RISING FROM THE MIRE and flies of the Florida swamp in the mid '80s, Morbid Angel shook the earth with their landmark debut Altars of Madness. Seventeen years later they continue to craft America's leading brand of schizophrenic death metal.
Morbid Angel paved the road for the legions: Propelled by blast-ogre Pete Sandoval, the songs were relentlessly fast by the standards of the day. The riffs were coarse but the leads of space cadet Trey Azagthoth came off like chemistry experiments gone wrong.
The hymn "Fall from Grace," on their second release, Blessed Are the Sick, introduced a lithe, mid-tempo style that would become their hallmark. Slower, deeper, more dissonant, they connected with an organic sound that spoke to the darkness in each of us. After Blessed, Morbid Angel became the first death metal outfit to sign with a major label. The band was fully realized with their third release, Covenant, which forged rivers of mud, molten rock, and dark matter into a new fissile isotope of metal. The success of Covenant, including two videos on MTV, set the stage for 1995's Domination. With contributions from evil axe-man Erik Rutan, creating unforgettable tracks like "Eyes to See... Ears to Hear" and "Nothing But Fear," the monumental Domination would prove to be the band's most commercially accessible release.
Bassist/vocalist David Vincent left after touring for Domination, and founders Azagthoth and Sandoval used the departure as an opportunity to change direction. Recruiting frontman Steve Tucker, Morbid Angel released Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, a dark, sinewy, crawling album. Formulas was widely criticized in death metal circles for its under-produced sound and eccentric content. Conceptually, Azagthoth brought the songs into a spiritual realm of his own creation, incorporating positive messages and bizarre lyrics in the language of some celestial being. While the old school was grappling with this new monster, a younger fan base quickly grew and validated the new path.
With the next album, Gateways to Annihilation, Morbid Angel took the new sound a step further. They continued the empyrean themes of Formulas, but without the use of supernal language. The guitars remained stripped down, mimicking a lava flow or an angry horde of termites; the songs accentuated their rhythmic structure and Sandoval's unyielding drum work.
Morbid Angel's latest record, Heretic, is another brutal collection of bent etudes from the abyss, but also the last for frontman Steve Tucker. The void has been filled by the return of David Vincent, to the delight of old-school fans. In addition to Vincent, veteran shredder Tony Norman, formerly of Monstrosity, has taken on duties as rhythm guitarist.
Morbid Angel is part earthquake and part electrical storm. They compress the grind of tectonic forces and the echoes of supernovae into frequencies we can hear and feel. Seeing Morbid Angel might not trigger a metaphysical experience, but at the very least, they shouldn't be missed.