Morbid Angel

Morbid Angel at The Observatory in Santa Ana, CA

Morbid Angel played to an absolutely packed and enthusiastic crowd at The Observatory in Santa Ana on Nov. 27.

It was a cold and rainy day in the greater Los Angeles area. Driving up to The Observatory, I was directed to one of the many adjacent business parks where the concert parking had been set up. $10 and I’m sure I could have found street parking elsewhere, but eh, it was cold.

Many people were tailgating in the parking lots. Cans of beer and cigarettes and shitty 2004 Nissan Sentra speakers blasting “Immortal Rights” and it all never sounded so good. One guy was lacing up his knee-high combat boots on the bumper of his crossover SUV. I could see my breath in big plumes in the cold wet air.

There was an interesting mix of cars. You had your classic, sticker-laden, metal-warrior cars—mostly old jeeps and small trucks. You had your assortment of last gasp civic-esque vehicles. But there were also more Priuses and trendy crossover SUVs than you would expect at a death metal concert, even a BMW or two. But hey, it’s been over 30 years since Morbid Angel’s debut album, Altars of Madness was released. Things are always bound to change.

The Observatory itself is an interesting venue. Comprised of two rooms—The Observatory main stage and the smaller Constellation Room—it routinely features artists from across the music spectrum. From the outside one might mistake it for a Claim Jumpers or a defunct Macaroni Grill, it being placed in the middle of a business park and sharing a parking lot with a medical office.

On this particular night, a band called The Aquadolls was playing in the Constellation Room. Walking past the curtain to the Constellation Room, I could see their name on a large banner with shiny, bubbly rainbow lettering. High-schooled age indie kids could be seen inside and outside the venue, looking small and slightly terrified by the sea of denim and leather-wearing audience, dressed in all-black band-shirts and combat boots, donning long hair, with a spiky, loveable death metal folk charm. It was a nice mix.

I had a pre-existing headache, which is probably not ideal for Morbid Angel concert. As I walked into the Main Stage area, which is down a long hall and a short flight of stairs from The Observatory entrance, I was struck at first by the smell of the room. It was the smell of metal. For those unfamiliar with what I am talking about, here is a haiku:

The smell of Metal –

Cigarettes, stale sweat, and beer.

Ah! Simplicity!

The place was already packed. I had missed the opening band due to traffic and wanting to watch the first half of the Lakers game that night. Opening the night for Morbid Angel were the bands Waintain and Incantation. When I got there, the stage techs were already setting up for Incantation, which had somewhat elaborate decorations like mic stands strewn with the bones of indeterminable animals. Very metal. They were pretty good. I mostly hung back during their performance. I could see crowd-surfers and moshing. A few people next to me were head-banging enthusiastically. One guy was going full hinge (that’s when you head-bang from the hips) with his hands in his pockets. It was an odd expression of release and tension wrapped up in one body. Another guy was going with a full-body worm convulsion style. That’s how you get a slipped disc, my friends.

Anyways, The Observatory main room is organized in a really genius way. It’s like an indoor amphitheater. You enter at the top level, and there is a long bar and hallway to your right. As you progress to the stage you go down a series of wide steppes, I think about four, each separated by a mid-stomach high wall. The stage is at the center, below everything. The result is great views wherever you are watching from and ample places to lean or sit on in case you get tired of standing. And, of course, there is a pit. It really enhances the experience of a concert when you can stand in an area you like without having to compromise sight, comfort or sound.

Everyone there seemed to be in a generally good mood and excited for the show. I saw a few instances of people running into each other, doling out big hugs and broad smiles, having met at previous shows. It felt reunion-esque in a way. There was a level of budding comfort that I think came from the fact that Morbid Angel is just such a classic band in the genre. Everyone knew what they were getting into, and they were damn happy to be there.

Naturally, there was lots of beer being enjoyed, almost all of it in 22oz cups, although you could get a can of Coors Light for $5, or a tallboy of Pabst for $9. They also have a full menu of food at The Observatory, which includes poutine because… well, I have no idea why, but it’s there if you want it.

Nearly everyone at the show was wearing a band shirt of some kind. Question: is Metal the most merch-oriented, identity-forming genre of music there is? I would venture to say yes. I don’t think there is another kind of concert where you could find such consistency in dress code. Sometimes I like to categorize and write down band t-shirts at concerts, but this is an impossible task at a metal concert, where almost everyone is wearing a black band shirt. And it doesn’t matter if the band-shirt you are wearing correlates to the bands that are playing! You just have to wear a band shirt. A metal one. The more brutal the better. I myself was wearing my Opeth hoodie because I ain’t no poser, and well, it was cold.

Anyways, the show. Now some of you, those who have not dabbled in the dark arts of death metal, may be wondering “what does Morbid Angel” sound like? Rest assured my readers, I have another Haiku, or almost Haiku in this case, for you:

Hammering a fist

Into the mud of creation,

Over and over again.

I think that does well to encapsulate the pounding, sludge-wonderful and futile rage that is Morbid Angel.

The crowd let out a loud and long cheer as the band took the stage drenched in misty blue light. Stage decorations included two medieval wolf totem poles at either side of the stage, and a really cool looking iron or bronze Roman gladiator mask looking thing on the mic stand. They launched into their set with the song “Piles of Little Arms,” off their latest album Kingdoms Disdained.

Vocalist and bassist Steve Tucker had quite possibly the largest bass I have ever seen. Trey Azagoth, founding member and guitarist for Morbid Angel looked positively demonic at times, hunched over his guitar, yanking on the whammy bar, a vine-like entanglement of curly black hair covering his face. His playing brought to mind an evil robot, re-arranging some frayed and sparking circuitry at a moment’s notice.

The second guitarist, Dan Vadim Von appeared to have his own personal wind machine, keeping his luscious blonde locks flowing angelically and epically behind him. Kind of corny if I’m being honest, but hey, dude could absolutely rip on the guitar. The drummer was also there.

Overall, Morbid Angel were fantastic. They were tight. They demolished. They played with real precision and power. The crowd steadily built up with energy alongside them. Highlights for me included the songs “Architect & Iconoclast” also from Kingdoms Disdained, “Day of Suffering” from their iconic 1991 album Blessed are the Sick (what an opening riff it has!), and “Summoning Redemption” from their 2000 album Gateways to Annihilation. This was my first time seeing Morbid Angel live, and I have to say, they were near impeccable. Morbid Angel is a band well worth seeing live.

I was impressed with the sound mix. At a lot of metal shows, everything becomes covered by an overwhelming barrage of drums and distortion, but I could hear the vocals, guitars and bass clearly. I only wish there was a bit more headroom for the guitars to stand out during their solo parts, but that might be wishful thinking. Loudness is an essential part of the experience. There appeared to be some technical difficulties with the monitors or mics for the first third of the show, although I couldn’t discern anything from my place in the crowd. My guess is the hair-blowing machine for the guitarist was probably sucking up all the energy. Just a joke. Only a joke.

The pit looked particularly violent at times. At one point a chain of shirtless men/boys linked arms and started head-banging in the center. Nearly brought a tear to my eye. The rest of the crowd, further back was pretty subdued during the performance, listening attentively and head-banging in their own space, but at the end of each song, they cheered with enthusiasm. Some might be a little too old these days to get wild in the pit, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a great performance.

Other pit highlights included shirts getting removed (unfortunately in some cases); a guy in a penguin costume entering the mosh (there’s always that one guy); a guy assuming the “victorious” mosh pose: fists raised, walking against the current of the pit, having overcome whatever trepidations, whatever frustrations in his life, if only momentarily and becoming untouchable; also one guy finding a random shoe in the pit and holding it above his head as people swarmed around him. No point to that friendo.

After the show, I talked with a couple dudes hanging around the stage: one who was very drunk and one who had managed to lose both of his shoes in the mosh pit. The one without shoes was barefoot and the one who was drunk was laughing. The one without shoes had feet that were cut up and dirty. The one who was drunk was approving of this sacrifice. I was silently taking notes. A good Samaritan returned the lost shoes back to their rightful owner. Metalheads truly are some of the nicest people. As I exited the venue I realized, remarkably, my headache had disappeared. Is Morbid Angel a potentially natural (and organic and gluten-free) remedy for headaches? More research is needed.

Morbid Angel is Trey Azagoth (guitar), Steve Tucker (bass, vocals), Dan Vadim Von (guitars), and Scott Fuller (drums). They are currently on tour across the US through the end of the year, culminating in two shows in their home state of Florida (Tampa and Fort Lauderdale).