Morbid Angel’s ‘Covenant’: How the Band’s Major Label Debut Raised the Bar for Extreme Metal
In 1992, music-industry legend Irving Azoff went out for ice cream with Gunter Ford, manager of the Florida death-metal band Morbid Angel, to discuss a possible signing. “The actual negotiations took 10 minutes,” Ford told author Albert Mudrian in the extreme-metal history Choosing Death. “Irving asked me what kind of ice cream I wanted and we finished the deal.” It was official: Ford’s clients were officially major-label artists in North America, signed to Azoff’s Warner Bros. subsidiary, Giant.
These were the post-Nirvana boom years, and seemingly no underground band was too intense or esoteric to get at least a look, if not a lucrative deal, from this or that corporation. Frequently, the albums that resulted from these unions represented some sort of taming of the group in question, a more refined and approachable version of their existing sound. But Morbid Angel’s Covenant, released on June 22nd, 1993, was a bit of a special case. The first major-label death-metal album was, if anything, more extreme than what had come before: a 41-minute blast of white-hot satanic rage that still, a quarter century on, has no real equal in the genre. It’s that intensity, in part, that earned the album a spot on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Metal Albums of All Time list (and Gojira leader Joe Duplantier’s personal top 10).
“A lot of times when people get put into a certain situation, then some things about their artistic integrity change,” the band’s vocalist-bassist David Vincent told Ghost Cult Mag in 2014, reflecting on the period leading up to Covenant. “We were bound to determine that would not be the case.”
The band’s prior two albums, 1989’s Altars of Madness and 1991’s Blessed Are the Sick, helped to establish death metal as the next frontier of extremity beyond Eighties thrash. Vincent, guitarist Trey Azagthoth and drummer Pete Sandoval combined growled vocals, overtly satanic lyrics and an onslaught of jackhammer blastbeats with real songwriting know-how to create a pair of future cult classics. From its opening seconds, Covenant makes these records, and efforts by the band’s contemporaries such as Cannibal Corpse and Immolation, sound puny. One major upgrade here is a monstrous production job from Flemming Rasmussen, already a metal legend thanks to his work on Metallica’s mid-to-late–Eighties masterworks Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All. As Rick Rubin had done for Slayer on 1986’s pivotal Reign in Blood, he somehow managed to uncover a savagery in their sound that hadn’t come through on record before. What he brought to Morbid Angel isn’t merely polish; it’s more like girth, coupled with a ton of atmosphere. Whereas Altars sounded thin and Blessed overly processed, Covenant is at once massive and intensely organic: sharp, snarling guitars; double-kick drums like an advancing tank; china cymbals like shattering glass; and vocals like a beast roaring in the wilderness.
But it’s the material itself that makes Covenant a classic. The band had already penned some of the catchiest songs in death metal’s early canon, including enduring fan favorites like “Immortal Rites” and “Chapel of Ghouls.” Their Giant debut, though, was entirely without filler. Each song had a unique identity and approach, from swinging, march-like opener “Rapture”; to “World of Shit (The Promised Land),” which started out with a sinister laid-back groove and broke midway into a furious burst of speed; the punky, uptempo “Angel of Disease,” a reprise of a track from the band’s demo days; and epic, dirge-like closer “God of Emptiness,” which proved that the band could sound just as fearsome when leaving tons of negative space as they did on their higher-density songs. Ingenious flourishes – the way the guitars drop out just before the second verse of “The Lions Den,” leaving Vincent’s voice alone with Sandoval’s pummeling kick drums; the geeky, out-of-left-field instrumental prog breakdown in the middle of “Sworn to the Black”; the eerie, pulsating ambient instrumental “Nar Mattaru” – showed that chief songwriter Azagthoth had no intention of letting the band’s commitment to extremity compromise its creativity.
And it was on Covenant that Trey Azagthoth, Morbid Angel’s sole remaining original member, came into his own as extreme metal’s most inventive guitarist. Born George Emmanuel III and self-renamed, combining his status as “the third” in his family and the name of a Lovecraftian deity, Azagthoth developed a reputation early as a maniacally committed, almost savant-like player. (“Trey has muscles in his arms that I couldn’t even begin to describe,” early-era Morbid Angel guitarist Richard Brunelle once told Decibel.) Recording for the first time without a second guitarist and armed with his new seven-string Ibanez Universe guitar, Azagthoth reached new heights of insanity on Covenant, cramming the songs full of grand, almost symphonic riffs and solos that seemed to self-immolate in sudden bursts of brain-scrambling noise.
If anyone needed further evidence that Azagthoth wasn’t your average shredder, the guitarist’s priceless “special thanx” list in the liner notes offers further clues. In addition to shouting out his six-string idols (Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, who he deems “the undisputed champions of guitar … on the basis of innovation, feeling, technique and all out engulfingness”), he gives props to his prized muscle car (a “500+ HP, 5.0 litre Mustang eating Chevy Nova”), a host of video-game characters (mostly from Street Fighter II and the Castlevania series) and consoles (of Sega Genesis and Super NES, he asks, rhetorically, “how could anyone live without both systems?”), and, ahem, Barney the dinosaur (“for capturing the hearts of the children”).
Heightening the guitarist’s phantasmagoric weirdness is Vincent’s pitch-black lyrical bent. The album covers numerous themes, from Christians being thrown to lions in ancient Rome (“The Lions Den”) to the perverse pleasures of S&M (“Pain Divine,” likely a nod to Vincent’s then-wife Gen, a dominatrix and leader of the band Genitorturers), but in song after song, the frontman makes his central tenets resoundingly clear. 1) He’s pretty committed to this whole satanism thing. In “Rapture,” he makes pledging one’s self to the dark side seem almost erotic – “I feel the energy/The poison moves in me/I spill blood” – while in “Sworn to the Black,” he describes being “Repulsed by the light/Heart pumping ice.” And 2) He’s not the biggest fan of mankind. In “Blood on My Hands,” he plays the role of some kind of unholy warrior, vowing, “Open wide the gate/Stain the world with the blood of man,” while in “World of Shit,” he curses “fucked human shit.” At one point in the latter song, Vincent unfortunately felt compelled to take this concept one step further, growling the Nazi-adopted term “untermensch,” a word perhaps strategically left out of the printed lyrics. The vocalist has never elaborated on his political views, but it’s a sickening moment of seemingly racialized specificity in the midst of an album that otherwise seems to espouse equal-opportunity misanthropy.
Pete Sandoval, the band’s Salvadoran drummer, is the final member of Covenant‘s unholy trinity. Aptly nicknamed “Commando” in the album credits, he turns in a performance that still – 25 years later, at a time when extreme-metal drumming now seems more like a competitive sport than a musical act – stuns with its fury and focus. Sandoval’s peak-velocity snare eruptions, such as the odd triplet blastbeat he employs during the bridge of “Pain Divine” or the straight-up inhuman eighth-note pulse he bashes out during the outro of “Vengeance Is Mine,” are plainly breathtaking, but his choppy yet absolutely in-the-pocket sense of groove on slower tracks like “Sworn to the Black” and “God of Emptiness” is just as impressive.
Just as there’s not a moment of fat on the album, there’s not an element out of place on the album’s cover. On its two earlier album covers, the band had opted for, respectively, comic-book-style occultism and a gorgeous 1895 painting whose title translates to “treasures of Satan,” but for Covenant they chose something more modest: an elegant little occult tableau with a knife, a quill pen, a leather-bound book, a piece of parchment filled with what looks like backwards script and a chunky, old-school candle.
“We wanted something that was solemn and sort of like… Not a rulebook per se but it had to suggest the idea of a pact, an allegiance if you will,” Vincent later said of the image. “Overall, we wanted something timeless and about commitment. We felt that this record being what it was, who we were and its subject matter, it was like our covenant to ourselves.”
In retrospect, it’s somewhat amazing that Irving Azoff, the Jewish mogul best known for managing the Eagles, was the man who helped bring this thoroughly (sometimes uncomfortably) uncompromising, overtly satanic album to the masses. “I have always been interested in supporting artists who are pushing the envelope in some way,” Azoff told Albert Mudrian. “I never worry about what others may think.”
Covenant would go on to sell more than 120,000 copies, thanks in part to healthy support on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball for the artful, Tony Kunewalder–directed videos for “Rapture” and “God of Emptiness.” The following year, Morbid Angel would find themselves on the road with metal titans Black Sabbath and Motörhead. All pretty damn impressive for a band whose brush with the mainstream coincided with their most uncompromising statement to date.
Later in 1993, other luminaries of the death-metal underground such as Carcass, Entombed and Napalm Death would get a major-label signal boost thanks to a deal between Columbia and pioneering extreme-music imprint Earache. Excellent albums resulted, but Covenant still stood as an outlier, the only example of a band in question amplifying rather than scaling back the harshness of its output. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end of an era. Morbid Angel made one more album for Giant before the company went under; David Vincent left the band soon after. Azagthoth has kept the band going ever since, releasing a series of bizzare, sometimes brilliant, sometimes flawed records (including one much-maligned industrial-steeped reunion album with Vincent) on a series of indie labels. Vincent split again and began covering Morbid Angel songs with an offshoot called I Am Morbid, while Azagthoth linked back up with Vincent’s former replacement, Steve Tucker, for Kingdoms Disdained, a strong 2017 album that marked the band’s return to their true wheelhouse. Lead track “Piles of Little Arms” even evoked the bestial gallop of “Rapture.” And what became of Sandoval? Somewhat hilariously, he found God.
Still, all these years later, the first major-label death-metal album still sounds like some kind of terrifying pinnacle, for the band and for their subgenre as a whole. Somehow, that old covenant remains unbroken.