Death Metal Battle Royale Round 1: Morbid Angel’s Altars Of Madness vs Obituary’s Cause Of Death

altars-of-madness   cause-of-death

Impressionistic appraisal: Obituary’s Cause Of Death (1990)
Cleaner and roomier than the sounds of the sewer that was Slowly We Rot, Cause Of Death, and indeed the music of Obituary, belongs to the dreamtime of the genre, and therefore is a stepping stone to grislier pursuits for death metal fans worldwide, but especially so in the part of the world where I come from. Accessibility to any form of metal was rare, once, immeasurably more so in the case of extreme metal; an Obituary tape was one of the most ubiquitous, and prized, items to be found in the arsenal of the budding death metal warrior. The sound is simple and directly traceable to its hallowed ancestor, but despite that, no band has ever really sounded like Obituary. Turned Inside Out is about the best way of describing it to the lay reader.

Analysis: Obituary’s Cause Of Death (1990)
Do Obituary pay royalties in perpetuity to Tom G. Warrior? They should if they don’t, seeing how their sound is as obvious a descendant of Celtic Frost as can be. At least the band acknowledges this debt on Cause Of Death with a fine cover of ‘Circle Of The Tyrants‘; the association with Celtic Frost and Hellhammer tacitly implies a link with even older forebears like Venom and, ultimately, Motorhead, such is the strange, almost teleological evolution of this strain of death metal.

John Tardy’s vocals, albeit done with lyrics and slightly greater enunciation here than on the debut, are still the most singular in death metal, spreading all over the sparse nature of these songs with the feverish potency of a swamp gas. Obituary are master purveyors of “setting the stage”, or creating lead-ups to passages of great and primal energy, using middle-of-the-road tempos and intelligent picking in the way of Black Sabbath on ‘Children Of The Grave‘ to create a sense of heightened expectation in the listener, dousing him in the thick of the action as it were. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cause Of Death is how concrete it is despite expending all its energy into building towards that proverbial edge of the precipice. This is incremental death metal which uses a mixed approach of suspended animation and suggestion to reunite its various discrete units.

Impressionistic appraisal: Morbid Angel’s Altars Of Madness (1989)
Altars Of Madness is a death metal album but in its essence is all about life, for what is life if not the stirring of the spirit or whatever name that life-giving force goes by? Trey Azagthoth and company made a lasting philosophical statement for death metal-as-art, in the process hoisting a banner for an entire community to rally under. Nothing but nothing compares.

Analysis: Morbid Angel’s Altars Of Madness (1989)
Thunderous, thematic, theatrical are the three Ts to describe Altars Of Madness. Morbid Angel construct a dialectic of death metal, where conflicting musical forces indulge each other in dialogue to decide overall fitness. Though not contrapuntal by the classical definition, such is the nature of the call-response aesthetic heard on this album that I’m tempted to coin a new definition for it: “cintrapuntal” (contra-intra-point), or the tendency of a single voice within the context of a song to assume dual, or even multiple, roles simultaneously or by turns. Enacted at the kind of breakneck speeds that Morbid Angel deliver these pieces, the effect is sublative, deceiving the listener into thinking that he is indeed listening to a veritable Babel of demons revolting against the edicts of a jealous God.

Altars Of Madness eschews the layering of textures that would be heard so prominently on Blessed Are The Sick for the nascent fury existing at the turn of the ’80s, when genres hadn’t completely ossified into their eventual forms. Pete Sandoval’s militant blasting renders portions of this album some of the best grindcore never to be acknowledged as such, but beneath that spiked exterior still lurks the sense of biblical, supernatural drama so specific to this band. Azagthoth’s guitar is the voice of order from chaos, a molten liquid cascade of tapping and trilling, and till date the finest realization of the universe-within and the universe-without dichotomy of Eastern thought applied to death metal.

I have often classified guitarists, and bands in general, by the sheer “impossibility” or “undoability” of their ideative processes; impossibility may be the wrong word to use here, but certain things seem more occluded to normal minds than others. I have never received this impression from, say, Metallica and James Hetfield, as legitimately great as their early work is; I have, however, felt so about Dave Mustaine. In the same light, what people like Trey Azagthoth and Robert Vigna achieved remains an utterly individualistic emanation of intuition and subconscious will, which a band like Obituary, or indeed their formative influence Tom G. Warrior, never appeared capable of.

Verdict:
That this match-up registered so evenly confounds me. Obituary are a sentimental favourite to many, but their sound is fundamentally second-hand. Altars Of Madness, however, is a revolution in death metal, the one album that set the line in the sand for death metal while simultaneously influencing several other related sub-genres. Hear it again to know where we come from and what we’re about.

Updated tournament bracket

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