Let’s go ahead and acknowledge this up front: of all the big-name old school death metal bands, Morbid Angel has arguably fared the worst. Sure, they had a few stumbles over the years – 1995’s Domination had some serious clunkers, and 2003’s Heretic was supposedly singlehandedly responsible for getting the group dropped from Earache – but the real deathblow came in 2011, with a little record called Illud Divinum Insanus. What fans hoped would be the glorious return of frontman David Vincent turned out to be a Marilyn Manson-inspired atrocity that conjured up a veritable diarrhea tsunami of critical backlash. It didn’t help that longtime drummer Pete Sandoval was gone, and after toiling in the aftermath for a few years, Vincent departed again as well, leaving Illud the most recent full-length from this once-legendary Florida troupe. Perhaps the most depressing part is how the band now seem to be overlooked by a new generation of listeners: having not toured their home country in almost two years (and with a Facebook page that’s hilariously inactive except for regularly posted ‘Track this Artist’ links), Morbid Angel seems to be approaching the status of that influential band whose shirts people don’t wear anymore, the band that old fogies talk about while they pick their butts, dust off their gatefold vinyls, and wait for a comeback tour that never comes.
It’s thus depressing that today’s budding metal fans might overlook a record like Blessed Are the Sick, which, interestingly enough, received its own share of criticism following its 1991 release. In an era when death metal was rushing headlong into extremity (see: Suffocation’s Effigy of the Forgotten), Blessed was moving beyond the Possessed-on-speed sound of 1989 debut Altars of Madness in favor of slower, sludgier sections and eerie, baroque interludes peppered throughout its 39-minute runtime. With a back half almost entirely composed of re-recordings of older tracks, Blessed had the potential to be a choppy, uneven mess. Instead, it’s one of the strangest – yet catchiest – death metal records of all time.
Let’s start with the guitars of principal songwriter Trey Azagthoth. The iconic opening riff of first proper track “Fall from Grace” shows outright this is different than Altars, with its swampy, sludgy nature later becoming an influential part of the Morbid Angel sound. The ominous, sweltering chords of the title track showcase a similar feel, but Trey hasn’t forgotten about speed: the chaotic, demonic trills of “Brainstorm” and twisted march of “Rebel Lands” provide two short, blasty doses early on, while the bouncy riffs of “Abominations” and the squawking melodies of last proper track “The Ancient Ones” round out the second half in grand fashion. Special mention goes to “Desolate Ways,” the late-album acoustic instrumental that’s gorgeous, somber, and otherworldly. The only track written by guitarist Richard Brunelle, it’s one of the greatest interludes that ever found its way onto a death metal record.
But despite the amazing guitarwork, what really makes Blessed so incredible are Vincent’s vocals. With his throaty roars and acidic rasps unusually pronounced in the mix, Vincent works classic lines and catchy phrasing into Trey’s jagged riffs in a way that’s so natural, it’s almost easy to miss how skilled it is. Sure, there’s the blood-pumping shout of the track title in “Fall from Grace” or “Thy Kingdom Come” (the latter followed by one of the catchiest Azagthoth riffs ever), or the immortal overdubbed chorus of the title track (“WORLD of sickness!”), but the real magic comes in the sheer conviction of random verse lines like “They speak my name in tongues!” and “Raise our horns in blasphemy!” Admittedly, before deciding to write this, it’d been a couple years since I’d last listened to Blessed, but in revisiting it I was amazed to find that nearly every song had at least one awesome line that I distinctly remembered and couldn’t help but shout along with.
The roomy production (DR9) provides a great stage for Trey’s trademark wild, piercing solos and deep, warm guitar tone (best heard on the hefty lurch of “Day of Suffering”), while Sandoval’s sharp snare hits are a treat in themselves. While Blessed may not be perfect, it’s an excellent and unique entry in the band’s catalog, showcasing the full spectrum of talent from all members, and exuding that certain mystique that only the true classics do. 25 years later, with Trey the only remaining member from this lineup, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to produce another winner and finally redeem the Morbid Angel name – but if not, at least we can always rejoice in the twisted, fiery might that is Blessed Are the Sick.