Arriving at the forefront of the Florida death metal scene in the heavy metal underground, Morbid Angel’s debut record, ‘Altars of Madness’, released in 1989, maintains a unique place in history. It’s rough, raw, and as heavy as you can possibly imagine. One thing that sets this record, as well as the band as a whole, apart from their contemporaries is how atmospheric they tend to be. Unlike their brethren from the Florida scene, Cannibal Corpse or Deicide, who focus much more on the explicit and blatant violence, Morbid Angel have always kept things very mysterious.
The opening track on the record, “Immortal Rites”, sets the eerie and mystical tone for the rest of the record right off the bat. What also becomes clear from this song is that, although this is an incredibly raw record, it’s not musically simple. This is a pretty complex record. No, it isn’t quite as technical or refined as later releases, such as ‘Covenant’, would turn out to be, but it’s a definite sign of what was to come. One of the reasons for this, of course, is the band’s axeman, Trey Azagthoth, who has been long regarded as one of the best guitarists in all of metal. Some of his licks on this record are so good that they evoke a jazz-fusion-like precision and a concentration that is reserved for the greatest masters of their instruments. While Azagthoth is rocking out like a death metal Eddie Van Halen, the rest of the band are bringing it as well. The blast beats on this record are damn solid and vocalist, David Vincent, lends his trademark growl to the mix in fine form.
The downside to this record is the fact that the band hadn’t quite found their footing yet in terms of subject matter. Yes, this is a competently written record for the most part, but it does tend to fall back on the recycling bin of extreme metal fodder once it strays off its path. There’s a lot of Satanic and occult-like things going on within the lyrics of this record. That’s fine. When utilized in a unique, creative way, occult-driven metal has produced a bunch of outstanding material. However, what is too often the case, is that a band will dig through those subjects as a cop-out and an easy route to writing a record. Morbid Angel are not terribly guilty of this, but you can tell that they stumbled at times on this record keeping the material fresh and original.
When this record is good, it’s very good. When it’s not good, it’s simply average. Never does this record turn bad. As death metal records go, you could do far worse than ‘Altars of Madness’, and you could also do much worse than Morbid Angel as a whole, one of the conquering titans of the extreme metal underground. If death metal is your thing, give this record a listen. If death metal isn’t your thing? Well, you’d better play it safe and take on something a little bit safer, because chances are pretty good that this isn’t the record for you.