Trey Azagthoth. Morbid Angel's mysterious death metal guitar icon.
George Michael Emmanuel the third, better known as the brilliant death metal guitar virtuoso, composer and producer for Morbid Angel, Trey Azagthoth, is a man is shrouded in mystery.
There are only a few interviews with Azagthoth online and many of those predate 2003, the year the Morbid Angel album, Heretic, was released.
It is fair to say that gaining an insight into the man himself presents a challenge.
I was very fortunate to speak to long-time bassist and frontman for Morbid Angel, David Vincent, for an episode of the Scars and Guitars podcast series in May 2017. David was a gentleman and humoured my many questions about former band mates and musicians he has worked alongside. When I asked him for his views on Azagthoth, his response was that:
“Trey is a very creative guitar player, there’s no doubt about that. And I will always respect that.”
I couldn’t blame Vincent for offering a short response to my query given he parted ways with Azagthoth under what we can assume were fractious circumstances. If nothing else it was interesting to hear that Vincent even mentioned Azagthoth’s stellar guitar playing when asked for a quote.
As Vincent alluded to in his comment, what we as an audience do know about Azagthoth, we know by and large through the man’s outstanding guitar performance on Morbid Angel records. Not necessarily such a bad thing when so many artists are quoted and used by various web based publications as a means of attracting hits or clicks, raising a revenue profile through increased advertising that traffic following a controversial statement can bring. There is an absence of interviews with Azagthoth and this forces us to focus on the music that he creates.
What about the music then?
Death metal. That’s the universally acknowledged genre associated with Morbid Angel.
Death metal is defined as a sub-genre of heavy metal. The prominence of down tuned guitars, double kick and blast beat drumming and percussion, gruff or hoarse vocals and an image typically associated with death, destruction, anti-religious themes and the less savoury aspects of life.
Morbid Angel’s take on death metal includes lyrics and song titles steeped in the imagination of HP Lovecraft and almost constant double kick drumming by one of the best percussionist in biz, the El Salvadorian born, Peter Sandoval.
Vincent’s bass lines by and large follow the root note of the melody the guitar is playing with an occasional burst or fretted trill for a sonic surprise. Vincent offers a gruff vocal that occasionally incorporates a deep bass clean singing style and of course, Azagthoth’s Van Halen meets Jimi Hendrix guitar solo’s and riffage.
What I just mentioned there is what makes Azagthoth’s guitar playing so unique. Very few guitarist’s in death metal, certainly only a few guitarists from the same era that spawned Morbid Angel could lay claim to be as multi-dimensional.
Rapid sweeps of the fretboard that are then built into Van Halen-esque guitar solos, clearly definable riffs that are both memorable and brutal- indeed many of Morbid Angel's best riffs can be neatly transposed to an acoustic guitar. Precise technique of the fretting hand featuring numerous slides and vibrato- evoking feeling and rich emotion that contain the essence of Azagthoth’s brilliance. The guitar is held higher than many of Azagthoth’s contemporaries so the picking hand is set above the waist, often at stomach level which is similar to a finger style bass player. The picking hand is responsible for the ferocity through impeccably crisp and even alternate picking strokes
Azagthoth’s style is near to impossible to mimic…
Bill Hudson and Ira Black are doing a tremendous job in the David Vincent vehicle, I Am Morbid. I Am Morbid is the band that Vincent put together with the drummer, Tim Yueng, who performed on the controversial Morbid Angel album from 2011, Illud Divinum Insanus. The premise of I Am Morbid is to perform classic album cuts taken from Morbid Angel’s first four albums. Check out the videos of the bands performance posted to You Tube.
Azagthoth is important, not just to death metal and heavy metal, but to guitar playing in general. His legacy is firmly established through Morbid Angel’s first three albums: Altars of Madness(’89), Blessed are the Sick(’91) and the commercially successful Covenant (’93).
Covenant, is an album that many fans of traditional radio rock accepted as their first and perhaps only foray into the world of extreme metal. I will dedicate part of the blog to discussing the brilliance of Covenant. The final cut on the album, “God of Emptiness”, is a landmark song.
Lets have a look into the bands evolution.
Morbid Angel formed in 1984 in Tampa, Florida by Azagthoth alongside drummer Mike Browning. Browning left Morbid Angel before the recording of the album that is universally understood to be the band’s debut for Combat Records/ Earache Records, the seminal Altars of Madness. Browning is still active through his project Nocturus AD, which is a legacy of the prog- death metal band Nocturnus. Nocturnus achieved cult status among metal fans due to their 1990 release, The Key, an album that features cosmic and sci-fi themes overlaid with an occult narrative.
Browning did record vocals and drums for what was intended to be Morbid Angel’s debut album. Recorded in May 1986, it was a recording that would eventually see light of day as Abominations of Desolation in 1991. It is viewed as a ‘demo album’. It’s a harsh listen, devoid of Vincent’s vocal and bass playing, not to mention the drumming of long time Morbid Angel percussionist, Peter Sandoval, the sound of the recording leaves a lot to be desired... I can understand why Azagthoth regrouped. It’s essentially the sound of an artist getting used to the studio.
Many of the tracks on Abominations of Desolation have been re-recorded and released elsewhere. All except for one, “Demon Seed”.
In 1987, the Chuck Schuldiner project, aptly titled Death, released Scream Bloody Gore, an album that is considered by many to be the first example of death metal put to a widely available recording.
It remains to be confirmed, however I do wonder if the decision to regroup and reform Morbid Angel after the recording of Abominations of Desolation was due to Azagthoth hearing the ferocious album from Schuldiner and thinking, ‘game on’!
To support this theory, there is a widely circulated quote from Azagthoth about the bands nascent debut. He is reported to have said:
“Back then, I really wanted to destroy everybody. I wanted people to have to work a lot harder after the fans witnessed what we had going on. I wanted to smoke people. I really believed that bands were challenging each other, trying to outdo each other and make each other quit - almost like the rivalries with East Coast and West Coast rappers. I really kind of thought people wanted to write parts that would engulf the whole world. I wanted to get onstage and have people go, ‘Holy shit - what the fuck is going on?’ I wanted to write stuff that would make other bands run and hide. It's not really very nice, but that's what drove me."
On the 12th May 1989 Morbid Angel would release Altars of Madness and the blue print for death metal as we still know it today, had been issued.
Featuring the classic line up of Vincent on bass and vocals and Sandoval on drums and percussion; Azagthoth was joined on guitar by Richard Brunelle.
The strength of the album is such that it is one of the most continuously referenced death metal albums ever recorded. Azagthoth and Brunelle’s performance was certainly the fastest, most brutal, yet still legible guitar recordings to that date. I can only imagine what a first-time listener would have thought back in 1989 given the prevailing musical landscape was dominated by Madonna, Bobby Brown and Paula Abdul.
Altars of Madness was recorded at Morrisound recording facility, December 1988. It was produced by the band and Digby Pearson, who is the founder of UK based Earache Records.
The album sleeve features classic artwork designed by Dan Seagrave. According to Seagrave the image is “more like a flat disk made of a fossil material, that has captured souls”
Azagthoth returned to Morrisound Recording studio in 1991 with the same Morbid Angel line up that recorded Altars of Madness. Released in May of the same year, Blessed Are the Sick is revolutionary due to the addition of a denser, thoroughly brooding song writing narrative.
Some fans were in a bother due to the perception that Azagthoth had produced riffs that were more manageable to the aural senses. Repeated listens in-fact uncovered a complicated morass of riffs that were every bit as brutal and intense as the debut. If anything, the addition of slower times signatures added a sense of menace that was only hinted at on Altars of Madness.
The album artwork is credited to Jean Delville, it is an adaptation of a painting by the artist and is titled ‘Les Trésors de Satan’ which translates as ‘The Treasures of Satan’.
The tour to support Blessed Are the Sick would eventually arrive on Australian shores. I was in a band with a drummer who met Richard Brunelle. My then band mate commented that Brunelle was down to earth and willing to chat to the fans.
Sometime between touring commitments for Blessed Are the Sick concluding and studio commitments for Morbid Angel's third album, Covenant, commencing; Brunelle left the band. He was not replaced… not immediately anyway.
With so many accolades and praise afforded to Azagthoth’s work across Morbid Angel’s first two albums, one would think that a release to rival, yet alone best those albums would be beyond the reach of the musician.
Covenant was released in June 1993 and as has long since been hailed as the greatest death metal recording ever by many critics. Distributed on the major label Warner Brothers through their imprint Giant recordings, Covenant had significant resources available for promotion. Tony Kunewalder directed videos for the album cut’s “Rapture” and “God of Emptiness”, David Vincent participated in interview specials on MTV, and the band made an appearance in the zeitgeist of 1993; a feature on the Mike Judge vehicle, Beavis and Butthead.
My own recollections of the video for “God of Emptiness” are of a winged demon that is summoned by believers, Azagthoth wields his Ibanez Universe seven-string guitar in a room that is used to provoke images of ancient Sumeria. Vincent’s deep voice echoes around a chamber and Sandoval’s percussion drones ominously. Believers twist and turn, faces are baked dry by a relentless sun as they bounce dementedly to the band’s music.
The album artwork accompanying Covenant has long been regarded as a vanguard of appropriate images accompanying a death metal album. The image is of various objects used in occult ceremonies; a candle, a quill, a dagger, and a page from a book called The Book of Ceremonial Magic which is by the man who is credited with popularising tarot cards: Arthur Edward Waite.
The album cut’s were produced by the band and noted Metallica collaborator, Flemming Rasmussen, at Morrisound studio. The sound across the album relies on acoustics and instrumentation; indeed, the albums success is due to a feeling that Azagthoth’s guitar sits firmly at the centre of the recording and is the musical focus. I would never say the album sounds raw, however it is an album that sounds like it was recorded live and that is part of its significant charm.
Something that is less celebrated about Azagthoth are his experimental musical tastes. Covenant contained a cut called “Nar Mataru” featuring electronic music that sounds like the pulse of a trans dimensional portal… every album from here until Kingdoms Disdained would feature music that certainly could not be classified as metal, or even extreme. The 2003 album, Heretic, contains a track I consider to be one of my favourite Azagthoth compositions, the sublime "Abyssous".
1994 was the year that saw the release of a collection of songs under the title, Laibach Re-mixes. Branching out into unconventional territory, the Solvenian electro-industrial outfit Laibach, rejigged the cuts “Sworn to the Black” and “God of Emptiness”, both from Covenant.
Domination was released in 1995 as the follow up to Covenant. It continues the theme of alphabetically sequenced album titles (Altars, Blessed, Covenant.. ). Domination is the final Morbid Angel album to feature Vincent until, Illud Divinum Insanus, and the first to feature guitarist and producer extraordinaire Erik Rutan. Many regard Domination to be the first in a series of lack lustre albums from Morbid Angel.
Personally, I find Domination to be a rightful inclusion as the fourth of five albums overwhelmingly penned by Azagthoth that can and should be considered classic death metal for the ages.
So why is Domination considered a lacklustre release by many?
The album cover is not the bands finest moment to be sure. It’s as if Azagthoth discovered the 1995 equivalent of photoshop, which clearly demonstrates the limitations of digital graphic design in that era. Unfortunately It looks like an eighth graders art project with stark hues of green, purple and grey dominating the bands signature pentagram motif.
The sound across the album is ‘bright’. I like that. I could hear every nuance to the band’s sound and much of the grit of the band’s first three releases has been replaced by a cleaner production value. Danzig, Deep Purple and Megadeth collaborator Bill Kennedy produced the album in conjunction with the band.
The lead track is called “Where the Slime Live”, a video of the band performing live was created to accompany the song. Azagthoth’s performance is no less stellar and noteworthy on this track, as it is across the entire album. Rutan’s contribution was also significant with no less than three song writing credits.
Rutan would go on to form the critically revered Hate Eternal. Hate Eternal are one of the only bands I have had to leave a gig due to the music’s sheer intensity. As of 2017 Rutan is well known for his world class production for bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Krisiun and ironically Morbid Angel.
In 1996 Morbid Angel released the live album Entangled in Chaos, featuring tracks taken from the band’s first three albums. This was something a swansong for Vincent and it was released the year of his departure form Morbid Angel.
1998’s Formulas fatal to the Flesh is the first album to feature bassist and vocalist, Steve Tucker. Tucker was a relative unknown prior to his recruitment and it is fair to say he had big shoes to fill.
If you have been keeping count, we are now up to Azagthoth’s sixth album under the Morbid Angel moniker. For mine, Formulas fatal to the Flesh is one of the greatest guitar hero albums ever recorded. In many ways, the album is a solo album from Azagthoth given he wrote the album alone after the departure of both Vincent and Rutan.
Tucker provides a brutal death metal vocal that sounds a lot like so many of the Floridian contemporaries of Morbid Angel. While Vincent injected plenty of rock star charisma into his performance, in many ways, Formulas fatal to the Flesh, is a better album because of Tucker’s working-class style.
Azagthoth wrote tracks that heave lava… molten rock cascades through the endless deep of a subterranean ocean. One punter ventured to suggest that Formulas fatal to the Flesh is Morbid Angel’s traditional sound dipped in acid... a psychedelic masterpiece of death metal.
It’s fair to say that it took me many years to appreciate the majesty of the album. Like many, I wasn’t too keen on the absence of Vincent, yet Azagthoth must have sensed this within his audience and took almost total responsibility for the creation of both song lyrics and music.
Now as far as I am concerned, the album for the new millennium, called Gateways to Annihilation, contains Azagthoth’s weakest efforts.
Music is almost wholly subjective, so I can only view Gateways to Annihilation through the prism of my own experience. That said, the track “Secured Limitations" is a dour affair that may not have made it out of the room on previous album rehearsals, it is certainly the weakest track ever credited to the genius of Azagthoth in my opnion. Another track "Opening of the Gates" is a middling affair that never really reaches third gear in a band synonymous with interstellar forward thrust.
But there are some excellent guitar solos’s across Gateways to Annihilation; the fretboard mastery of “Summoning Redemption” is truly magnificent. Rutan had returned for this album and his rhythm guitar lays the foundation for Azagthoth’s inspired solo on this track.
Tucker had been alongside Azagthoth for a few years by now. He is credited with the majority of the lyrics and with co-composing much of the music. With the greatest of respect to Tucker, who is a tremendous performer and musician, his song-writing is very different from David Vincent’s and it is very apparent on this album.
Tucker would depart the band for a short time, missing keys tour's in support of Gateways to Annihilation. Hate Eternal collaborator Jared Anderson (RIP) would occupy the bass and vocal role in Morbid Angel until Tucker returned.
After many years as a recording entity, numerous shuffles of the bands membership and a world where the internet was playing a massive role in forming tastes and opinions, the album Heretic arrived to a critical reception in 2003.
The albums bone dry production detracts from what are some of the most memorable riffs that Azagthoth recorded. Album cuts "Cleansed in Pestilence (Blade of Elohim)", “Beneath the Hollow” and “God of Our Divinity”, are career best riffs and arrangements.
I recall reading an interview with Tucker, soon after the album was released. It was around this time that he left the band until his return in 2017. I cannot find the interview to quote directly however I remember that Tucker was none too pleased with the production of the album and the sound of his bass (which rivals the inaudible bass sound on Metallica’s 1988 offering …And Justice For All. )
I can’t help but feel some empathy for Tucker. He is credited with the albums lyrics and can certainly play the bass guitar, yet he sounds as if he is a passenger on most of the album cuts across Heretic.
It is around this time that Azagthoth engaged in the modern-day equivalent of radio silence. His bizarre and fidgety appearance on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball to support the release of Heretic, may have hinted that he was better suited to using the guitar as his only public 'voice'. I am only speculating here, as when he does speak he has many profound words to share so it is a shame that we haven’t heard from him in the easily accessible public domain for many years.
Okay, so here we are at what is without doubt the most controversial moment in the career of Azagthoth. A much-lauded return to Morbid Angel’s death metal supremacy was expected as the bands most successful frontman, David Vincent, had returned to the band due to the departure of Steve Tucker sometime around 2006.
The 2011 release Illud Divinum Insanus is a divisive affair. Indeed, many of the album cuts are far removed from death metal. I simply cannot begin to point out how scathing critics and fans were of the album, needless to say it was a vicious reception that awaited Azagthoth, Vincent and the new recruit’s in drummer Tim Yeung and guitarist Thor Anders Myhren AKA Destructhor.
I happen to enjoy the album and felt that a change of pace was always on the cards. Vincent had been performing in Genitorturers with his then wife and the musical narrative of that band could be summarised as goth/electro/rock. The cuts “Too Extreme!”, “I Am Morbid”, “10 More Dead”, "Destructos vs. the Earth / Attack" and the track with the most profound departure from the band’s sound; “Radikult”… all attracted plenty of the kind of attention the band could probably have done without.
“Radikult” is the track that has received the heaviest criticism. The lyric that Vincent uses at the songs intro has been singled out by fans and critics as emblematic of the albums real issues, although the lyric actually states ‘Killer Cult’, not ‘Killer Cop’ as so many have interpreted. “Radikult” was actually written by David Vincent. It is clear that his time spent with a diverse array of musicians prior to his teaming up with Azagthoth again certainly had an influence.
Something that was overlooked is that Azagthoth never sounded better. The guitar tone on "Destructos vs. the Earth / Attack" is a rich demonstration in the use of the seven-string guitar. I own a copy of the album on vinyl and it receives a regular airing, the verse riff is divine.
Speaking objectively, it was always going to be a challenge for Azagthoth to introduce new sounds and song-writing when he should be credited as the greatest living death metal guitarist. Combine that with the return of Vincent and many fans simply wanted a return to the glory days of the first three albums.
In 2017 Azagthoth is effectively the last man standing in Morbid Angel. The quality of the collaborators and musicians that have shared the stage with Azagthoth is immence. David Vincent, Tim Yueng, Peter Sandoval, Anders Myhren, Richard Brunelle, Steve Tucker and Erik Rutan. All in their own way have contributed to the legacy Azagthoth has created.
The ‘classic’ Morbid angel line up of Azagthoth/ Vincent/ Sandoval and possibly Erik Rutan are viewed rightly as one of the most tremendous arrangements of musicians to perform death metal.
Morbid Angel released Kingdoms Disdained to a cautious death metal fan base in 2017. Tucker is back in band providing vocals and bass playing. The relatively unknown Scott Fullerand Dan Vadim Vonare in the band on drums/ percussion and guitar respectively.
In a review I penned for the Metal Obsession web-based publication, I mention that “Kingdoms Disdained is unapologetically, a meat and potatoes death metal album. It sounds like a bare-bones successor to the bands unheralded classic from 1998, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, given the albums relatively straightforward nature when compared to the experimentation that characterised the three studio albums in between.”
After detailing the various nuances of the album I let the reader know that “..it is odd to say that even though Kingdoms Disdainedis the best death metal album this year by some measure, it still isn’t good enough to be called a comeback or even a return to form for Azagthoth. The reason? He always was (and always will be…) the gold standard against which all death and extreme metal guitarists and songwriters are to be measured.”
It was great to chat to Steve Tucker about the album, believe me, it wasn’t without trepidation that I focused on the ‘rocks and bones’ evoking production that I feel is the albums most significant flaw. Tucker was almost apologetic that I had arrived at my opinion which told me a lot about the man’s character; he genuinely cares about how this album would be received.
Live performances of Morbid Angel performing cuts from the albums that Tucker has performed on are stunning. The new band members are contributing and Azagthoth… well, he is the ‘Chairman of the Board’ of supreme death metal guitar performance. The recent live videos enhance his rolled gold reputation in that arena.
Whatever comes next for Azagthoth, his place in the halls of history as one of the greatest guitars players ever is assured.