Fair enough, the title is somewhat hyperbolic, but it’s time to take a look at two foundational death metal artists as they were in the middle of their careers. These are selected from the two towers of American death metal: New York and Tampa. By the late 1990s it’s fair to say death metal was struggling. Alt rock, nu-metal, groove metal, and a Western World on the home straight to stability, all chipped away at the driving impulses behind death metal as a movement. As ever, exceptions abound, but metal in general was decimated by the early 1990s rise of ‘cool’ and was left squarely on the outside looking in. Brave soldiers marched on however, keeping the flame alive long enough for the dread new world of the 21st Century, which provided fertile new soil for the sound of misery.
But back in 2000 things looked very different. And the pillar of American metal that is Morbid Angel were in their third incarnation and sixth studio album ‘Gateways to Annihilation’. Gone are the Mike Browning days of visceral occult metal, and the lumbering tanks of the celebrated David Vincent era. Vincent took his leave after the release of their weakest effort at the time, 1995’s ‘Domination’, preferring instead to get with the times and join his wife’s industrial/alternative band Genitorturers. ‘Domination’ – although a quality release – showed signs of Morbid Angel succumbing to the groove epidemic of the time. Enter Steve Tucker, who took the reins on vocals and bass. Follow up, 1998’s ‘Formulas Fatal to the Flesh’ saw a return to form somewhat, before at last we come to this monolithic slab of death metal.
‘Gateways to Annihilation’ is perhaps their slowest release, happy to kick back and let the lumbering horror unfold with patience and grace as opposed to their manic early releases. The guitar tone is fat yet clear, able to carry the weight of the doom riffs whilst doing justice to Trey Azagthoth’s unique tremolo strummed melodies. Most of this music is played at a marching pace or slower, with the occasional blast beat knitted throughout. But more often than not the legendary Pete Sandoval works his trademark intricate rhythms and fills throughout. Drum-purists may resent the triggered effect that Sandoval favoured, but here it adds to the almost mechanical precision of the finished product.
Contrary to what Jeff Wagner states in his book ‘Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Metal’, Morbid Angel’s first priority was not simply to pummel the listener, although they were very good at this. This claim ignores the restrained neo-classicism of their music, which proved to be a great influence on tech death giants such as Nile. Worked into the intimidating tapestry of riffs are plenty of progressive metal leanings, solos which touch on euphoria in their manipulation of key, and unusual time signatures and chord patterns.
Azagthoth has always had a complex relationship with major keys. He is responsible for some of the happiest riffs in death metal (Angel of Disease), but he always manages to blend them seamlessly into more sinister passages of brooding darkness. One of death metal’s most intriguing guitarists regardless of the depths his more recent works sank to. My one complaint about GTA – which is not really a complaint at all – is that the solos are so well written and well produced that they completely tyrannise the music when they appear. They make the listener forget the riffs just gone and mourn the riff that follows for not being as memorable. Although worked well into each composition (as opposed to having the composition serve endless fret-noodling), these solos simply dominate the sonic landscape in a way rarely heard. This however, could be construed as a plus depending on what side of the bed I woke up on.
Immolation’s trajectory proved to be somewhat different. From thrashy beginnings in the late 1980s, their debut, 1991’s ‘Dawn of Possession’ was a promisingly morbid slab of old school death metal. But this was the early 1990s. And Immolation fell victim to the metal purge the music industry was performing on itself after the excesses of the previous decade. Their label Roadrunner Records kicked them off the roster in favour of a more nu metal direction. Left in the wilderness for a few years they returned in 1996 with ‘Here in After’, a unique slab of dissonant polyrhythmic death metal that has aged superbly. After this time they became masters of consistency, and 2000’s ‘Close to a World Below’ remains the gem of their discography.
The production sounds more organic than much death metal. Gone are the bass heavy guitars in place of a razor sharp distortion. Drums are more powerful than ever, crystal clear with a more natural sound to the snare. And Ross Dolan’s voice, although at the lower end of the death metal range, is much clearer than before. Where it used to sometimes blend into the muddy guitar tone it now soars above the music with lyrics being perfectly audible to the listener.
The death metal of Immolation, much like Morbid Angel, bucks the trend somewhat. This is complex busy music, with riffs stacked on top of each other and each placed with precision into the composition. It bridges the gap between Suffocation’s percussive style and the neo-classical leanings of progressive metal. The drums follow a similar vein to Mike Smith’s, in that they are not the key drivers of transitions and rhythm, preferring to work intricate riffs and fills around guitars which determine the architecture of each track. Having said that, the music is slightly slower than Suffocation, with greater fluidity to each passage.
There is still great fury and speed to this music however. But it relies on depth and atmosphere as much as rhythm. Solos weave their way around track. Although expertly played they often serve to add depth and texture rather than to wow the listener with virtuosity and complex melodies. Where Immolation shine is their ability to move between complex riffs played in unison (drums included) only to split apart into a diverse patchwork of complementary riffs, primitive counterpoint, leads, and rhythms, with every musician being given a chance to shine.
At this point I will offer a confession. Immolation are one of my favourite metal artists of all time, not just through the quality of their music alone, but because they were one of the first death metal artists that compelled me to collect everything they had ever released. I would discover many more such artists in the years to come, but everyone remembers their first. It’s a shame that more recent offerings from them have faded to a more generic production-line approach. But Immolation – not being the most well-known of the old school – I will always carried as a pet love of mine. Morbid Angel, despite producing some of the most mature music extreme metal has to offer, were always too big and too distant for me to hold in the same personal regard.
So with that I’ll straight up say that ‘Close to a World Below’ is one of the best slabs of death metal going. It’s not obscure enough to be a hidden gem so much – Immolation are respected and loved by many – but it’s one of a few release that kept the flame burning at a time when death metal seemed to have run its course. Albums like this kept the spirit alive so that my generation who were kids in the 1990s could enjoy and build the thriving scene that we have today. ‘Gateways to Annihilation’ could make the same claim certainly, but Morbid Angel undid a lot of this good with the follow up ‘Heretic’, which saw the excesses go too far, and disintegrated into a confused mess. The same could be said of them shitting out tracks from ‘Illud Divinum Insanus’ across the festival lineups of the world in 2011, but that is a story for another day.