visions from the dark side

i hadn't been to a death metal show in years, and probably the last time i went to one was when morbid angel was touring with their replacement vocalist/bassist steve tucker. it was good, but neither the material nor the delivery of those parts were up to par with those of original member david vincent. vincent left the band in 1996 to play in his wife's band, genitorturers. last year, after three original albums with steve, vincent returned. their latest tour found them at bb king blues club & grill, which has strangely become the nyc home of death metal in recent years. morbid angel are the best the genre has to offer, by far. they balance technique with brutality perfectly, and vincent arguably has the best voice of them all, being simultaneously gutteral and (mostly) understandable.

the set started out with a riduculously low-end shuddering ambient loop, pitched to such depths that it was impossible to tell what instruments were playing (other than the crowd's internal organs). a minor technical problem that had nothing else coming out of the PA before they started was resolved in a few minutes and the band was off. chief visionary trey azagthoth's off-the-hook playing was augmented by a new, younger second guitarist. his guitar and vincent's bass were solid, but of course only truly noticeable when they were not playing. the main dynamic of most metal bands since metallica is between the main guitarist and the drummer. in vincent they also have the bonus of a charismatic vocalist whose voice goes beyond the standard unintelligible "cookie monster" grunts. but most of all, MA are extremely proficient musicians, pushing the envelope of how harmonically weird music can get and still retain the sense of single-minded driving force required by the genre.

the center of this is the man-machine named pete sandoval, obvious from his dangerously opulent drumkit that dominated the stage. built as a kind of cage vaguely in the form of a 3D unicursal hexagram, it had 6 cymbals (!), 5 toms, 2 kick drums, snare and hi-hat attached to its sturdy frame. the roadie checking the tightness of all the joints right before the show was a sign of the punishment it was going to be taking. sandoval relentlessly punches listeners in the chest with kick drums you would swear no human could be playing. and yet he does, starting/stoppping and changing tempos and time signatures on a dime. on top of this, trey alternates between his uniquely dissonant riffs and completely insane guitar acrobatics. how he doesn't break a string when playing so many strokes so hard and fast, frequently yanking and holding the tremolo bar as far as he can, is beyond me.

those two players alone would make any band a powerhouse, but david vincent puts a more human (and humane) face on the violent-sounding music. not only are his words fairly discernable, but his between-song pronouncements always emphasize the importance of their fans. besides thanking everyone for coming several times, he pointed out the diversity of the crowd; besides the ubiquitous long-haired, scraggly, chunky, white metal dudes, there were skinny mohawked punkers, short-haired indie rockers, dreadlocked and bald black guys, a lot of hispanic people, and quite a few girls. vincent roared, "if we can all get along, why can't the rest of the world?" he also commended the crowd for doing the right thing in the moshpit, which is that when you see someone go down, you pick them right up, "because that's your brother." then again, he admonished the crowd whenever he didn't "see enough movement going on" and told them to "be a man" and "fuck shit up". he also asked everyone to flash the devil horns and grinned, "it don't necessarily mean we're angry, just that we're evil," backtracking oddly to add, "and there's nothing wrong with that!"

i really wanted to watch the band, but often my attention would be distracted by being pushed, pulled, or slammed into as somehow i ended up on the edge of the pit. it was going pretty much the whole time, so that meant over an hour of a near-constant workout, including my neck muscles as my head snapped in time to the pummelling beats. while annoying at times, it's pretty much to be expected at shows like this and it really gets the blood pumping, especially when you push back. considering this, it's a good thing i didn't bring my camera, although a few people risked theirs. the picture above is actually from infernal crusade, but i chose it because it looks pretty much like what i saw.

the crowd ate up almost every song, because everything played was from one of their first four albums with vincent. each title announcement or chorus elicited ragged screams and raised arms from the audience. often the band would run two songs together, including their encore of their slowest songs, "god of emptiness" and "world of shit." with most of the show running at breakneck speed, it's no wonder that every 4 songs or so the band took a break to tune up and stretch out offstage, while running a recording of another dark ambient keyboard interlude. a few times the tempo lagged a bit compared to the studio versions, but that's understandable given that these guys must be in their forties and playing music a lot more physically demanding than that of the much-lauded rolling stones. still, this was probably the best show and the biggest venue i've seen them at. although i could have done with a few more songs (and they'll probably never play anything written by former member erik rutan), i wasn't let down.

the title of this post comes from a song on the album altars of madness.