I demand to know the light of a promised land
I demand to see this corrosion wiped away
– Morbid Angel, ‘Summoning Redemption’
Morbid Angel evolved without pause until Heretic, developing technique and songwriting in a manner that had no previous parallel in the genre. It is easy to overlook the breadth of this feverish innovative activity in the wake of the many bands that have adopted various facets from Morbid Angel‘s first six full-length albums. Admittedly, this endeavor wasn’t always an unqualified success; Domination has been written off by most fans, and with good reason, as an oversimplification of past triumphs. Unfortunately, the same accusation has been frequently leveled at Gateways to Annihilation, too, but for my money, this album remains one of the essential representations of Lovecraftian death metal to have seen release in the genre’s heyday (death metal, unlike black metal, in my opinion has never become completely redundant, but more on this at a later date).
The predominant theme in H.P. Lovecraft’s writing was the fragile and circumscribed nature of human reason in the face of beings many orders of magnitude more advanced than us. After all, as ants are to us, so must we be to them. Different species are separated from each other by irreconcilable degrees of intelligence and morphology contrary to our dearest anthropomorphic illusions. Empathy may be a moral device made from need and convenience but it can never be elevated to the status of cosmic law.
Working in the pulp age as he did, Lovecraft didn’t exactly overwhelm the varmints of his stories with distinctive personality traits, but neither did he leave room for ambiguity concerning their outward appearance and the monuments of their civilization. His human protagonists would routinely be driven to the brink of madness when confronted with the supernatural aspect of these creatures and their relics; radial body symmetries like those of critters crawling on the floor of the world’s oceans, reproductive systems derived from both animal and plant kingdoms, architecture defying the laws of Euclidean geometry, and music composed of no harmonic convention that we know of, would all contribute to embellish these macabre tales with a dreamlike but palpable other-worldliness.
Morbid Angel in the first half of their career had based their themes around Lovecraftian lore, but the music, whilst firmly laying the template for much death metal to follow, never quite achieved the degree of granulation needed to link song and theme. The idea of musical granulation was previously expressed here as follows:
“To create music evocative of places – or any other idea external to the music in general – is an altogether different process from the one of receiving it. It calls on artistry and a level of musical granulation not commonly accessed by the large majority of metal bands. Musical granulation with respect to an idea is the attention paid to ensuring that each individual musical component corresponds to an appropriate sliver of the idea at hand. It then follows that the extent of musical granulation will be large or small depending on the musician’s commitment to the idea, and then – perhaps even more importantly – the tools available at his disposal to realize that idea.”
Nobody will accuse Trey Azagthoth and company of lacking the requisite musical granulation, but glimpses of this phenomenon in action were few leaving aside the odd, overt instrumental. It wasn’t until the closing song on Covenant, ‘God of Emptiness‘, that Morbid Angel created a monolithic blueprint for what would come to be on Gateways to Annihilation. ‘God of Emptiness‘ itself exchanged the subject of the Old Ones for the biblical legend of original sin, perhaps even drawing inspiration from Goethe’s Prometheus:
Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
But more pertinently for later developments, ‘God of Emptiness‘ slowed the tempo down to a crawl, and focused almost exclusively on slow-moving dissonant chords played on newly-incorporated seven strings lending even greater sonic depth. These tweaks in turn pushed the vocal and narrative aspect to the forefront, but without sacrificing whatsoever the development of the song proper itself. Morbid Angel, and most death metal bands from the old guard, were intensely song-oriented, never ones to shy away from repeating motifs and choruses in spite of their generally progressive inclinations, a point of note increasingly obscured by the shapeless nature of modern death metal; the style heard on ‘God of Emptiness‘ simply gave the band more room to render its lyrical-thematic imagery with the desired level of musical granulation.
Formulas Fatal to the Flesh further refined this approach but only intermittently, being still heavily dependent on the recursively brutal riffcraft of Covenant as it was. But with Gateways to Annihilation, the band delivered the most concerted statement of their mythos-obsessed manifesto till then. Azagthoth, either through Steve Tucker’s growing confidence, or of his own introspection, reined in much of the gratuitous waste that plagued the older album. His guitar solos retained all of their newfound atonal-yet-intensely melodic prowess, but their ire was now channeled in service of the underlying composition. And it must be said with the benefit of hindsight that the songs on Gateways to Annihilation are some of the band’s best compositions ever.
That is a controversial opinion to be sure, but there is an organically seamless and self-assured quality about these songs, undersold to casual acquaintance only by their winding lengths and the lack of the once-ubiquitous fast movement. To be sure, there is a huge contrast between the Morbid Angel before Covenant and the one which culminated in this album; not just songwriting-wise but at the level of core musical texture itself; and for all intents and purposes, the two eras can be seen as belonging to two separate bands albeit arising of the same mental perspective at different points of the time continuum.
But hear these songs, most crucially at their points of divergence, when the band breaks ranks from the repeating pattern that has gone before, and that parting logic becomes fiercely inseparable from and indispensable to the overall premise. Put more simply, there is definite a-melodic continuity to be heard here which, like all preceding entries in the Morbid Angel catalog, makes for memorable repeat listens.
“A subject that often comes up for discussion with a dear friend is that of the Morbid Angel of the second half of the 90s and the small scene that came about inspired by the styles seen on Formulas Fatal To The Flesh and Gateways To Abomination. Though not without their individual flaws, bands like Hate Eternal, Internecine, and Mithras carried a certain aura with them that just felt like death metal. This was serious music, technically accomplished to a razor sharp level, that captured a specific pocket of the genre, empowering, martial, and mystical without being self-referential.”
Isn’t that the lasting appeal of this album? Gateways to Annihilation is serious death metal, with no points of levity, the kind which makes you proud to wear its art on your chest in hundred degree weather. All it asks of the once-dismissive fan is to approach with a suitably recalibrated outlook. Easier said than done, granted, it being only human to hold the present to the standards of the past. But Gateways to Annihilation, while not being an outright repudiation of the band’s past, captures them at just the optimum concentric limit of their niche, where the lines between music and theme bled into complete unity.