Isolating an archetype: Morpheus Descends and Monstrosity

Death metal in its purest state is a surprisingly difficult element to isolate. This could be because the disparate interpretations of the form on both sides of the Atlantic based their approaches on very different antecedents – thrash, punk, NWOBHM etc. Or it could that death metal as it is understood today – a set of techniques and aesthetics wholly distinct from other forms of metal – didn’t really exist in the late 1980s, so no one was consciously setting out to create a “pure” form of this brand new iteration of extreme metal. And by the time the genre had solidified into a self-conscious entity, artists had already begun to define themselves in opposition to – or integration with – whatever loose set of musical nodes it amounted to. Death marched off into progressive territory, At the Gates explored the limits of melody in extreme music, and Incantation opened the door to doom, to name a few examples.

Of course pure interpretations of the genre persisted, a Suffocation or an Obituary for example, but they began to look conspicuous by their refusal to develop their sound in anything other than small, incremental steps. The same could be said of Morpheus Descends and Monstrosity. For that reason it could be interesting (and challenging) to explore these two albums as different examples of “pure” forms of death metal. Morpheus Descends offering one fine example of the New York style. The hardcore influence that crept into death metal via Suffocation is well documented, but Morpheus Descends took a similar but entirely distinct approach. And Monstrosity’s debut boasted a diverse but highly direct form of death metal, before the entity moved onto more technically minded territory by the mid-1990s.

‘Ritual of Infinity’ is the sole LP from New York’s Morpheus Descends. Although considered only a second tier classic by many of the internet’s self-appointed archivists, for sheer impact measured against actual runtime, this may be a contender for one of the most significant half an hour’s worth of death metal ever recorded. Released in 1992, this album bears enough similarities to Suffocation’s ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’ for it to forever live in the latter’s shadow. But ‘Ritual of Infinity’ is very much its own beast. The hardcore and thrash trappings are certainly there, with d-beats colliding against heavy breakdowns and the gut punch of densely packed technical riffing.

But Morpheus Descends tap into the malevolence of death metal that was often lacking on the over excited barrages of a Suffocation. Morpheus Descends combine this dense and percussive approach to death metal with some mid-paced passages that scream Incantation or even Bolt Thrower for their earthy, imposing walls of sound. In settling on riffs for more than a handful of bars and centring them with a classically “evil” key signature, it lends the music tension and atmosphere that supervenes on the otherwise strictly business production values.

On that note we should mention the mix, which is a little rough around the edges. The snare drum is tinny as fuck, with some of the subtlety of the double-kick and fills lost in the fudge created by gear not quite up to the task of capturing the intensity of the performance. The guitar tone attempts to compensate for this by offering a distortion clear enough to shine a light on the detailed riffs, whilst still exhibiting a heaviness capable of making those mid-paced passages suitably impactful. The result tends to overwhelm the mix. When all the instruments are synced up, pounding double bass drums, tremolo picked riffs, and thundering basslines, the speakers seem to creak under the weight of articulation, which although probably accidental only serves to heighten the overall impact of the music. Vocals are low and guttural, finding the perfect balance for distorted vocals between dark atmosphere and rhythmic intrigue.

‘Ritual of Infinity’ – despite one of thousands of forgotten or half remembered classic from the 1990s that never stuck in the zeitgeist in the same way as a ‘Legion’ or a ‘Cause of Death’ – deserves to be remembered as a work of balances. Morpheus Descends were an archetype of death metal’s intellectual elements that were reaching fruition at this time, rhythmic interplay, challenging tempo changes, and densely complex riffing. But they supplement these rather cold and clinical aspects of death metal with spirit. There is a pronounced horror influence beneath this music, a willingness to indulge in the overtly ugly aspects of life, so fascinating to metal at the time, and utilise these to give this otherwise straightforward format an unnerving yet infectious atmosphere.

Monstrosity are perhaps more celebrated for their second LP and masterstroke of technical death metal in ‘Millennium’ (1996), but their debut, 1992’s ‘Imperial Doom’ is their most quintessentially death metal offering. Although chiefly remembered today as the album that launched Corpsegrinder upon the world, this album deserves to be celebrated for so much more besides. When using words like “purity” to describe a death metal album we tend to call to mind the blunt directness of Master, or the overt simplicity of Obituary. But death metal is at heart a more complex beast than such distilled violence.

There is order in the chaos. And that’s certainly the case for Monstrosity’s first offering, which eschewed the growing regal tendency of a Morbid Angel, the complex jazz of Atheist, or the back to basics thrash of a Massacre. Instead, Monstrosity offer us a perfect brew of bluntness mixed with complexity. Thrash riffs breeze by in wave after wave of violent speed, finding their flow constantly interrupted by choppy, chromatic riffs that mark significant – and frequent – tempo shifts spread across each track.

In short this is something of a hybrid between the more thrash orientated style of the Florida scene and the mechanical hardcore infused sonic blades of Suffocation. The warm Morrisound mix gives it a more organic feeling than the colder offerings coming out of New York and Chicago at the time, but the percussive tendency is highly visible across this album. It finds its closest analogue in Malevolent Creation, who were attempting a similarly broad survey of death metal at the time, combining the fluid, flowing melodic threads that attempt to articulate themselves over the course of an entire piece in spite of the schizophrenic foundations they arise from. This is a hacked up and mutilated approach to song writing, the beginnings of death metal’s early forays into the dense musicality that is known for today.

For my money Monstrosity were more successful at this approach than Malevolent Creation however, knitting the two competing elements of flowing momentum and stilted disorientation into a unified work of multifaceted death metal with a strong sense of forward motion. One can already hear the more technical elements that would later define this artist’s output, most notably in the rhythm section, where intricate basslines resituate the impact of individual guitar riffs, and drums force violent accents onto every transition with bravado. Even the vocals offer a balance of animalistic rage and measured aggression, with lyrics being easily audible, and delivered in creative rhythmic punches which are set alongside the more primal delivery of elongated screams, signifying moments of particular drama. All this makes for a comprehensive and surprisingly layered work of death metal that was sadly overlooked in favour of the more overt steps toward experimentation that Monstrosity’s contemporaries were taking at the time.

For all their bluntness, energy, and aggression, both these albums are works of subtlety. They encapsulate two equally valid interpretations of death metal in its purest state. The genre’s antecedents are all visible, but they are integrated into a fully matured and sui generis form of extreme metal. One that had not yet taken the next leap forward as many of their contemporaries were attempting to do at the time. An endeavour that would eventually lead to all manner of prefixes deployed to describe the novel sounds buried within new releases: technical, progressive, doom, blackened. But neither Morpheus Descend or Monstrosity were backward looking, they were not screaming for a simpler time and begging for us to return to first principles. They offered nuanced and deeply layered works in their own right. For that reason their appeal remains understated, subtle, but no less rewarding as a result.

As with any week where we have two very strong contenders the choice becomes almost arbitrary. But we are nevertheless going with ‘Ritual of Infinity’ as the pick. It is an album that retains a more distinct and unique sense of its own identity that emerges from the relatively common trappings of genre it was pieced from. ‘Imperial Doom’ remains a fine album, but struggles at times to distinguish itself as an entity separate from its own genre traits.  

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