The Anniversary

Covenant Turns 20

By Michael Nelson / June 20, 2013

You gotta remember, by ’93, all hell had broken loose. Major labels had no business getting into bed with death metal, but at that moment it was a free-for-all — free love, free money, everybody in bed with everybody else. Shit had been straight chaos since late ’91, when Nirvana killed hair metal forevermore and major labels just ended up signing whatever, irrespective of commercial viability. They signed the Butthole Surfers, for Christ’s sake. Hell, they signed Boredoms. Plus, if any death metal band was gonna get a deal with a major, it was Morbid Angel. The real surprise is that Morbid Angel signed to a major label and then turned around and released the best death metal album of all time. It’s been 20 years since they dropped Covenant, 20 years since they raised the stakes to that level, and over the course of those 20 years, everything has changed and changed again — death metal died and came back to life; major labels just died period — but nobody has made a better death metal album than Covenant. Not even Morbid Angel.

You also gotta remember that metal fans — purists, anyway — are the most rigidly dogmatic and elitist individuals in the entire universe of music fandom, and death metal was a product of that elitism; it came into existence almost specifically as a rejection of major labels. Beginning, basically, with the birth of thrash in the early ’80s, and growing more severe over the course of that decade, metal bands were increasingly forced into one of two camps: real or fake, hard or soft. The distinctions were clear. Metallica, for instance — the very definition of a real metal band — wore their street clothes on stage: jeans, T-shirts, high-top Reeboks. Poison, on the other hand — fake; so fake — wore snakeskin pants and poofy pirate shirts and silk scarves. Real metal bands played guitars, bass, and drums as fast as their bodies would allow before breaking. Fake metal bands employed session synth players and wrote ballads.

To the serious metalhead, fake metal bands (aka “hair metal” or “glam metal” bands) were a fucking joke. But they sold. It was a Faustian bargain: Metal bands who played to the mainstream were anathema to genre purists, but it was those bands whose videos were in regular rotation on MTV, those bands who dated models, played arenas, lived large. And they were legion! History has forgotten the likes of Slaughter and White Lion and Warrant and Winger, but for a time, those bands were ubiquitous and rather profitable. Occasionally, a “real” metal band would make a desperate, ill-fated leap to the dark (lite) side (e.g., Celtic Frost on 1988’s Cold Lake). Now and then, a bunch of teased-hair poseurs would successfully toughen up (cf. Pantera, pre- and post-1987). But for the most part, metal bands existed in a purely binary universe, and metal that was popular — or tried to be popular — was not real metal.

This led to certain internal conflicts, though, when real metal started … becoming popular. At some point, critical mass was achieved. Slayer and Anthrax went gold. Megadeth and Metallica went multi-platinum. Iron Maiden went heavy on synths. Testament actually wrote a song called “The Ballad.” The scene was getting co-opted, going soft, cashing in. Real metalheads were forced to the fringes to find new sounds that could never be mistaken for pop, could not possibly be modified for the masses, could indeed have no commercial appeal whatsoever.

It was in these hinterlands that death metal (along with its similarly ugly and angry sibling, grindcore) was born. Death metal represented an actual endpoint, a sonic and aesthetic extreme that could be taken no further. This was the last generation: suburban dirtbags who did shit like burn upside-down crosses into their foreheads, who played in bands with names like Cancer, who wrote songs with titles like “Edible Autopsy.” Metallica wore street clothes, sure, but Death — the seminal Florida band who helped give birth to the genre of the same name — wore fucking sweatpants. Ballads? Obituary didn’t even write lyrics; their vocalist, John Tardy, just gurgled and groaned like a backed-up toilet. Death metal rejected commodification, manners, the mainstream. Death metal turned away tourists at the gate.

And among the faithful, the genre flourished. Death metal’s first wave kicked off in earnest in 1987, with the release of Death’s debut, Scream Bloody Gore, and that album preceded a flood of stone classics, including revered debuts from Entombed, Terrorizer, Autopsy, Obituary, Deicide, Carcass, Pestilence, Suffocation, Dismember … the list goes on so long it is ridiculous. Seemingly every single death metal album (or demo!) released between the years of 1989 and 1992 is spoken of in awed tones today.

Morbid Angel were a product of the same fertile Florida scene that produced Death and Deicide and Obituary, among others. But Morbid stood out even among that impressive crop. Morbid Angel were the first American band signed to British label Earache Records (home to such luminaries as Napalm Death, Carcass, Godflesh, Entombed, Cathedral, and Bolt Thrower). And with Earache, Morbid had crafted two of death metal’s very best and most exciting albums: the band’s 1989 debut, Altars Of Madness, and its follow-up, 1991’s Blessed Are The Sick.

Where most death metal bands were either brain-bendingly virtuosic (Death, Atheist) or caveman-level bludgeoning (Obituary, Cannibal Corpse), Morbid Angel managed to be complex and brutal, and something else, too — something almost operatic. By the time they released Blessed, Morbid Angel often seemed as though they were walking some unholy boundary of death metal and classical music. Indeed, Morbid Angel’s sonic architect, guitarist Trey Azagthoth, dedicated his band’s sophomore album to Mozart, and that album included a couple classical-esque numbers, showcasing textures and compositional elegance utterly alien to death metal. But Morbid Angel were not compromising for the sake of accessibility: Even more so than the mighty Altars, Blessed is a black record, a frightening record, a serious record. And even upon its release, it felt like a major progression for its entire genre.

So, in the spring of 1992, with a pair of classics already to their name, Morbid Angel was signed by former MCA chief Irving Azoff to a one-album deal (with an option for five more albums) with his recently minted Warner Bros. subsidiary, Giant Records. It was an unlikely pairing even in the unruly post-Nirvana gold rush [1]: Giant’s focus was Top 40 and R&B; when they signed Morbid Angel, the label was still enjoying the success of their 1991 release from new-jack swing lotharios Color Me Badd (“I Wanna Sex You Up“), which would eventually spend 77 weeks on the Billboard 200. Somehow, in this mutually unfamiliar setting, Morbid Angel’s manager, Gunter Ford, negotiated a deal that allowed Azoff and Giant no artistic input whatsoever [2]. Morbid Angel’s major label debut — and, for that matter, death metal’s major label debut — would emerge from the studio exactly as its creators intended, no matter how dark, insane, frightening, or obscure.

Morbid Angel used their autonomy and major label dollars wisely. They recorded their third album at Florida’s Morrisound Studios between late 1992 and early 1993 with Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen, the man behind three of metal’s defining landmarks: Metallica’s Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and …And Justice For All. And on June 22, 1993, Covenant [3] was released. Covenant was lean in size — 10 songs clocking in at 41 minutes — but absolutely massive in sound. Rasmussen had brought out in Morbid Angel the same astonishing visceral power he’d midwifed on those timeless Metallica albums. In fact, the riffs that make up the core of Covenant would fit comfortably alongside those at the core of Ride The Lightning (or, for that matter, Slayer’s Reign In Blood). They were punishing but immensely satisfying: hooks sharp enough to tear through flesh, big enough to drag the listener under.

But for all its intoxicating momentum and force, Covenant is never a catchy record. That’s partly because the album is essentially devoid of anything resembling a traditional “chorus,” but it’s mostly due to the uppermost layers of sound — the things on which the ear and imagination immediately focus. Covenant squeals and reels wildly; the band’s odd and ever-changing time signatures leave little room for grooves.

The credit/blame for Covenant‘s inaccessibility is largely due to the performances on the album and the personalities of its creators, especially those of its artistic leader. Azagthoth was able to make his music sound as serious, depraved, and disturbed as its subject matter (some combination of theistic Satanism and/or Sumerian mythology and/or something). His guitars seemed to mimic surreal horrors of nature — whirlpools or wildfires — more than they did any musicians of his era. At the time, the most celebrated guitarist in death metal was Chuck Schuldiner of Death, a dazzlingly proficient hyper-shredder with few technical equals. Azagthoth, on the other hand, delivered queasy, nitrous leads that called to mind the most extreme work of free-jazz/grindcore saxophonist John Zorn.

It wasn’t just Azagthoth, though, whose contributions kept Covenant from approaching mainstream conventions. Morbid Angel’s drummer, Pete “The Feet” Sandoval, was a dark wizard; his style played a confusing trick on the ear similar to the one played on the eye by a rotating ceiling fan: It moves so fast that it deceives the brain and almost appears to be moving slowly, and backwards. And vocalist/bassist David Vincent delivered lyrics with a crazed, blackened urgency; he actually sounded like the fictional demons to which he was calling out. At his most accessible, on the raw and unusually straightforward (and totally incredible) “Angel Of Disease,” he actually sounds a great deal like a young James Hetfield. At his weirdest, on the somewhat unsettling “God Of Emptiness” (a single!), he does a speak-singing thing that recalls Rammstein.

Vincent’s vocals are the most obvious barrier to entry for the casual listener, but the truth is, Morbid Angel are a really fucking weird band, and Covenant is a really fucking weird record. At the height of death metal’s popularity, most of Morbid Angel’s contemporaries were either high-concept goofballs, low-concept goofballs, or hillbillies, but Morbid were totally, sincerely strange [4]. Of course, the best death metal is inherently strange and intensely punishing, and Covenant is both those things. In spades. In any sane universe, it would have been the sole province of genre purists, but somehow, Covenant actually … sold. Giant devoted some promotional resources to the album. The video for first single “Rapture” premiered on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, followed by an on-camera interview with Vincent. The “God Of Emptiness” clip was played on Beavis & Butthead. According to Nielsen Soundscan (a systemically flawed service that tracks only a fraction of actual sales), Covenant has moved more than 127,000 units in the United States alone — meaning it is not just the best death metal album ever, but the best-selling death metal album, too.

These were by no means revelatory numbers, but they were immense for a band, album, and genre so relentlessly extreme. There appeared to be a market for death metal, after all, some aspect of the scene that could be commodified. After Morbid Angel signed with Giant, another major, Columbia Records, snapped up nearly everything else on the Earache roster, licensing new albums from Carcass, Entombed, Godflesh, Cathedral, Fudge Tunnel, and Napalm Death. But returns diminished almost instantly: None of those albums Soundscanned even a third of what Covenant did — worse still, none of them even outsold the previous respective albums by those bands. Columbia started dropping them, one by one, and less than three years after signing the licensing contract, the major label had cut all ties with those bands. More problematically, death metal itself seemed bereft of new ideas and compelling figures. A scene that had produced nothing but classics seemed to produce nothing but flat imitations of classics — and that plague befell both new and established bands. Many of the genre’s leading lights broke up, or moved away from death metal. Norway’s black metal scene — which had, in part, sprung to life as a violent negative reaction to death metal that could be traced directly back to Morbid Angel [6] — was taking hold internationally. Within a few years, black metal had become the lingua franca of the extreme metal community. Death metal had all but disappeared.

After Covenant, Morbid Angel released one more album with Giant, 1995’s Domination, which sold relatively well (70,000 copies), but the label cut them loose just the same. After touring for that album, Vincent left the band [7]. Azagthoth found a new frontman, and returned to Earache Records and the underground.

In that underground, death metal has regained its vitality. Today, the genre comfortably coexists (and regularly cross-pollinates) with black metal. Giant Records closed its doors in 2001 [8], but Morbid Angel is still around. More importantly, countless bands — including many of extreme metal’s most promising and most popular acts — claim Morbid Angel as a primary influence. And some of those bands, such as Australia’s Portal, are much, much weirder than Morbid Angel at their weirdest. But you gotta remember how different everything was in ’93. Twenty years is a long time. The business has changed. Metal has changed. There will never be another Covenant.

///

///


[1] Giant’s first release was the 1991 cassingle “Voices That Care,” a rousing and garish “We Are The World”-esque gospel-pop song created expressly to boost the spirits of U.S. troops stationed abroad as past of Operation Desert Storm (the track featured vocal performances from Michael Bolton, Garth Brooks, and Wayne Gretzky, among literally dozens of inexplicable others).


[2] The details of Morbid Angel’s deal with Giant — as well as many other things mentioned in this story, including the entire evolution of death metal — are discussed at glorious length in the book Choosing Death: The Improbable History Of Death Metal & Grindcore, by Decibel Magazine Editor In Chief Albert Mudrian. That book was an essential source for this story. Moreover, it is the best book I have ever read on the subject of heavy metal and I recommend it with absolute, unequivocal enthusiasm.


[3] The album’s title sort of solidified a seemingly pointless theme from which Morbid Angel has never deviated — their albums are titled “alphabetically”: LP1 was called Altars Of Madness, and that was followed by Blessed Are The Sick, Covenant, Domination, and so on.


[4] Any suspicions one had about the band’s odd spiritual or sexual proclivities have more or less been confirmed in the years since Covenant: Vincent has become a card-carrying member of the Church Of Satan; he’s also taken a job as bassist for his dominatrix wife’s fetish-themed industrial shock-rock band the Genitorturers. Azagthoth, meanwhile, has moved away from the Dark Arts and is now a spiritualist informed and inspired by Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins. Sandoval just posts Scripture and nature portraits on his Facebook page.


[5] By comparison, Covenant brought a far higher return on investment than lots of other, ostensibly better bets. For example, Seattle grunge favorites TAD signed with Azoff’s label at roughly the same time Morbid Angel did. TAD was a hot commodity in the hottest scene in music; they were Sub Pop alumni and Nirvana tourmates. TAD released their major label debut, Inhaler, on Giant in October 1993, to critical raves. In support of the album, they opened for Soundgarden on that band’s Superunknown tour. Inhaler failed to break even.


[6] The same week Covenant was released — the very same week! — Norwegian band Darkthrone released their third album, Under A Funeral Moon. Darkthrone had begun life as a death metal band, but in 1992, they vocally renounced the genre, abruptly shifted gears, and started recording the extremely raw, rudimentary, atmospheric metal that would come to be known as black metal. Fenriz has long contended that Blessed Are The Sick was “the worst” example of modern production in metal. Darkthrone would become the seminal black metal band, and Funeral Moon was Darkthrone’s first true black metal album.


[7] Vincent returned to Morbid Angel for last year’s Illud Divinum Insanus, his first studio album with the band since Domination.


[8] Of course, Irving Azoff is doing quite well. Last year, he topped Billboard Magazine’s Power 100. Twenty years after signing Morbid Angel, he is the most powerful person in the music industry.