Monday, December 12, 2011

Obituary - Cause of Death (1990)

Released on Roadrunner Records, in September 1990, Cause of Death is the second full-length album from Obituary. Recorded and mixed at Morrisound Studios, this L.P. featured two new members, with James Murphy (freshly ejected from Death) and Frank Watkins replacing Allen West and Daniel Tucker on guitar and bass, respectively. The horror artwork used for the cover matches the atmosphere fairly well, though label mates Sepultura initially planned to use it for their 1989 release, Beneath the Remains. The band's sophomore effort took the intense and morbid approach of Slowly We Rot and added an epic quality that few others dared to attempt. The end result was a memorable record that stands as a classic of American Death Metal.

My first exposure to Obituary was through the track "Chopped In Half", which was only the tip of the iceberg when one thinks about the incredible songwriting found on Cause of Death. Some months later, I saw a kid at school with an Obituary shirt and started talking music. Since he lacked any real knowledge of Thrash, I ended up trading him a mix tape that featured a lot of Testament songs in exchange for a dubbed copy of Obituary's second album. The cassette hardly left my tape player for the next several months, as it completely killed most of the Death Metal that I possessed at that time, with the exception of the early efforts from Death and Morbid Angel.

From the opening moments of "Infected", the epic atmosphere begins to unfold. Some of it has to do with the intros and outros that are included in many of the tracks. This adds something to the overall vibe, but also connects the songs in such a way that they really seem to be pieces of a greater whole and flow well from one to the next. James Murphy's lead solos also have a lot to do with the atmosphere, coming off as much more ambitious than what his predecessor was capable of. John Tardy's sickening vocals sound possessed and filled with a deathlike hatred. The material is quite dynamic, with a good deal of variation in the tempos. This is done in a natural manner, as the songs develop and draw the listener in. One can easily hear the strong Celtic Frost influence in many of the crushing, mid-paced riffs. These, typically, lead into faster riffs that sound more inspired by the likes of Slayer. Of course, they go so far as to record a cover of "Circle of the Tyrants", from The Emperor's Return. Due to the style of songwriting, this fits into the album quite well and many may not even notice that it is a cover song, since it blends in so well. However obvious the bands heroes may be, there is still a sense of uniqueness to the songwriting that belongs to Obituary, alone. The band absolutely had its own identity by this point. Unlike many of their peers, they often let the music do the talking for longer periods of time than what many would consider normal, with tracks like the updated version of "Find the Arise" and "Dying" almost seeming like instrumentals due to the sparse vocal contributions. The feeling conveyed is like walking some ancient graveyard, with an eerie fog hovering over it and the moon prominent in the night sky. Yet something is not right, as many of the graves and crypts are open and the stench of death is ever-present. The melodic solos sort of give things an otherworldly aura, as if this realm of decay is inhabited by some malevolent force. There is a gloomy feeling and a sense of dread that chills your skin, at times. The material on Cause of Death is haunting and memorable, featuring some of Obituary's best work.

The sound is pretty clear while not being overproduced, at all. Having been recorded at Morrisound, this album possesses a very similar production to nearly every other Death Metal album that was recorded there, around the same time. During the faster parts, one could easily exchange the riffs for a similar piece of a song from Spiritual Healing, Deicide, Harmony Corruption, The Ten Commandments or any number of others and one would be hard-pressed to notice. While the band may have benefited from going to a different studio, the sound does not do much to damage the impact of the music and Obituary's superior songwriting still manages to shine through.

Cause of Death is an essential slab of early Death Metal. While The End Complete may have sold more copies, it was off of the hard work put forth by Slowly We Rot and Cause of Death that it did so. The band would never again reach this level of creativity or overall quality. This material kills what most other Death Metal bands were releasing during that same year and is an absolute classic of the sub-genre. This comes highly recommended and should be a part of any self-respecting Metalhead's record collection.