I’m Listening to Death Metal #8: Morbid Angel’s “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh” and “Kingdoms Disdained”
There is a temptation when discussing the topics of death and rebirth to open with some kind of pithy rejoinder or some personal anecdote, a cheesy pull-quote, something diminishing and pale. This is a valid desire on some level: these topics are vast, oceanic, swarming, and multiplying to the maximum in a vast network of being and reality. But as much as it’s an understandable desire to make a vast notion more easily approachable and digestible, it also inevitably does a great disservice to the notion itself. Our attempts to bracket thoughts of that scale into bite-sized quotes we can toss off when we get scared is a cheap defense mechanism, one that inevitably leaves us unprepared for when those notions come roaring past our defenses and force us to reckon with them more severely.
There is a reason, of course, that people on the verge of death have intense breakdowns. We attempt to compartmentalize mortality, typically, in a manner that makes it easier to put away rather than more fully digest and internalize; as a result, when it rears its ugly head in a manner we cannot escape, we often find ourselves psychologically flatfooted and ill-prepared for the psychic assault we endure. Anyone who has lost a parent or a loved one or a sibling or a child can attest to this — anyone who has had a near-death experience either by trauma or disease, or anyone who has had a suicide attempt. Returning from those places brings into stark relief how pathologically death-avoidant Western society can be. Granted, this is reasonable: death is not only terrifying but is in many ways the ultimate terror, the singularity which symbolically multiplies and informs our other fears. We do not fear heights or spiders or gun violence or the rotten fruits of bigotry by themselves; it is not being on a ladder or near an insect or in physical pain or subject to degrading words that we loathe.
It is death.
Death is encoded and symbolized in these things — first as a social/personal death and then as a physical death. Fear is a psychological response developed to respond to danger, and danger is hard-coded in us as death-entangled. Directly engaging with notions of death is often paralytic, like drinking psychic poison. It leaves us frozen, petrified, seeing death swarming everywhere in all its great and terrible finality with no defenses apparent to offer us even a moments succor or safety.
So we put it away, seal it up, render it small and distant and out of sight. The deaths on the news ticker of people overseas are sad but ignorable; the vast swaths of violence meted out against oppressed groups tugs at our hearts but must not be allowed to disrupt our days; the image of the drowned dead who fled violence in their homes only to be given a watery death by the resolute anti-human racism of the nation to which they fled makes us flinch and then is swiftly silenced. “We must not allow grief to disrupt the endless procession of days,” we tell ourselves. Commerce demands it, normality demands it, standardized behavior demands it. Our approach to psychological wellness becomes predicated on silencing and erasing pain rather than coping with it, and the inevitability of certain pains such as death become a great specter that taunts us. It is no wonder, then, that we produce ghost stories and death metal and macabre art; there is this lingering fragment always on the border of consciousness, taunting us in dreams and hospital rooms, reminding us always that we and everything we love will perish. Hedonism is a child’s response to the severity and eternity of death, a tantrum before dying.
Yet by denying death on such a resolute and fundamental level, we also deny the paradox of death-as-life. The cliche is to say that every end is a beginning, and while that is true, it once again renders something complex and emotionally fraught as something too simple, flattening emotions in an effort to resolve them, thereby engaging more in erasure than proper restorative healing. A better way to think of it is that we are born through death: in a literal physical sense, matter is reconfigured from elsewhere into our bodies, and once the human vestibule of our gestation kicks off its biological processes, our own bodies take over with its vast machinery developed specifically to extract desired matter from food and drink and air and convert it into the physical substrate of our very existence. That which was is consumed, destroyed only through death, is what gives possibility to our lives. Life feeds not only on life but non-life; in a fitting albeit painful turn, it is eventually fed upon again. The boundary and barrier of our bodies are a warzone, being consumed and consuming at once, laden with bacteria that break down the cells of our body for themselves and excrete matter that our body in turn uses. We have not a set boundary or edge but a fluctuating one, bleeding into the space around us; most dust is dead skin, and by this manner we effloresce and spray skin like fungal spores across the spaces we inhabit.
Likewise, we have one of the few good ideas from Negarestani: “()hole complex” (yes, formatted like that) in which we imagine any given solid substrate, be it physical or metaphysical, as actually being riddled with holes, errors, imperfections, gaps, and apertures. We then integrate this with the former thought: dying cells and recycled material does not merely define our bleeding edge boundary with the outside, but also perforates us. The human body, in this instance, is best thought of as the most immediate example with which to model these metaphysical ideas: it’s the object definitionally closest to ourselves from which we can extrapolate our existence in the world. The notion of “()hole complex” and subsequent integration of death’s nature is prevalent in things like cancer, in knots in wood, in wear-and-tear, in decay, in degradation, in the imperfect and unequal manner of post-death consumption by bacteria, and even pieces of architecture, art movements, and more.
It is not that the silver lining of death is that of rebirth and recycling. At some point, the universe will die out, everything cold and quiet, and in that space even protons will evaporate into nothingness until the latency of matter resolves itself down to the permanent stillness of disimmediated energy. Viewing rebirth as a silver lining unfortunately renders us once again blind to the fact that we that die do not get to experience or reap the rewards of the post-death recycling, and inevitably this means that all of the world as we know it will one day be gone, forever, and the question of whether anything else will rise after is one to which we have no answer.
I am not, despite what you might think, an optimistic man. However, it seems that rebirth is itself alchemically infused (and confused) into the nature of death. Death is, after all, more phenomenological than ontological: it is the psyche that dies, or a configuration which metaphorically dies, while the underlying constituent matter itself does not die but instead changes shape. We can read this in a hippy-dipper stellar fascist sense, casting our lot up to the stars in hopes for some kind of celestial rebirth in a great cycling of souls; more realistically, though, we can imagine this as life simply being a very fragile and specific configuration of matter and energy. While matter-ness and energy-ness are retained and preserved, they may take on shapes that are counter to our understanding of life; however, these other configurations are no less universally or generally valuable.
The universe has no ontological preference for life and, generally speaking, being alive is no better or worse than being dead.
In death, certain experiential/phenomenological aspects cease, and this (rightly) gives us a sense of personal anxiety, but it is not necessarily worse. After all, we are the thing pre-death, the “I” itself being precisely that which dies but is not recycled outside the realm of mere memory. Things live on, however, and things are reborn, even if they are not precisely us.
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Morbid Angel is one of the most important death metal bands of all time, up there with Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, and Death in terms of being fundamental. The band formed in 1983, well before the genesis of death metal as a properly delineated style from thrash metal. At their beginning (as we have since learned through released and bootlegged demos), they were much like the other proto-extreme metal bands of their day, taking the complexity and aggression of thrash metal and bringing it to more chaotic and primitive realms. Morbid Angel, in fact, is one of the chief bands, along with Possessed and Death, cited as helping officially bring death metal out of the shadows from being a sub-genre of thrash into a space of its own, largely through their incorporation of blast beats via drum mastermind Pete Sandoval, their tremendously deep and guttural vocals eschewing the throaty shout that characterized thrash, and some absolutely frantic atonal riffs and lead guitar-work. We take these notions for granted now, but metal, even its more extreme variants, was largely diatonic up until the 1980s, with the occasional atonal piece being very much the outlier rather than the norm. Thrash metal had been chromatic before, as had the hardcore punk that informed it, but Morbid Angel added a heady level of chaos when they forewent pure diatonicism and even standard chromatic approaches for some truly outlandish chord choices.
Despite forming so early (in fact being peers to Chuck Schuldiner’s almighty Death in the early- to mid-1990s Florida environment, the foundry for death metal as we know it today), they released their debut album rather late, landing in 1989 compared to both Possessed and Death whose landed in 1985 and 1987, respectively. However, had Morbid Angel had their way, they would have revealed themselves to the world much sooner: a since-released full-scale recording of what would have been their debut album, released under the title Abominations of Desolation, was recorded fully in 1986 thereby placing it right between those two great foundational death metal texts. Many of the songs featured would later appear across their first three albums, with one even appearing a number of years later on 1998’s Formulas Fatal to the Flesh and yet another of the tracks providing Trey Azagthoth’s now-legendary stage name. However, the album wound up being shelved when a conflict with then-drummer/vocalist Mike Browning and band leader Trey Azagthoth led to Browning being ejected from the band, leaving them no way to properly support the record, resulting in its being shelved before being released. Browning would later go on to form progressive/technical death metal legends Nocturnus while Azagthoth would take the band underground to toil away for longer.
When Altars of Madness finally released in 1989, death metal was in full bloom. Sure, the late-1980s boom wasn’t nearly as prosperous as the 1990s heyday to follow, but Altars of Madness still wound up releasing in what functionally was the first big push following the big-bang of Seven Churches and Scream Bloody Gore a few years prior. This, plus the years the group had spent honing both their instrumental proficiency and their approach to songwriting and creating atmosphere via frenetic, chaos magick riffs and blistering Satan-worshiping solos, led to their debut not only immediately cracking the charts (something few death metal bands then or now ever did) but also immediately being lauded as a landmark metal release not just for death metal but for metal as a whole.
The delay of their debut, in retrospect, is perhaps one of the best things that could have ever happened for the band. When black metal proper (viewing the first wave more as a proto-form black metal than really what the term refers to now) kicked off and separated itself from death metal, Altars of Madness was one of the albums cited by the early Norwegian groups as worthy of being salvaged. Given its hyperspeed standard-tuned thrash metal riffage set to blast beats that are still difficult to play even in an era of their ubiquity (now), plus vocals that sound quite seriously like the howls of demons and tortured souls, it’s easy to understand why.
It came as a shock then when, for their second album Blessed Are the Sick, the band slowed things way down. In retrospect, this should not have been quite so shocking; the style the band had been playing on Altars of Madness was not in fact brand-new but instead one they had been crafting for more than half a decade, and the demos from before its release demonstrate a band who had slower, doomier approaches to death metal in their heads. The influence of psychedelic music — one of the quiet foundational elements not just of Morbid Angel but truly great death metal as a whole, and one of the influential components that helped pivot it away from thrash metal’s increasingly stiff riffage — just can’t be greater on Blessed Are the Sick than on Altars of Madness. It’s more that the slower pacing of riffs allowed those influences to blossom a bit more. The psychedelic slurry of the cover art for Altars of Madness (as iconic as any metal has produced) is itself sign enough that the psychedelic terrifying fringe of horror film and art had always been an influential component, death metal representing to Azagthoth et al. not merely a lower-tuned thrash metal but one that got weirder and musically approximated the melting-body horror of Cronenberg and Zdzislaw Beksinski. That Blessed Are the Sick opened these moments to let them swirl in atonal chaotic whorls of purples and blacks is, in retrospect, obvious.
It was this terrain that the group would mine on their next two albums, 1993’s Covenant and 1995’s Domination, featuring a mixture of the approaches developed on Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, refusing to resolve themselves either as fully death-thrash or the deeper, slower, doomier ends of death metal. To some, these records were a sign of the group running out of ideas, losing that youthful spark that drove those first two albums to the heights they achieved; meanwhile, to others (myself included), they represent a perfection of this early period of the band, with songs like “Where the Slime Live” and “God of Emptiness” being perhaps the apex of the group’s musical intent over the course of their body of work. These two albums also incidentally saw the band’s greatest commercial success, with Covenant being one of the few death metal albums to achieve gold in America, selling roughly 150,000 copies, numbers which are absolutely staggering, especially by today’s standards.
Despite the unwavering quality of the material, four complete albums is a lot of time to spend developing the same idea-space, no matter how great the idea. There are not many bands we can list that extend a singular approach to songwriting beyond four albums with much success, with most groups falling short of the eerie impossible consistency of a group like AC/DC, which never improves or worsens in any noticeable way, for better or worse, despite arguably also never having more than one idea.
Then, following the live album Entangled in Chaos (1996), the group went on a short reorganizational break before returning with their next album, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh.
Like many others, I have my own experiences with death and rebirth, many of which I’ve already discussed here. From the deaths of family members when I was younger to the suicide of a dear friend just as we entered college to my mental breakdown to my suicide attempt to the loss of my father, death swarms about me. I am not alone in this; in truth, I’ve suffered much less than some others in my life and many, many others outside of it. I try to hold that close, not as a trite and crass sentiment where my own “gratefulness” is predicated on the intense suffering of others but more as a way to deepen my compassionate response to the world around me, to leave me not less but more sensitive to pain. It is, of course, an ongoing struggle to retain that sensitivity: it is easier in life to go without it, to thicken our skin and deaden our nerves, and I’d be a liar if I said I remained perfectly sympathetic/empathetic to suffering at all times.
But you try. Once you are exposed to the raw nerve of suffering, you try.
In truth, my suicide attempt was one of the best things that ever happened to me. This is not, of course, to say that it was not also intensely traumatic. My abuse at the hands of my brother and neglect by my parents growing up may have given me maladaptive behaviors; it took lots of therapy and direct behavioral effort to adjust and process, but my failed suicide attempt still lingers in my PTSD. I still have dreams where my brain rolls over what would have happened if I’d found the gun my parents hid from me, remembering the walls as I prepped them. It’s a strange thing to remember, strange before terrifying because it feels like it came from some other place. Technically, it almost was, coming more from an intense manic fit induced by poor medication and an intensely shitty headspace that had been brewing for a very long time all coming to a boil all at once. With most people, I still don’t feel comfortable discussing the events that specifically led to me seeking the gun; suffice it to say, I was the bad guy in that situation, if you can believe, though grievances have since been redressed with the people I made most intensely uncomfortable with that decision.
The event itself is, of course, a well of terror and shame and revulsion and strangeness. It feels both intensely irreal and like, to my great disgust, every bad thing I have ever thought about myself or that has ever been said about me becoming true all in one moment, in one act. It is a negative validation, a reminder that I can be as petty and monstrous as anyone else — not in the sense of suicidality itself, as suicidality leaves foremost its sufferer as its first victim, and I don’t wish to imply that the act of suicide itself is automatically an evil act against others. But mine was intended to be pointed: I wanted my death to hurt others, in the most toxically masculine way possible, for it to reek of a failure that could not ever be redressed again. My PTSD regarding the incident revolves not just around the potential physical death I almost incurred, itself an aspect of the trauma, but of the real and actual psychic death I endured in order to reach a place that tremendously venomous, wicked, and dark.
I saw it was one of the best things that happened to me because, when I could not find the gun, when I woke my parents and conveyed to them what I had been doing, I immediately had another of my series of breakdowns. This one was like a cold wind passing through me, like a storm at the edge of the grave; I felt hollow, emptied, like everything within me had in an instant been poured out, both the positivity and also this broiling black poison that had gripped me so completely only mere minutes before. I trembled and I wept; with a couple calls to a suicide hotline, not my first or last call to such a line (which have more than once saved my life), I signed myself up for outpatient therapy. One of the benefits of calling yourself is you cannot be committed against your will, something I’ve learned from others in my life is an additional trauma that is hard to overcome, something that alchemically fuses a bitterness and anger with life.
I suffered a total death at my own hands that black night. Everything wicked poured out of me in one temperamental instant, my undiagnosed autism and bipolar cresting like great turbulent waves against the ship of my psyche already deeply damaged by the overall collapse of my life, from failing out of school to losing a relationship to the death of a friend to the loss of the family dog to the inability to grapple with the long tail of my abuse and neglect. It was a death by a million cuts, something not predicated on one event but my own inability to process a million events, some the fault of others and some the fault of me. But while a great part of my psyche died then, my body was left alive, and the body developed the psyche as a self-defense mechanism and will not let itself go long without one if able. And so I began the long process of rebuilding myself.
That attempt was a stark message to myself. The manner in which I had lived my life before was untenable, rife with toxicity that poisoned me. Something about my abuse, an abuse that was made physically and tangibly psychological as much as it was generalized and social, at the hands of toxic masculinity and capitalist forces was placed in stark relief, and I began formulating a response to those vectors. I became, thankfully, luckily, a better person: reading more, digesting more, I understood not only the roots of my own suffering but how I had internalized them and carried them inside of myself, replicated them against others in traumatic fashion, allowing them to poison and corrupt me.
I was an awful person on that black dying night, but I was not exactly a good person before. I would seek, deliberately, as much for my life as for the life of others, to become a good person after.
It feels in many ways, even now, that I should not have lived past that night. This is a common sentiment of suicide survivors, a chief component of the unique PTSD of any experience that places us so deeply into the domain of death. There is one ounce of gratefulness but also one ounce of confusion I carry with me always: the world feels unreal to me now, my own presence unreal and unaccounted for. I should, in my mind, be dead — I cannot imagine, even nearly a decade past my attempt, that sensation ever changing. But this, too, is the intense trauma of birth… my life as I know it now began at the age of 21 when I went to an all-day outpatient suicidality therapy session, even if everything after feels like a dream and even if I say that my life re-began more as a way to convince myself that I really am still here and that I’m not trapped in some inescapable dream of the butterfly where I really did die and just couldn’t handle knowing it.
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Morbid Angel’s return with Formulas Fatal to the Flesh is not a wild rebirth. It is still clearly death metal and, stacked against their other records, it does not feel outlandishly out of place. It does, however, feel quite a bit more explicitly brutal. “Brutality” is a funny affect to describe: while now it has become a common subgenre tag for death metal and an even more common descriptor of metal in general, it is shockingly hard to define. It isn’t exactly playing “low” — lots of doom metal bands downtune, and not all of the lowest of the low feel particularly brutal. It isn’t speed, either: shredders can tremolo pick for days and not feel like they are reaching the realms of brutality. But despite the difficulties in pinning what precisely generates brutality, it is something we can feel quite immediately. Early in the days of death metal, there wasn’t necessarily a need for tags like “brutal death metal” or “melodic death metal” or “technical death metal” because more or less all death metal in the 1980s into the very early 1990s contained elements of each of those species. Death metal had been crafted as a more brutal approach to thrash, one that by its nature became a tremendous technical challenge to many bands and grafted the latent melodic and progressive sensibilities that heavy metal in general (and thrash specifically) had always carried in them.
By the late 1990s, though, death metal had been around long enough that distinct pockets had formed, and Morbid Angel, wanting to leap out of their role as a well-respected elder who nonetheless seemed to be contributing less to the overall shape of the scene, sought to up the ante for themselves.
So, with a lineup rejiggering, the Steve Tucker era of Morbid Angel began, with him serving as bassist and vocalist. His presence, both by his nimbleness on the bass and his disarmingly flat vocal affect, enabled Azagthoth and Sandoval to push Morbid Angel to their most extreme outing. Formulas Fatal to the Flesh feature the group’s longest recorded song, the nearly ten-minute “Invocation of the Continual One,” alongside the direct blast beat-laden shred-fest “Heaving Earth.” It was on these instrumentals that the group began stretching themselves, gesturing back to such heady albums of the death metal canon as Atheist’s Elements or Pestilence’s Spheres. These were bold moves; death metal by 1998 was already a waning trend, with nu-metal having replaced many forms of extreme metal in terms of popularity, and releasing such an ambitious album — their most intense and explicitly brutal album, if not precisely their heaviest — was a curious move. However, in time, this decision proved to be a wise one.
The largest shift was in thematic: while previous Morbid Angel records dealt primarily with satanic themes (often in ways that are in retrospect more learned and academic than one might expect), the subsequent era took that latent psychedelia and burst it wide open with a fixation on Sumerian mythology, allowing the interior psychedelic/psychological dreamscape of that mythology inform not just the lyrics but also the structure and tonality of the songs. While the first four Morbid Angel records hold near-unparalleled esteem in the canon of death metal, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh has since become a landmark album in its own right, showcasing a more evolved and intense version of the band and proving Trey Azagthoth’s position not just as a shredder but also as a songwriter, able to nail the balance of technicality, ambitiousness, catchiness, and heaviness that so many other technically-inclined death metal acts outright could not achieve.
The next two albums would go on to, unfortunately, suffer diminishing returns. Gateways to Annihilation (2000) is to Blessed Are the Sick as Formulas Fatal to the Flesh is to Altars of Madness, trading speed for markedly doomier approaches. Meanwhile, Heretic (2003) is an album that Morbid Angel fans love, including me of course, but more so because it is, quite simply, more Morbid Angel rather than a discrete increase in quality or desirable shift in direction. Heretic perhaps saw itself less pulled down by lack of quality material, more by a haphazard synthesis; whereas previous Morbid Angel records balanced and interwove instrumental material within complete death metal songs to create a vast and cohesive tapestry, Heretic was a front-loaded, song-oriented album with an overly dense stack of instrumental material and isolated guitar solos tacked on the end.
Then, for eight years, that was all the world heard of Morbid Angel in terms of full albums. As for the prior period being a run, it wasn’t a bad one: they were foundational in the formation of death metal and, along with peers like Death et al., helped establish not just a benchmark for brutality but also technicality, progressiveness, artistic/conceptual ambition, and songwriting in the genre. Even now, it is rarer for bands to live up to that standard than to merely fall under it. That Morbid Angel’s final record felt like a collection of the last scraps laying about the floor wasn’t such a bad thing; hell, Led Zeppelin ended their career the same way with Coda without much faulting from their audience. That Morbid Angel experienced a conceptual rebirth from satanic material to psychedelic Sumerian gods was just a nice touch.
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It is not unfair to describe Illud Divinum Insanus as a kind of death — this is a harsh and frustrating fact, but many of its songs are better than you might recall. However, the fact that other bands (from Samael to Strapping Young Lad to Arcturus and more) had incorporated electronic and industrial elements into their extreme metal does not somehow justify the clear and obvious surfeit of failures all along Illud Divinum Insanus. This is especially strange because, on paper, this album was supposed to be the band’s grand rebirth. Azagthoth finally reunited with David Vincent (the bassist and vocalist behind the first four albums) and had spent five years writing the album. There were to be new elements, sure, but every Morbid Angel album had new elements, and there is no way to celebrate a rebirth without the freshness that the term “birth” demands.
But it is impossible to feel much joy when listening to the 11 tracks of Illud Divinum Insanus: woe be to any who listened to the double-disc remix album, where each disc crested over the 75-minute mark, giving roughly three-and-a-half hours of Illud Divinum Insanus content across three separate discs. Part of you wants to admire the bravery of such a move, but the line between bravery and stupidity is a thin one — one predicated on the inevitable quality of the brave thing you hand over.
The band certainly attempted to make things work, but the confusion of the group was palpable all over the record and the ill-advised remix collection. Azagthoth had, briefly, fallen out of love with extreme metal and wanted to pursue electronic and industrial spaces, while David Vincent was nurturing what would eventually lead him to pursue country music. All of those spaces produce excellent music, but it feels strongly when sitting with Illud Divinum Insanus that whatever sense of direction the band has was squandered and confused by spending too long, following the whims of years rather than months or weeks, producing a set of music that seemed to have neither a center nor a direction. If Heretic was an imperfect but acceptable send-off, returning eight years later with a record like Illud Divinum Insanus seemed designed to permanently terminate the band’s life and stain their legacy and standing in the annals of death metal. The record’s poor reception led to increasing fractures within the band and, after four years of touring off and on for the poorly-received album that only seemed to sour more deeply in the eyes and ears of fans and critics alike, every member of the band save Azagthoth departed. This was as total a death a band could suffer short of literally dying.
So it was a tremendous feeling when Azagthoth announced he would reunite not only with Steve Tucker on bass and vocals once more but also Erik Rutan producing, a man who’d gotten his start as a second guitarist in Morbid Angel before launching both his own highly-esteemed death metal band in Hate Eternal as well as a high-profile job producing extreme metal records. Views were obviously tempered by bitterness toward Illud Divinum Insanus, an album that feels even now exponentially more charmless than something like St. Anger ever did. This made it ever more surprising when the album was released, revealing itself not so much to be a followup to Heretic but more of Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, its songs rendered in shrieking and burrowing avant-garde hyperspeed shred riffs rather than the drone or ambiance of the later Tucker-era material. Morbid Angel is one of the foundational death metal groups precisely because where a group like Cannibal Corpse brings the gore and brutality and a group like Death brings the songwriting, Morbid Angel brings the strangeness, that outer weirdness and casual avant-garde tendency that makes death metal not merely heavy metal but faster but also gives it that mucus-thick slimy psychedelia that marks it as particularly putrescent, rotting, bizarre, and evil.
Kingdoms Disdained is not necessarily the greatest Morbid Angel album of all time, but in terms of a radical rebirth, of Azagthoth finding his way again after more than a decade of being lost and only after suffering the tremendous artistic death of the dissolution of two lineups of the band and a near-total annihilation of his credibility, it is an astounding work. Certain casual fans of the band will always prefer Altars of Madness, but for those who are drawn to the cracked-psyche melting-mind psychedelic death-shred of Trey Azagthoth, Kingdoms Disdained was proof that the Satanic master had returned, dripping with slime and electrified with bad acid blues. This likely never would have happened had Azagthoth not been first humbled and second surrounded by supportive figures in Rutan and Tucker, people who were there with Azagthoth when he created some of his best works and thus knew precisely what the man was capable of and still had inside of him.
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Rebirth following traumatic death is not a simple matter of dumb-luck survival. There is nothing hard-coded that said following my failed suicide attempt I would use that moment to deepen my empathetic response to the world, use my suffering as a lens to understand and witness the suffering of others and change compassionately in that light. There is nothing about that black toxin overriding every ounce of goodness in me that said I would make it out and attempt to make myself a decent person, one that didn’t make jokes out of sexual assault or the genders or sexualities of others, one that didn’t pass on my trauma to those around me, one that didn’t make a victim of others the way I had been a victim to those before me. Rebirth is a process.
Rebirth is something we endured and put ourselves through, a series of trials and modifications, the way it hurts to feel our bones grow in our legs and arms as children.
We cling to these stories of artistic rebirth because they signal something within us, some calming symbolic movement. We are filled to the brim with the terror of death, a terror which grows colder and more certain the more we witness dying around us. It is no wonder that as we age we often fall into the psychosis of right-wing paranoia and religion, all manners of vilifying that which may kill us, replace fear with anger, and eventually a calmness to replace the certainty of the great finality of death. But these moments of rebirth, of recycling, are the material counter to those regressive narratives. There is no great joy to watching great artists or people in our lives fall low. But seeing the great salvaging of the world, in which first the legacy of Morbid Angel informed the formation and rise of the likes of Gojira and then eventually the salvation of Morbid Angel themselves, offers a symbolic counter to this terror of death.
Even in the blackness of death we witness a recycling. Rebirth, after all, need not always be a positive thing; those of us that carry terror, trauma, and pain within us often mete those things out onto others unawares, ignorant to the fact that the primary use of therapy is not so much the healing of the self but the stopping of the process of passing on our hurting to others. Every turn of the cycle is a rebirth, a recycling of old matter, be it the recycling of trauma from one body/psyche to the next or of healing and restoration. This ambivalence of death and ambivalence even of rebirth turns inevitably to a force as calming as it is motivating. We seek a great moral or ethical force out in the world and find nothing; what remains is time, matter, death, the recycling of matter and history into the configurations of presence and futurity. There is no agency to stop or radically slow these processes, but instead only to attempt to direct them. I am not an optimistic man; I hope for greater societal change and a healing of the tensions and wounds of the world, but I believe instead we will struggle with them until extinction, and that it will instead be a mark of decency to continue struggling even within the pain of the wheel of death and rebirth encoded in culture, the psyche, and the body.
I think often about what would have happened if I’d found the gun, if I had not used my suffering to heal, if I had not become better but instead worse. I wonder too if I had become even better than I am now, had even less to regret from the time between my attempt and now. That a group can rise from its own ashes and restore itself to its great weirding glory is a small and pitiful thing in the shadow of the great and real pain of the self and the world and of the unreconciled gulf between the two, but it is a polestar no matter how pale, a small symbolic recurrence of that which we wish for ourselves.
We cling to these moments, the falls and the comebacks, because they capture in miniature a desire for ourselves and our own lives, that that which was brought low unduly may in time be brought high, that our debts and our sins can be forgiven, that we can be redeemed by labor and by grace whether it be by the god of our faith or the hearts of our communities and families. It is a symbolic conquering of the entropic force of death not ceasing death and death-nature but leaning into it, seizing onto the radical power of the latency of death, not rising over but erupting through death. Some lives, as they tick into their 30s, 40s, 50s, and on, feel like they are decaying in life, repeating the same ceaseless day without great height or terror. That death arrives and breaks this chain is a power, if sometimes a tremendously terrifying and negative one. That the matter and history which constituted that which died sometimes, by dumb chance, configures itself into something else is a resonant grace; that these deaths and rebirths can exist within us as we yet live is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
Langdon Hickman is listening to death metal. Here are the prior installments of his column:
I’m Listening to Death Metal #1: Opeth
I’m Listening to Death Metal #2: Atheist
I’m Listening to Death Metal #3: Ulcerate
I’m Listening to Death Metal #4: Gojira
I’m Listening to Death Metal #5: Tribulation
I’m Listening to Death Metal #6: Morbus Chron
I’m Listening to Death Metal #7: Pissgrave