Monday, June 28, 2010

Morbid Angel - Formulas Fatal to the Flesh (1998)

After the departures of David Vincent and Erik Rutan, as well as the bankruptcy of Giant Records, the future of Morbid Angel seemed unclear. On a deeper level, it seemed that the band was creatively bankrupt for some time, taking their music further from its roots and attempting to appeal to the masses. By 1997, they recruited a new vocalist and then began working on the follow-up to 1995's dismal offering, Domination. It was time to get things back on track. Unfortunately, Trey was unaware of the true point where they deviated from their course, so he aimed to pick up where Covenant left off, rather than going back to a more pure time for the band. In February 1998, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh was unleashed.

To be honest, I was looking forward to the release of this album. For me, Morbid Angel was an upper-tier band, based on the first two records, alone. I also caught them live, on numerous occasions. With Domination being their only horrible offering, I hadn't given up on them yet. As a matter of fact, they were one of the very last Death Metal bands that I even attempted to keep up with, as I was extremely dissatisfied with what most Death Metal bands were doing in the mid-to-late 90s. My first impressions of the album are quite similar to my current opinion, though I think I have a better grasp on a few things.

First off, the big change here was in the vocal department. Steve Tucker replaced David Vincent and most people were turned off by this. Many claimed that Vincent was the voice of Morbid Angel and that Tucker was generic and vocalists like him were a dime a dozen. At the time, I felt the same way. Looking back, I was a bit unfair to Tucker, as were most. True, his style is boring and he didn't sound any different from the hundreds of other Death Metal vocalists of the time. However, and this is the thing that I neglected for so long, he put forth more effort than David Vincent did in his last album performance. In fact, it would appear that Steve Tucker was doing his best to emulate the vocal style of Covenant, imagining that was what Morbid Angel fans wanted. Right or wrong, I think he deserves a little more credit than he got. A boring and generic performance beats the awful vocals of Domination. The only real complaint is the section of "Umulamahri" that features similar distortion to that found on "Where the Slime Live".

As for the music, itself, what we have here is a very strong attempt at creating Covenant Pt. II. The more I listen to this, with such focus, the more apparent it becomes. Right from the beginning, "Heaving Earth" is somewhat reminiscent of "Rapture". The comparisons can be made throughout the album, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. On one hand, it implies that the band has run out of ideas and that they are merely repeating themselves at this point. Nonetheless, at least they were trying to correct the mistakes of the previous album and to re-establish themselves. And, really, it's not so uncommon for a band to begin rehashing old ideas, after so many albums. The real concern should be whether or not the music is enjoyable for the listeners. In this aspect, they succeeded. Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, while not being very original, is much more listenable than its predecessor. Unfortunately, it still suffers from some level of inconsistency.

It's already been mentioned that Trey Azagthoth is recycling some ideas, here. One must take a closer look to understand why. Is it that his creative well has run dry? Maybe it was important to reiterate past themes in an attempt to make the definitive statement that this is the sound Morbid Angel shall be known for, and to forget the foul 1995 release. That is entirely plausible. So, upon closer inspection, it may not be a lack of ideas, but rather an effort to reinforce the trademark sound of the band.

Another point could be made that the old material recorded for this album strengthens the argument against Trey's creative prowess. "Hellspawn: The Rebirth" is an old song, from Abominations of Desolation, that was re-recorded for the new album. "Invocation of the Continual One" was, supposedly, written back in 1984 and not recorded until 1997. Between the two of them, that's 12 minutes of material that had to be taken from the past, in order to fill out the new record. In their defense, Domination was the only album that didn't feature a re-recording of an older song, so this is nothing new. In fact, it's kind of interesting that the band could still incorporate old material into a new release. As for "Invocation of the Continual One", this is my pick for best song on the album, so it's a good thing that these old riffs were finally used. Even if the song had been sitting, unfinished, for 13 or 14 years there's no reason to not include it. Sometimes, these things need to ferment for a while before they are ready. Additionally, Trey's vocal performance on this one proves that he could have taken over vocal duties and the band would have, probably, benefited from it.

The final mark of inconsistency is the fact that the album contains so much filler, much of it just tossed at the end, randomly. "Disturbance in the Great Slumber" suits the album well, much like "Doomsday Celebration", from Blessed Are the Sick. No problem there. "Hymn to a Gas Giant" leads into the next song, well enough, but it's not completely necessary. As for the ones at the end of the album, none of those are needed. If they wanted to end the album with some ambient outro, one would have sufficed. Three in a row just reinforces the feeling that things weren't properly arranged and, in all honesty, none of them are worthwhile. Of course, it's simple to just stop the CD after the last real song, so the presence of these "bonus tracks" isn't terribly detrimental.

In terms of production, the band returned to Morrisound (though not using Tom Morris or the dreaded Scott Burns). The overall sound is a vast improvement over the previous album. Not to beat this to death, but it's about as close to the production of Covenant as was possible. The guitars are still muddy, which one could suppose is the desired sound. The guitar solos are crystal clear, really managing to pierce your ears. This may have something to do with the fact that Trey served as co-producer. Also the drums to seem to be mixed in a little better, for the most part.

All in all, the biggest flaw of Formulas Fatal to the Flesh was its timing. If this album had come out in 1995, it would probably have been hailed as another classic. The fact that it was released in early 1998 lessened its potential impact. Since Covenant, Morbid Angel released an E.P. of terrible remixes, the horrid pile of vomit known as Domination and then a lackluster live album. In other words, their stock had dropped in the previous 4 or 5 years. Outside of the poor timing, this album should be considered on-par with Covenant, which seemed to have been their goal. No, it didn't signal a return to the brilliance of Altars of Madness or Blessed Are the Sick, but it was the best thing they had released since 1993. It's filled with great riffs, some really good arrangements and a level of energy that hadn't been seen from this band in years. They really seemed as if they had something to prove. It's a shame that they weren't able to fully capitalize on the momentum that they began to regain with this one. If you haven't given this album a listen, do so. "Invocation of the Continual One", alone, is worth the price of the CD.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Morbid Angel - Domination (1995)

In 1993, Morbid Angel released an album that simplified their sound and presented it to the ignorant masses. As planned, their popularity increased and the record sold well. It was a far cry from their previous works, but it was still bearable. However, in 1995, they crossed the line with Domination. A new studio, a new producer and a new band member as well. Erik Rutan, of Ripping Corpse, was brought in as a second guitar player. He also contributed to the songwriting. I would like to be able to blame him for what happened on this album, as he is the only new element that was introduced into the equation. More likely, Trey decided that it was time to experiment. That was common for many bands, by this point in their career, as well as the era that the album was written and recorded. Whatever the reason may be, the end result was a pile of stinking feces that should never have been released to the public.

It's difficult to even decide where to begin, when attempting to list off the countless faults that this album possesses. The most obvious flaw has to be David Vincent's vocals. His performances on Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick were great, the former being one of my favourites ever. On Covenant, his style was a bit boring and one-dimensional (suiting the overall vibe of the album, really), but it was completely acceptable. For Domination, apparently, he lost any and all will to put forth real effort. I'm not just talking about the horribly comical effects used on "Where the Slime Live"; he sounds bloody awful throughout the entire album. He sounds incredibly weak, as if he lost his voice right before recording. His vocals are strained, pathetic and irritating in every way. It's no wonder that he left the band, shortly after this, as he must have just lost interest in what he was doing. Words fail to convey my utter disappointment in his "efforts" here.

The next problem to address has to be the songwriting. Trey must have run out of ideas, long ago, or become obsessed with the idea of 'making it big'. True, there are still some good riffs that have managed to sneak onto the album, and the solo work is still what one would expect, but the overall composition of the songs leaves a lot to be desired. There are way too many catchy riffs, and it's very blatant. To be fair, even the better songs probably don't get the credit that they might have, due to Vincent's awful vocal performance and the overdone production job.

Regarding the production, it's far too clear and modern for a Death Metal album. Of course, Morbid Angel weren't alone in this and some small credit should be given to them for straying from the typical Morrisound production, but it was too little, too late.

Even the artwork was a joke, as it looked both cheap and too modern, at the same time. The primitive computer-generated art and bright colours was the last thing anyone wanted to see, and certainly aided in the damaging effect that this album had on their career. While it's not important to everyone, I appreciate when the aesthetics fit, and even accentuate, the atmosphere being created by the music. Of course, this abomination doesn't really succeed in imbuing the listener with anything but disappointment, so the cover may be more accurate than it first seemed.

It's sad to see a great band throw away their potential and become a caricature of itself. That is exactly what Morbid Angel did with Covenant and Domination. For whatever they may have gained in the short term, they sacrificed their credibility and have never really recovered. In short, Domination represents the death knell for Morbid Angel. Despite their efforts they were neither accepted by the mainstream nor fully welcomed back into the underground after this betrayal.

Morbid Angel - Covenant (1993)

Covenant is the third full-length from Morbid Angel. It was recorded in Morrisound and produced by Tom Morris, with additional input from Flemming Rasmussen. The material was then mastered, by Rasmussen, back in Copenhagen at Sweet Silence Studios. Of course, many know Flemming from his work on Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, etc. And, in a way, it is somewhat appropriate since Covenant can be compared to Master of Puppets, to an extent. Both are the third album by their respective creators, and both represent the point where the bands' styles were simplified for mass consumption. Of course, this was Morbid Angel's first album on a major label, as Covenant was released in 1993 by Giant Records, in the states. They also made two promotional videos, for "Rapture" and "God of Emptiness".

Though I don't recall seeing either video until a year or so later, those were the first songs that I heard from this album, played for me by an acquaintance from school. Already familiar with Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, I was eager to get my hands on another Morbid Angel album. I didn't care about the new label, nor was I concerned by the fact that they had made videos. I was only interested in the music. Still, after a few months of listening, the weaknesses began to show through. Whereas I would always listen to the first two in their entirety, I found myself skipping past some of the tracks on this one. That wasn't a good sign.

"Rapture" served as a good opener; it was simple yet effective. "Pain Divine" built on this with intense drumming and a great tremolo riff that would have fit well into some of the Black Metal of the era. "World of Shit (The Promised Land)" slowed things down, for the first half, but sitll managed to keep my attention. "Vengeance Is Mine" is where things began to get a little boring. Certain issues with the production start to become more noticeable. For one, the drums are way too loud in the mix, and it seems that the songs rely far too much on Pete Sandoval's drumming to carry them along. It's also clear that David Vincent's vocals are a lot more monotonous than on the previous albums. He mostly keeps to the lower end of his range, robbing the songs of a once-dynamic element. Also, regarding the production, the guitars are even muddier than on Blessed Are the Sick, and there's something about this that always bothered me.

As the album continues, "The Lion's Den" is another fairly boring song, seeming too catchy for its own good. The songwriting has been simplified for Covenant, almost as it they were attempting to appeal to a broader audience. The song structures are more basic and, overall, less engaging. And, somehow, the absence of Richard Brunelle seems to detract from the listening experience. "Blood On My Hands" follows suit, containing one or two interesting riffs, but never realizing its full potential. "Angel of Disease" is another re-recorded song from Abominations of Desolation and, though I appreciate the different vocal approach (and possibly different guitar tuning), it almost sounds as if it's from a separate session. While it is one of the more interesting songs on the album, I think that very fact ruined it for me, since I ended up listening to it over and over. With "Sworn to the Black", the deep vocals and mid-paced riffs return. The album is very tiring by this point, as many of the songs sound far too similar. And, again, the memorable and catchy nature of many of them is irritating after the first few listens. After a brief ambient piece, we finally reach the end.

"God of Emptiness" attempts to be dark, epic and filled with a sense of doom. It comes close, at certain moments, but it fails in the end. The gargled vocal effect is detrimental to the overall atmosphere, and some of the riffs are useless and boring. The song is also very repetitive, repeating the same few verses instead of taking a few minutes to write something else. Of course, with the awful effect on David Vincent's voice, it wouldn't really matter what was being said. As the song reaches its conclusion, it improves a bit with another slow riff and come clean vocals, though not too similar to what was found on "Fall From Grace". The album ends on a decent note, possibly leaving many listeners with the impression that Covenant was better than it really was.

Throughout the album's duration, there are far too many parts where the pace is slow yet the drumming is overactive. The drum fills and double bass are quite excessive. Oddly enough, though the band had simplified their sound a bit, they managed to overlook the kind of simplicity that was really needed. The slow riffs should have been accompanied by sparse drumming, and more effort put into developing their ideas instead of playing six variations of the same song. The clearer production only made the songwriting flaws more evident, as well.

Covenant isn't a terrible album, but it doesn't deserve the praise that it gets, either. It's enjoyable, in its own way, but can be very boring an monotonous. While I can listen to Altars of Madness or Blessed Are the Sick multiple times in one sitting, it's difficult to make it through this one without skipping through half of it. This is a simplified version of Morbid Angel, streamlined and aided by an assortment of catchy riffs in order to appeal to the masses. This was their attempt to grow beyond the underground and, to an extent, they succeeded. Unfortunately, it cost them their dignity and tarnished their name. They would make the full transition on their next album.

Hypocrisy - s/t (1999)

In 1997, Peter Tägtgren decided that it was time for Hypocrisy to call it quits. He was busy with his new studio and seemed to be burned out, creatively. In the span of a couple years, he had recorded albums with Hypocrisy, The Abyss, War and Pain, as well as the countless albums that he was producing. To go along with this, the other members of Hypocrisy weren't really contributing much of anything. As it would later turn out, this was for the better.

After the release of The Final Chapter, as well as the great performance at the 1998 Wacken Open Air Festival, there was a strong sentiment from their fans to continue the band. Perhaps, other factors played a part as well, but Peter decided against disbanding Hypocrisy and to begin working on a new album. Mikael Hedlund and Lars Szöke actually participated a bit more in the songwriting process, but it didn't appear that this was a good idea. Actually, it would have been more appropriate if the band had died when they originally planned, as they've done nothing but tarnish their legacy ever since.

Hypocrisy was released in June 1999 and it was quite a disappointment for many fans. In trying to be somewhat objective, it's worth noting that the overall sound isn't so different from the previous album, upon first listen. Musically, there are a handful of riffs that would have fit in well, on either Abducted or The Final Chapter. However, their are so many things about this album that just ruin it. To avoid being overwhelmed by the multitude of faults that this release possesses, I'll try to simply focus on them in the order that they appear.

"Fractured Millennium" begins with a keyboard intro. This is problem number one. Now, the band had been making use of keyboards since the beginning. The difference was that they were utilized in a much more appropriate manner. This certainly doesn't compare with the eerie intro to "Pleasure of Molestation". It's way overdone, and the listener will find that, during the course of the album, there is an abundance of keyboards that seem to really take away from the rest of the music. One must keep in mind that, around 1999, the whole Symphonic "Black Metal" movement was in full swing, so this may have had some influence on the terrible abuse featured on this album.

The next flaw may be the one that really murders any potential that this album had. The vocals are awful. In some places, Peter uses the same style that he had developed on the previous couple releases. However, he also incorporates more clean voice mixed in with this, being neither clean nor harsh, but a mixture of the two. It's very weak and wretched. He avoids this on "Apocalyptic Hybrid", for the most part, but it doesn't matter so much as that song is rather boring anyway. More often than not, throughout the duration of the record, he implements his new whining style and it may be the single worst element of the album. The songwriting is pretty weak, overall, but even the tracks that could have been enjoyable end up ruined because of the unnecessary variation in the vocals.

As for the songwriting, itself, the main issue here is consistency. On Abducted and The Final Chapter, the songs all fit together well and each one served a purpose to the album, as a whole. Hypocrisy features too many throw-away songs and rehashed ideas from the past. As a matter of fact, all of the best ideas on this album were already introduced on earlier releases. Perhaps, Peter had run out of ideas. That could be one of the reasons that he wanted to put an end to the band, initially. Or, it could be that the other two members, in being forced to contribute something and wanting to make sure their ideas fit into the band's style, simply ripped off what they'd done before. Possibly, it is a combination of both. There are a few songs that could have been decent, such as "Elastic Inverted Visions" and "Until the End". I've always maintained that Hypocrisy really shined when it came to the slower, almost doom-like songs. Of course, Peter's terrible vocals and the horrid production kill any chance that these had, as well.

That brings me to the final element that killed this album, dead in its tracks. The production is too slick and modern. It's the natural progression of Peter's production style, as one can see the evolution by looking back at the previous few albums. However, though I cannot pinpoint exactly how or why, he crossed the line with this one. An album like The Final Chapter can get away with the modern sound, but the self-titled effort possesses too many faults for this to be overlooked. It could also be that the songwriting, itself, had become too modern by this point.

Though bearing a handful of decent riffs, Hypocrisy is a failure and things would only get worse. In the end, this situation can be summed up with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: "One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly". The Final Chapter should have lived up to its name, and Hypocrisy Destroys Wacken could have served merely as an epitaph for the tombstone of this once respectable band.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hypocrisy - Rest In Pain (1991)

Recorded in 1991, Rest In Pain is the first Hypocrisy demo. Apparently, it was recorded by Peter Tägtgren, as a solo effort. He would later go on to re-record the entire demo, with some additional songs, after meeting Masse Broberg. The original version already shows that Peter had a fairly good vision of what he wanted his band to sound like.

Musically, the songs are very similar to the versions that would appear on Penetralia. The production is much more raw, as one would expect from a demo. That being said, it's really not bad, at all. All of the instruments are pretty clear, and Peter's solos are already one of the highlights of the sound, at this early stage. And it must be said that the one tremolo riff, near the middle of "Suffering Souls", sticks out very well and sounds much better on this version.

As it regards the vocals, there's really nothing wrong with them. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why Peter wasn't completely satisfied. His vocals don't compare with Masse's, at this point, in terms of power or focus. Still, they're not very far off and it is doubtful that anyone would have really had a problem if he had continued on as vocalist. All in all, bringing Masse in was a wise move, but not absolutely necessary.

In the end, the album versions are slightly tighter, but this demo serves as an interesting glimpse into the early development of this band. If you are able to track down a copy, it is recommended.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hypocrisy - Penetralia (1992)

Penetralia is the debut full-length from Sweden's Hypocrisy. It marks the only time that the band functioned as a five-piece. Released in October 1992, on Nuclear Blast, this album displays a strong influence from American Death Metal. This is credited to Peter Tägtgren's time living in the states. He played with Malevolent Creation for a short time, and it seems it affected his mentality as it regarded songwriting. Still, there is enough here to prove that this Satanic Death Metal album is the work of Swedes.

Despite bearing some characteristics that were already becoming a little too common and generic, by that time, this album features a good number of interesting riffs and manages to keep its head above water. Peter's solos were already distinctive, as he had found his own style. That is one of the things that brings some identity to early Hypocrisy. As far as riffs go, Penetralia is a very dynamic album. There are a fair amount of thrash riffs to be found and, of course, tremolo picking throughout the songs. Already, as would become more evident as time went on, there were some riffs that had more of a Black Metal feeling. It was this combination that really helped establish the dark atmosphere. Most importantly, as is heard on songs like "Impotent God" and "Nightmare", there are slow doom riffs that really create a dismal feeling. Even at this early stage, it is clear that Hypocrisy's moments of brilliance are, often, during the slow parts. This was something not uncommon in the Swedish Death Metal scene, but there was something darker in the way that Tägtgren structured his songs and his lead solos added to this, quite well.

Whereas most bands choose to lead the album off with their strongest song, Hypocrisy's debut appears to build momentum as it goes along, increasing with quality as you get deeper into it. "Jesus Fall" is a good example of this, with a great tremolo riff that would have worked just as well in a pure Black Metal song. The production and deep vocals are the main things that even give this song a real Death Metal feeling.

The vocals are another thing that set Hypocrisy apart from many of their Swedish peers. Masse Broberg didn't utilize the typical style found in bands like Entombed or Dismember, nor really that of Unleashed or Grave. Masse's voice is very rough and, though his vocal style is quite deep, it still possesses a very raw feeling. Compared to albums like Shadows of the Past, by Sentenced, or even Covenant, by Morbid Angel, those vocalists have more of a refined sound to their voices. Interestingly enough, Peter handles vocals on the title track and doesn't sound too far off from Masse, though his efforts prove even more raw and uncontrolled. It's clear why he didn't feel that he would be a suitable vocalist, and only took over once Broberg was kicked out of the band a couple years later.

The production of the album isn't necessarily unique. It's rather standard, almost reminiscent of the Morrisound production style, at times. However, it's a little rougher and this suits it just fine. The fact that so many Death Metal bands were trying to sound exactly the same, around this time, still fails to make sense. In the case of Hypocrisy, it may have been a combination of preferring the American sound as well as not wanting to follow the crowd and record at Studio Sunlight. Based on the style of songwriting, it's quite possible that Penetralia would have sounded similar to Necrophobic's The Nocturnal Silence, if they had gone there. In truth, it might have been an improvement, but there are no real complaints. Speaking of Necrophobic, it is with bands like this that Hypocrisy had more in common with, as opposed to the more popular Swedish bands. Penetralia also shares some characteristics with Nothing But Death Remains, by Edge of Sanity, and Dark Endless, by Marduk.

The song arrangement is another interesting facet of Hypocrisy's debut album. Particularly, the second half of the album really begins to showcase their abilities. One of the highlights has to be the slow section of "Left To Rot", where a doom riff is joined by a cold tremolo riff, coming together to create something very dark and menacing. "Burn By the Cross" builds on this; after some memorable thrash riffs, yet another slow section draws the listener in and really envelopes them in darkness. "To Escape Is To Die", immediately, catches your attention with the melodic lead guitar riffs and dynamic tempo changes. "Take the Throne" is very similar, in that it features some of the most memorable riffs on the album and serves well to create a sense of tension that builds to the climax of the album.

It has to be said, again, that one may think that the higher quality songs should have been spaced out a little better, to give the record more balance. However, the first half is good enough to keep you interested so that, by the time you reach the second half, you are dragged into the abyss and mercilessly assaulted. As you reach "Penetralia", you are weakened and vulnerable to the most intense song of the whole album. After an eerie intro that features some clean guitar and keyboards, the furious riffs are unleashed and Peter's harsh vocals slice into you. The tremolo riffs are incredible and the drumming pounds through your skull. As mentioned earlier, Hypocrisy always had some Black Metal feeling present in many of their songs. By the midway point, another slow riff is introduced, with distant vocals that soon turn into something otherworldly. Some other, demonic, voices then rise up from the depths and are joined by a haunting riff that seeps into your subconscious. There is a brief return to the sounds from the intro, before the speed picks up again and you are exposed to some great lead solos. As the song continues on toward the end, it picks up in speed and you feel as if you might explode. And then, all collapses and it is over... for now.

Looking at it now, the song arrangement was very wise, as it leaves the listener with a very good impression. What Hypocrisy began on Penetralia, they perfected on 1993's follow-up album, Osculum Obscenum. They soon became more comfortable in their sound and found their style, going on to create one of the best Satanic Death Metal albums, ever. It all began here. This is highly recommended to any fan of early 90s Death Metal, as well as those interested in the early works of this band.