though it consists of a variety of riffs and tempo changes. Being an older song (appearing on the Thy Kingdom Come demo), this one bears more similarities to the feeling that was imparted by Altars of Madness. This is evident not only in the lyrics, but in the musical delivery. The pace is faster than the demo version though, otherwise, it remains quite faithful.

The next song is "Unholy Blasphemies", which was first recorded for the Abominations of Desolation album, in 1986. Naturally, this version lacks the rawness of the previous one, though it is more streamlined and concise. It is about half the length of the original. Nowhere does it drag, though that impression may only plague the earlier recording only because I heard this one about six months earlier. David Vincent's vocal approach seeks not to match the raspy sound of Mike Browning, rather he continues with the deeper style employed throughout much of this album.

Now, we arrive at the real high point of the whole record. "Abominations" is a song that had existed for five years, already, being recorded for various demos by this time. This is really one of the most atmospheric songs found here, possessing a great amount of dark feeling. After a minute or so, the tempo changes in such a manner as to emphasize the epic nature of this blasphemous piece. One can hear the sound of cold winds, blowing in the background, adding to this feeling. The solos come forth from the abyss, wrapping around your brain and suffocating all thought from it. As expected for lyrics written earlier in their career, they bear more of a venomous sentiment than some of the others, building to a hellish climax.

"Liars in wait, priests of the night
Make images to burn by the moon
Robbing the spirit, raping gods law
Send up our hate, to burn heavens gate"

The sound of the blowing wind flows into the next piece, "Desolate Ways". This compliments the previous song, and truly functions as a part of it. It adds a sense of balance. This tranquil, yet very somber acoustic piece allows Richard Brunelle to showcase his genius for creating melodies that are capable of piercing your soul. This dismal song has a way of reaching into your very core and gripping those hopes and dreams that you cherish so much and sucking the life right out of them. There is a mournful essence, here, that drags your spirit down and leaves you empty. It forces you to relive every traumatizing moment of your pitiful existence and to wallow in the loss of all that you ever held dear. What you hear are not the beautiful sounds of powerful music, but the draining of your soul, to the point of darkness not before conceived of. Overcome with unbearable grief and despair, you are beckoned forth by the luring comfort of the grave. In that thought only do you find any sort of peace.

A chaotic eruption of lead solos destroys the quiet, peaceful feeling. "The Ancient Ones" functions much like a hellish epitaph, moving along at at energetic pace, without really being all that fast. The vocals seem to have returned to the raspier side, as the solos split your skull wide open. This version maintains the old school feeling that was found on Abominations of Desolation (where the song was known as "Azagthoth"). Having picked up your devastated remains, whatever was left after the soul-annihilation of the previous acoustic piece, this drives you on toward the end of all that you ever knew. Picture a withered figure that has fallen near the trail, not far from the conclusion of his epic journey. This song is like a carriage, drawn by black horses, that has stopped by to pick up the remnants of this traveler to deliver them to final damnation.

And, at last, this monumental album concludes with the somber piano instrumental, "In Remembrance". The feeling here is one of finality. It's all over. There is no turning back. No second chances, no resurrection. Sorrow is yours, until the end of your worthless existence. Even then, there is no salvation; no sanctuary to house your wretched soul. It is to the great nothingness that you will belong. Into the yawning abyss, you will fall until there is nothing left.

Blessed Are the Sick is every bit the classic that it is hailed as, one to be revered for the ages. If you don't own this, do yourself a favour and remedy the situation with haste. This album will forever stand as a testament to the brilliance that once was Morbid Angel.