Morbid Angel - Formulas Fatal to the Flesh
Written By: Dustin Koetsch
Before we delve deep into this record, here’s a little back story to how I discovered this album and why I think it deserves much more credit than it receives among the extensive brutality of Morbid Angel’s vast discography.
I discovered this album in my first year of High School way back in 2001 almost by complete accident. Now, by this year my metal tastes had definitely been deeply entrenched into a myriad of genres, Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir were in regular rotation with my daily listening to and from school. Nirvana, Gwar, Hatebreed, Metallica, Slipknot and Pantera had already found their places within my album selections. Lets flashback to one late night, almost 17 years ago now. in my household we had cable and on some of the higher channels there were stations that just played music, i believe it was one of those sirius XM type music stations.
At this point I had recently discovered the metal station one late night and would sneak listening to it as I went to bed every night. During these nights I would be blasted with bands I would grow to love and share with everyone I could. I found Carcass, Mortician, Nile, Soilent Green, all kinds of death, grind, black and thrash metal you could hope for. Then, one night, an ominous sound arose from within my headphones, I immediately began to listen with voracious intent as the song built and built to a crescendo of deep dread and a baleful sense of emptiness, and then, the first word was bellowed with such a low growl my ears couldn’t believe what I was hearing as the word “hate work” echoed with hollow complexity across the dismally ferocious guitar and ambient sounds of the track. I would never forget that moment of hearing this song for the first time.
I wouldn’t find out what album this track was on until many many years later as the internet was just nowhere near as prevalent to find this information out and none of my peers knew about this band or weren’t into this kind of music. Domination was my first foray into Morbid Angels catalog by hearing the song “Hatework”. Just two years later Morbid Angel’s “Heretic” would be released and things would once again change for me with this bands style, this album, along with Formulas seem to get looked over and thought as “less than” in their overall discography, while I don’t think Heretic is a perfect record, it does have some excellent song writing on the album,(I won’t even get into Illud Divinum Insanus) but I digress. Now, with that story out of the way, lets delve into what we all came to read about, “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh”
I have to say, I'm somewhat surprised how often I have to defend this record to a lot of Death Metal fans, in fact in the pantheon of the genre itself this record should easily be atop the highest tier of releases throughout the genres extensive history.
Morbid Angel’s “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh” (Seriously though, try and say this record title five times fast) was recorded 20 years ago in 97 and released February 24th, 1998. It was the bands follow up to two back to back successful record releases with “Covenant” and “Domination.” Stylistically Formulas takes a massive shift in tone and playing style, and in this writers opinion a shift that was such a good and experimental decision that looking back on this record now, it may have been just a few years ahead of its time.
While the down tuned and 7 string guitar styles were still fairly prevalent on this record, the overall feel of Formula’s was significantly much more slow and doom laden in style. Diminished were blasting drums and tremolo riffs only to be replaced by slower paced and more brutally crushing slower tempo songs. The opening half of the album is laced with early doom metal riffs galore, slow obliteratingly heavy riffs demand your attention as they stampede across your ear drums unlike anything else that was being put out in 97/98.
And lets think about that for a second, this was the late 90’s when this album was being written and released, a time when you had some of the biggest bands and albums being put that were the antithesis to this style of music.
Bands like System of a Down, Korn, Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson were dominating airwaves at this time. The Death Metal releases that were being put out weren’t anything special or different from the various bands previous releases, Cannibal Corpse released Gallery of Suicide this same year, Slayer released it’s much maligned “Diabolus in Musica” album to critical failure due to trying to ape the Nu Metal sound of the time. So many Death Metal bands felt like they were writing inside a box and weren’t really trying to write anything new or different, it was more of a status quo business as usual attitude during these times. The few bands that do stand out during this time are easily identifiable with their uniqueness in sound, bands like Death, Dillinger Escape Plan, Pig Destroyer and Nile just to name a few. No, metal certainly wasn’t dead in the 90’s like many had written it off to be, it was just evolving.
Morbid Angel’s Formula’s tried to buck this trend by writing heavier, angrier, slower, and much more increasingly devastating songs than that of their Death Metal Brethren at the time. Tracks like “Prayer of Hatred” and “Nothing is Not” show the band branching out and laying the path for new genres with the song writing on this record, infusing an almost “Doom Metal” sound into the slower songs. In fact, “Nothing is Not” has to be one of the heaviest songs ever written, more so, the heaviest song written in the 90’s by far. The 7 string guitars give this song such an immense weight of each note being played as if its going to crush you under the weight of its inherent heaviness.
Those opening harmonic chords of “Nothing is Not” that resonate over the opening elephant stomping chug rhythms entrench a sense of dread that permeates into the rest of the song. The closing minute and a half guitar riff of the song that is played dominates the overall feeling of this song, its played a few times over, each time being slowed down to half speed before coming to a crawl that is so viciously heavy I can’t fathom any band ever writing a better sounding and heavier riff than whats in this song. It’s so simplistic in its execution that I’m surprised no one has tried to rip it off. Meanwhile the drums double bass tramples along giving that extra weight of heaviness.
Now, the second half of the record definitely gets more ferocious and “faster” like most Death Metal records of the time, and that's mostly par for the course with Morbid Angel as well. Like I said, they didn’t abandon any of the speed, but they definitely put it more towards the back burner of what they were ultimately trying to craft with the writing of this record.
Sandoval’s drumming is prolific on this album, for being a self taught drummer, his skills are impeccable, this is a drummer who from the beginning only wanted to get better and better as time went on, and with each Morbid Angel record, it was very apparent his skills were only getting better as a drummer.
Vocally, this record isn’t anything different from previous Morbid Angel records, low guttural growls embody every aspect of the lyrics. If there's one flaw with this album it would be the almost now generic sound of the Death Metal growl. But for the time, Tucker’s vocals did the job that the album needed (Tucker would later leave and then rejoin multiple times.) Morbid Angel has had a revolving door of vocalists so its not really a detriment to this album in the overall scheme of things, but it is the one criticism I do have for it.
So 20 years on, does this album hold up? The short answer is yes, “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh” was so ahead of it’s time that if it were to be released today I think people would go ape shit over this record. There are so many crushing riffs and songs that it’s hard to over look this record, I hope after reading this people give it a 2nd chance and really just immerse themselves in the sound of this record and really let it seethe its way into your ears.
Their subsequent release would expand greatly on the almost “Doom Metal” sound that creeped its way into this record in various songs and create another devastatingly heavy record with “Gateways to Annihilation”