Metal is full of bands that love to continually evolve, to expand their sounds more and more with each new record, challenging their audiences with bold pieces of work. And as fans, we love it when bands do that well. It’s exciting to know there are musicians out there trying to take the genre into new, unexplored places. However, if you’re a band that’s bent on trying a new sound, you’d better know what you’re doing, because as loyal as metal fans are, if you do something that feels to them less adventurous and more like flat-out betrayal, the backlash will be swift, and will take years to undo. Hell hath no fury like a metal fan who doesn’t get what he or she wants.
Just like there’s an unspoken metal “canon” featuring albums that are mandatory for a metal enthusiast to know, there’s a group of records that are so universally reviled that the album title supersedes the name of the band who recorded it, in ways becoming metal obscenities: Cold Lake, St. Anger, The Unspoken King, The X Factor, Risk, Grand Declaration of War. And every single one of those albums has one thing in common: they’re all examples of established, seminal bands trying to reinvent themselves, with catastrophic results. It’s understandable to see how a veteran act would want to try something new, but when the influence of their early material is so strong, it’s next to impossible to convince the fans otherwise, and such experiments by those kinds of bands rarely if ever work.
Morbid Angel is the latest such band to be up to the challenge. One of the most important bands death metal has ever produced, the Floridians transformed the nascent genre in the early ‘90s with a series of albums that are regarded as undeniable classics: 1989’s Altars of Madness, 1991’s Blessed Are the Sick, 1993’s Covenant. Although there’s no denying the band has been coasting along on that 1990s reputation for the past decade—2003’s Heretic was a far cry from the inspired early Morbid Angel work—fans of the band are still rabid as ever. When it was announced in 2004 that original bassist-vocalist David Vincent had returned after an eight year absence, the excitement was palpable. When the metal world learned that the long-awaited eighth studio album would finally see the light of day in 2011, the hype machine went into full gear, with everyone buying into it. Magazines jumped at the chance to do cover stories, pricey “deluxe editions” of the new album were pre-ordered, while the buzz on message boards was extremely optimistic. Morbid Angel would come along and expose the Suicide Silences and Bring Me the Horizons of the world as the rank amateurs that they are.
At the rate all the advance excitement was going, you had to think it would be next to impossible for Ilud Divinum Insanus to fully live up to expectations, but nobody had any idea how deflating the end result would turn out to be. The band, led by guitarist Trey Azagthoth, has streamlined its sound to the point where there are many moments where they’re not death metal at all, and while that itself isn’t a crime, the way those songs sound so awkward and forced is what makes the experiment such a colossal failure. Preceded by a comical synth fanfare that goes on for a tiresome two and a half minutes, the unintentionally ironically titled “Too Extreme!” feels anything but, as heavily triggered drumbeats, samples, and simple repetitive riffs attempt to replicate the industrial sounds of Ministry. Vincent doesn’t do himself any favors either, shouting lyrics so nonsensical you’d think English wasn’t his first language.
It goes from bad to worse, and then even worse than that. Based on an arrogant, self-congratulatory chant of “Morbid!”, “I Am Morbid” tries to create an anthem for fans to unite around, but its lunk-headed nu-metal feel is off-putting. Morbid Angel fans will not unite around a song that sounds like Static-X. The only saving grace of the seven-minute “Destructos Vs. the Earth / Attack” is that it’s as catchy as hilarious, as Azagthoth and Vincent go into full-on Laibach mode, the ominously marching chorus offset by squeaky, cartoonish backing vocals (“Destroying man - Destructos - We’re marching - Destructos - Destructos marching”). “Profundis - Mea Culpa” is a haphazardly tossed-off mishmash of industrial sounds that goes absolutely nowhere, while the pompous “Radikult”, on the other hand, is unforgivable, a dose of the kind of watered-down hardcore you’d expect from hacks like Winds of Plague, not Morbid Angel.
The moments the band does return to attempting death metal, it sounds boring. Azagthoth might be one of the greatest guitar shredders of the last quarter century, but a blistering solo doesn’t mean squat if you can’t write a good song, and what aggressive fare we do get on Ilud Divinum Insanus sounds tired and repetitive, rather the work of a great artist. Songs like “Existo Vulgore”, “Nevermore”, and “Blades for Baal” just go through the motions: tremelo picking here, blastbeats there, all on cue. Compared to the recent work by Azagthoth’s peers Hate Eternal, Nile, and Suffocation, it all feels painfully amateurish.
When the faux-industrial tracks are the most interesting moments on a Morbid Angel album, you’ve got a disaster on your hands. After all that advance hype, label Season of Mist should be seriously worried about how they’re going to sell all those CDs, because the phrase “Ilud Divinum Insanus” will be as reviled in metal circles as “Cold Lake” and “St. Anger”. Unless they’re looking for a laugh, nobody is going to want to have anything to do with this train wreck.