I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get inside the heads of the people who made early death metal. This is actually a lot harder than it sounds. One could say I’ve been “spoiled” by all the stuff that exists today. Reading Choosing Death has been helpful, because I can read about who influenced who and really focus on hearing that. It is really interesting to hear how the early stuff evolved into what it has become.
The thing that has been hardest for me is to put myself in the position of trying to hear certain things as genuinely original. For example, some of the early Death and Carcass albums I’ve been listening to have songs that would not fly today. They are just too cliche and almost sound like a parody of the genre (though Spiritual Healing has some great stuff on it). This is of course because they were creating a sound that didn’t exist yet and many people would then become copycats of it.
I have to confess that as an exercise this has been fun, but musically I was having a hard time finding something that I found interesting enough to actually write my first retro review about. Then I finally made my way out of what might be called proto-death metal and started listening to Morbid Angel. That brings us to today’s review of Altars of Madness.
The first really noticeable thing about this album is that it still sounds fresh. It has withstood the test of time quite well. Even in terms of recording quality, it seems way ahead of many of the earlier albums like Repulsion’s Horrified (and I’m not accidentally listening to a remastered version or something). There is a remarkable clarity to it. This could also just be a testament to how tight of a band they were even at this early stage.
Before talking about a bunch of smaller things I find interesting, let’s talk about my favorite part of this album: the lead guitar solos. Azagthoth is just crazy on this. The soloing is pure wild abandon. There are times it is highly technical, and there are times when he’s all over the place and almost none of the notes are “real” notes. Instead they are just pitch bent off of the standard notes.
Just listen to the end of “Suffocation,” the second track. Right when you think it can’t get any more wild or intense, it does by dropping into the low range of the guitar. He creates a chaotic almost siren sound that climaxes to the end. Somehow the soloing on almost every track is just as great. The sounds are difficult to even describe in words. They must be experienced to be appreciated.
Now on to some other things. Musically, it seems to me that they snuck in bits and pieces of classic horror movie sounds which really adds to the atmosphere and feel of horror that the lyrics evoke (oh yeah, and did I mention that despite the death metal growls the lyrics are still intelligible?). One example of this is the “synth” parts on “Immortal Rites” and “Chapel of Ghouls” or the repetitive pattern underneath the laughter in the beginning of “Maze of Torment.”
Next is the rhythmic complexity. It’s true that large parts of most songs have pretty straightforward, fast, standard time signatures. But there are lots of places where they change tempos or time signatures cleanly with no warning. This has a really amazing disorienting effect. It actually seems a bit better suited to the intent than straight-up weird mixed meter time signatures. Not that they couldn’t do this, because there are lots of intricate rhythmic things all over the place as well.
I guess I’ll try to summarize why I felt this album would make a good first retro review in contrast to a lot of the other stuff around the same time period that I’ve been listening to. First off, this album is just as extreme and technical as the other stuff, but it succeeds in a different way. The band is much tighter, so that the technical and extreme elements can be appreciated. They also didn’t get caught up in the speed/extremeness wars, and try to become so fast or so noisy that you don’t hear anything and it is meaningless.
They are fast when they want to be and not when they don’t. They stayed true to what they wanted to do. They also added depth to the songs by putting in horror atmosphere and lyrics. The soloing wasn’t all about technical speed, but had an originality to it.
I had listened to this album a couple of times in the past, but over the past two weeks as I really got into it I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more. I now really enjoy it, and I think anyone that is into modern extreme metal should give it a chance. Not only is it an important album historically, but it is also really good.