Morbid Angel - Illud Divinum Insanus
Season Of Mist
Death Metal
11 songs (57 minutes)
Release year: 2011
Morbid Angel, Season Of Mist
Reviewed by Jake
Major event

If there's one musician who really and truly doesn't care what you think, it's Trey Azagthoth. Lots of musicians say they're not trying to impress anyone, but saying that is usually an attempt to seem impressive; read some interviews with the founder, lead guitarist and composer of the venerable and much-loved death metal outfit Morbid Angel, and I doubt you'll come away with the impression that he's posing. When he talks about the fact that he doesn't really listen to much death metal anymore other than his own band, or that he's not paying attention to the trends in the genre he arguably helped create and inarguably played a huge role in defining, or that he prefers the solitude of the studio to the fan interaction of the road, he never comes off as disrespectful or self-aggrandizing or hipper-than-thou. He doesn't care whether you know that he doesn't care; he's simply satisfied with what he does within his own space. Which is good for him, because his new album is really gonna piss some people off.

The long-anticipated Illud Divinum Insanus, which was promised years ago and now arrives just a few delays short of becoming death metal's Chinese Democracy, is Morbid Angel's first release of any kind since 2003. As if that wasn't enough to build up expectations, it's also the return of phenomenal founding vocalist/bassist/lyricist David Vincent, absent from the band's studio work since 1995's Domination, and the studio debut of worthy addition Thor Anders “Destructhor” Myhren, formerly of Zyklon, on second guitar. In my experience, fans have talked about anxiously awaiting a great many disparate things from this album, whether it was a return to the thrashy roots of the band's earliest releases, a refinement of the direction the band was heading in when Vincent left, or an integration of the hints of blackened coldness that crept in around the edges of Zyklon. As we all should have expected, IDI doesn't sound much like any of the albums fans have been imagining. It sounds more like the guys tried to play a set of the shorter tunes from Domination and Covenant, but couldn't get through it because Rammstein kept interrupting them.

The album opens promisingly enough on Omni Potens, an atmospheric synthesized instrumental of the kind the band have been peppering their work with since album two. Perhaps to herald Vincent's return, the track is spiced with short non-verbal rasps and growls, and man, is it good to hear his voice. Those sounds are the first notes of a terrific return performance across the whole disc. Fans of the band's earliest songs will be glad to hear that Vincent performs most of Illud Divinum Insanum in a higher register closer to the one he used on Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick as opposed to the fathoms-deeper sound he cultivated on Covenant and Domination, but in going high again he hasn't sacrificed the crystal clear enunciation, rhythmic delivery and sheer percussive power that he built into his voice on the latter albums. As fans have hoped (and as those luckier-than-myself stiffs who've gotten to see him play with the band in the past few years will already have confirmed), it's a joy to have him back.

Any suspicion that MA will play up the for-fans appeal of the return album is immediately discredited, however, when they launch into the disc's first proper song, which meets very few of the criteria most would have included in a description of a typical Morbid Angel tune. For one thing, it's called Too Extreme!, which sounds like either a hardcore song, a skater punk anthem or some kind of tongue-in-cheek pop culture joke; any of which is so far outside of Morbid Angel's usual thematic domain that when I first glanced at the tracklist I assumed our fearless leader Zad had sent me the wrong promo. The music is even stranger territory. I mentioned Rammstein, and while I strongly doubt they're the influence at work here—if Azagthoth and company were actually listening to industrial artists, they'd probably be more into true, NIN-style industrial than industrial metal—but the song pounds out its semi-unison riffs so steadily and consistently that the Germans' martial pop beats came immediately to mind, and I expect the album will lose plenty of people right there. It's not that it's not a good track—there's a great atmosphere to the song, and a lot of the unique hidden nuance that's long poured from Azagthoth's brain; and it's certainly not that there isn't an audience for a quasi-industrial death metal sound, though maybe not one as large as there would have been a few years ago. The problem is that when an old band starts channeling more recent aesthetics, especially a band that's carved out a place in the metal mythology as a defining example or progenitor of an older style, it almost never goes over well. It's probably unfair for death metallers to dismiss the album based on one long, steady, solo-less opening track, but it's also very understandable.

When that track ends, though, Existo Vulgore comes roaring in like it just ripped its way out of a death metal purist's fantasies. It's not among the best Morbid Angel songs, and it's not the best song on the album, but it's absolutely vintage 90s Angel, showcasing a commitment to old approaches that belies the turnaround that Too Extreme! seemed to be declaring; it ends triumphantly and emphatically on a soaring guitar solo that glides and melts its way through Azagthoth's long-established and distinctive bag of tricks. Though it's doubtful the arrangement of these early tracks was meant to send any specific message, Existo Vulgare feels like a reaffirmation that the Morbid Angel we know and were waiting for is still there within this new sound.

The rest of the album alternates that brand of 90s-style thrasher with experiments of various kinds, like the awesomely titled Destructos vs. the Earth, which brings back the Rammstein beat underneath a very gradually morphing metal epic, or the bouncing pseudo-blues of Radikult, which sounds like a collaboration between Pantera, White Zombie and Cliff Burton. Established fans will hopefully be more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to these subsequent experiments than they might have been for Too Extreme!; mixed in as they are with more traditional songs, they don't feel quite as much like omens of decline. (The same definitely goes for Too Extreme! itself on a second listen, though that title is likely to remain an issue).

Of course, there are also people who aren't established fans of Morbid Angel's catalogue, and the band is probably interested in their money as well. Whether the album's distinctiveness will be effective in pulling in a separate audience from that of the earlier discs is hard to say. The weirder tracks on IDI are certainly distinct enough from MA tunes past that they could conceivably reach some new ears; but the more traditional songs that make up half the album obviously won't appeal to folks who couldn't have been reached more easily, by sticking with straight-ahead death metal instead of potentially alienating fans with unexpectedly modern touches. The newer sounding tracks are recommended to those with an interest in brutality-with-a-beat, and the others are endorsed for classicists, but it remains to be seen whether the crossover between those groups is large enough that any sizable audience will embrace IDI as a whole.

It should be said that those traditional songs are no afterthought; they're not just there to pad out the experiments or call back to the glory days. They're earnestly undertaken, feature predictably top-shelf guitar work and are often richly constructed. Nevermore in particular blends tremolo brutality with dynamic shifts, subtle swing rhythms, and clean chant-singing in Vincent's creepy resonant baritone to become IDI's best song without leaving the boundaries of what a direct follow-up to Domination might have sounded like with this line-up, which perhaps defies the album's experimentalist spirit.

The sad news of course is that Illud Divinum Insanus isn't the reunion of MA's original core trio that it was supposed to be. Drummer Pete Sandoval isn't gone from the band, but he was injured just before recording, and rather than delay the sessions yet again the band went ahead and made the album with journeyman drummer Tim Yeung. That Yeung is talented goes without saying; aside from Morbid Angel, he's recorded or played live for big-deal death metal bands like Hate Eternal, Nile and Decrepit Birth. He's filling big shoes, though. Sandoval made a difference in Morbid Angel and in death metal not just through speed and skill, which Yeung has, but also through a kind of indescribable, organic, flowing approach to writing and phrasing that's never really been replicated—I've never heard another drummer play a blastbeat that sounds quite like Sandoval's or duplicate the subtle manipulations of his distinctive fills. Yeung's performance is more than fine, but it's no great insult to say that he doesn't have what Pete Sandoval has, and it's entirely possible that Sandoval's absence is the only thing keeping a couple of these songs from being on the level of Morbid Angel's most revered pieces.

That parts of IDI sound enough like the old stuff to persuade patient fans to forgive its unwelcome genre detours may sound like exceptionally faint praise, but the ultimate impression of IDI is that it wants to be more than just the reunion album, and like Azagthoth himself, it doesn't need to beg you to agree with its self-assessment. Vincent's back, but he doesn't sound quite like he did before; the songwriting recalls the albums from his first stint in the band, but its rhythms and the melodic movements of its slower passages are a progression from the work the band continued doing without him. It's the band's first album in almost a decade, but it doesn't bother with proclamations about grand returns or with shoehorning flashy trademarks where they're not needed. The band sound entirely confident that this is simply the next in a line of consistently vital records, not the beginning of a career coda.

Killing Songs :
I'm Morbid, Destructos vs. the Earth, Nevermore, Radikult
Jake quoted 86 / 100
Goat quoted 68 / 100
Other albums by Morbid Angel that we have reviewed:
Morbid Angel - Kingdoms Disdained reviewed by Andy and quoted 76 / 100
Morbid Angel - Entangled In Chaos reviewed by Goat and quoted no quote
Morbid Angel - Formulas Fatal to the Flesh reviewed by Tony and quoted 84 / 100
Morbid Angel - Domination reviewed by Tony and quoted 81 / 100
Morbid Angel - Covenant reviewed by Goat and quoted 95 / 100
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