Morbid Angel’s 1993 album Covenant is generally considered one of death metal’s masterpieces. In the twenty years since it was released, it has sold over half a million copies – an impressive achievement for any record but quite spectacular for a death metal album. Covenant‘s success helped to blow the genre wide open, propelled as much by its quality as by being perhaps the first death metal release to appear on a major label – Giant, an imprint of Warner.
“I don’t know if it’s what you call death metal,” says cavern-voiced vocalist and bass player David Vincent, in a pleasant drawl, “but there was a deal for everything else that was on the Earache roster at the time, which included Napalm Death and Carcass. But that was a different label. That wasn’t with Warner. So I’d have to look at what the release dates are, but I have heard it’s generally spoken about that that was the first death metal, extreme metal album out on a major at that time.”
Last year, Vincent and Morbid Angel toured Covenant in its entirety throughout the US. Since then, he says, there have been demands from fans and promoters everywhere to take the package elsewhere. Australian audiences will get the next chance to indulge in the experience when the band play three shows here at the end of this month. Given the album’s status among Morbid Angel’s fanbase, it’s certain to be popular.
“If the reaction we got from touring this in the States in any indication, I think it’s going to be really good,” Vincent agrees. “This is just as exciting for us as it is for anyone else. We live to play music and to entertain. When everyone comes together and has a great time, we work very hard. We’re well rehearsed, we’re a well-oiled machine. Making music like this is arduous but it’s fun.”
Fun is probably not a word that’s used all that often when discussing Morbid Angel’s music, with its crushing slab-like riffs, Herculean drumming and po-faced occult-themed lyrics, most of which were written for Covenant by Vincent. Yet the word comes up time and time throughout the interview, especially when the frontman is talking about the album play-through which features some songs that were never aired live before this tour cycle.
“The only time we’d ever played it the whole way through was in the studio,” he says. “Some of those tracks were never played live. We’ve had a few of the songs in the set over the years, but we’ve never played all of them. So it’s fun for us, and we made sure we included at least one track from every other record as well.”
Setlists from the US tour show an even spread across their discography, including tracks from the three albums Vincent did not appear on and ‘Existo Vulgore’ from the controversial Illud Divinum Insanus, while eternal favourites like ‘Chapel of Ghouls’ and ‘Maze of Torment’ appear to have been rested.
“You know, it becomes increasingly difficult when you have a discography like Morbid Angel does, to put together a set that you wanna play,” Vincent explains. “There’s some songs that you pretty much have to play, and you want to play as much as you can within the time allotted. We could be up there for five hours and still not play all the songs. As you put out a new record, you wanna play a couple of songs from the new record and then a greatest hits package, if you will, from all the other records. It really fills the set up quickly.”
Playing an entire album as the highlight of the set, however, gave the band a chance to delve deeper into their catalogue and present other rarely-played cuts like the Gateways to Annihilation song ‘Ageless, Still I Am’ that had not been played live since 2001.
“Doing themed tours gives us the opportunity to play songs we haven’t played in a really long time. It went over really well. We were really excited about the excitement we got from friends and fans about this,” Vincent says.
There was certainly more excitement surrounding the tour than there was accompanying Morbid Angel’s strange and eclectic 2011 album, Illud Divinum Insanus, that many fans decried as a joke or a mistake, comparable to Metallica’s ill-begotten St Anger. This very site described it as the sound “of a band crashing spectacularly and not even realising”, though the mainstream music guideAllmusic.com was far kinder, giving it a 4 star review. The band has ridden out the controversy well. David Vincent goes so far as to say that it’s no different to the reaction they’ve received to any of their other albums.
“I hearken back to any of our previous albums. Any time you do something different – and that started with Blessed are the Sick – people said, ‘Oh wow, they’ve slowed down, and this is different and that’s different’,” he says. “There are going to be differences. Sometimes on first listen, expectations are going to be a little different, but they should certainly know by now that what to expect from Morbid Angel is the unexpected. I think some of the people who didn’t get what we were after on Illud have, after sitting on it for a little while, come up to me and said, ‘You know, I love the record. At first I thought it sucked because I was expecting blank‘, and after subsequent listens they’ve started to understand what it is we did. So it’s a longevity thing. We actually got the same chequered response when ‘God of Emptiness’ appeared on the Covenant record. Then some years have gone by and it’s one of the most popular songs that we have in our library.”
Vincent makes the point that Morbid Angel has been consistently diverse across their discography.
“We always have a few surprises and interesting tracks. When it came to Illud, they were more than usual. Normally we save some of those different tracks until towards the end of the record. This time we decided to display a very different feel than some of the things we’ve done previously. I don’t think it was that different. We’ve always been a band that’s been prepared to break new ground.”
It remains to be seen whether Morbid Angel will continue the experimental path they took on Illud. David Vincent isn’t giving too much away on what shape the next album may take, and is firm that he has nothing to say about when it may eventuate. He does let on, however, that everyone has started to write, and for those still exasperated by 2011’s bizarre left turn, his words might offer some relief.
“We’re all writing,” he says. “We don’t normally look at what we’re all writing until it’s time to look at which songs are going to be in and which ones aren’t. What I personally have been writing lately has been very metal.”