The seemingly commercialized industrial metal abomination that was "Illud Divinum Insanus" stands as one of metal history's most notorious left turns and blunders that a band has made. It's MORBID ANGEL's "Cold Lake". The genre-leading band that was once steeped in occultism and anti-Christian thought before morphing toward mainman Trey Azagthoth's obsession with ancient Sumerian mythology, became something completely different. The ghouls were no longer attacking the church. It was more ROB ZOMBIE than AUTOPSY. The release was almost universally denounced by critics and fans alike.
With David Vincent's departure (again), the death metal titans enlisted his one-time vocal and bass playing replacement Steve Tucker. Considering Tucker's past unmistakably death metal contributions to MORBID ANGEL, as well as his more recent WARFATHER project, the likelihood that the legendary group would return to form increased exponentially. Sure, hopes for a death metal album materialized, but, more importantly, album number nine, "Kingdoms Disdained", is incredible. Simply put, it's 2017's best metal album.
We can speculate the extent to which sole original member Trey Azagthoth took heed of his fanbase's concerns versus his own internal reflection and/or concern for maintaining the band's legacy, but whatever the motivating factor(s) may have been, few fans of MORBID ANGEL's Tucker-era are likely to be dissatisfied with the new release. Will fans of the classic, early Vincent era be satisfied? Keeping in mind that segment of fans' singular "No Evil D, no MORBID ANGEL" outlook—the ones who salivated for Vincent's return in 2004—there will likely be a divide, to whatever extent that may be. But their stubbornness would preclude them from enjoying one of genre's best albums in years.
In fairness to Tucker, since his departure following 2003's "Heretic", and aside from the 2011 recording hiccup that was "Illud Divinum Insanus", Vincent's return didn't serve fans beyond facilitating the band in being a big death metal band that played classic material at festivals. With "Kingdoms Disdained", Tucker's unique presence informs the release from start to finish. Influenced by the volatility he sees today, Tucker's lyrics discuss the idea that the gods who built this world are awakening to see their creation that has been subjected to repeated tumultuous cycles now in a momentous state of despair. His bass lines actually lead the charge on the grimy trudge that is "Paradigms Warped". Over the course of his career, he's employed vocals that match the tone of someone's speech patterns, exhibiting an ability to reflect moods ranging from pensive to rage. But never before has he sounded so utterly pissed off and filled with anger. It sounds like he's literally spitting venom on tracks like "The Righteous Voice", a song that begins with oozing guitar work paired with rapid double kick drum battery. Together lead the cataclysmic force leads toward a dramatic and triumphant riff and blast attack. It sounds like the group is using the force of music to launch itself into the stratosphere.
But Tucker isn't the only member change since "Illud Divinum Insanus". In 2015, Vincent, Guitarist Destructhor (also of Myrkskog) and drummer Tim Yeung left the band. (Yeung has joined Vincent in I AM MORBID, an ensemble that performs material from Vincent's first four MORBID ANGEL albums. But that's another story altogether.) Trey handled all guitars on "Kingdoms Disdained", and alongside Tucker, the unit is joined by drummer Scott Fuller. The only truly "new" MORBID ANGEL member, Fuller doesn't just dip his toes into the new band, he dives right in and allows his own qualities to shine. Rather than mimic classic MORBID ANGEL drummer Pete Sandoval, he stands apart with a relatively more technical approach that impressively anchors the new songs' complexity and propels them when they burst forward with up-tempo explosiveness.
"Kingdoms Denied" doesn't quite reach the high watermarks of Steve Tucker's phenomenal debut with the band, "Formulas Fatal to the Flesh", but the new release is an incredible album that picks up where the band left off with 2003's "Heretic". Don't mention it to the angriest of social media pundits, but it's almost as though "Illud Divinum Insanus" didn't happen. As impressive as "Kingdoms Disdained" is, every rose has its thorn. Fuller's strong performance is pushed too far to the front, but death metal—and arguably all of metal—is driven and defined by guitar work, most notably by the riff. Since there's no question that Trey steers the ship, it's baffling that his presence is held back in the mix. His performance is nothing short of world class, but it takes some effort on the listener's part to hear and appreciate it all. There really are no shortcomings as far as the songwriting, however.
Trey's increasing proclivity for experimentation and reach toward the psychedelic—some viewed this as excessive on "Heretic"—have clearly been dialed back. "Kingdoms Disdained", relative to "Heretic", is much more focused and streamlined in terms of individual tracks, and when considered collectively in a holistic sense as well. This is the first time MORBID ANGEL hasn't had any instrumental songs on an album since "Altars of Madness". That isn't to say that it's simply meat and potatoes death metal. Sure, opener and first single, "Piles of Little Arms" is death metal through and through, but the hypnotic and dizzying guitar tracks let us know off the bat that Trey hasn't entirely abandoned his inclination for bridging listeners to his seemingly hallucinatory visions.
MORBID ANGEL's ability to manipulate sounds such that it seems it's about to collapse and combust without ever doing so is nothing short of brilliant. For the devoted, it seems like magic. An onslaught of gravity blasts shower down at the onset of "D.E.A.D", and at various points they melt together with Trey's riffs and spin a web that almost unravels entirely before expelling itself and everything its caught into the abyss. It's reminiscent of the madness inducing opening riff of "Cleansed in Pestilence (Blade of Elohim) ", the opening track from "Heretic". Indeed, MORBID ANGEL isn't reinventing the steel with its approach: The band was once groundbreaking; now it's just incredible.