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Century Media (2015)
Rating: 8/10

For me, Germany’s Morgoth were one of the finest exponents of classic death metal back in the late 80s and early 90s. Their debut 1988 demo Pits Of Utumno was always in my cassette deck and when, a year later, they released their debut EP Resurrection Absurd I was convinced that this combo would go down in death metal history as one of the greatest bands.

In 1990 the Eternal Fall EP emerged and again I was salivating, and while the early 90s gave way to alternative metal and grunge, Morgoth still offered up solid death metal with Cursed (1991) and Odium (1993). However, by the mid-90s music had changed drastically and many of the more extreme bands were branching out with their sounds; Morgoth included.

The band’s last record was 1996’s Feel Sorry For The Fanatic, whose title made a dig at those seemingly blinded by the genre Morgoth had become stuck in, and so the sound of the opus was one more industrialised with a cleaner vocal approach. Although the album was half-decent, it signalled the end of the classic death metal genre to an extent and alienated some of the hardcore fans who did not want to adhere to Morgoth’s experimentation, and so eventually Morgoth would suffer and fold.

However, in 2014 the band rose from the ashes and released the single ‘God Is Evil’, which exhibited Morgoth’s trademark death metal sound. Mark Grewe was still handling the vocals, aided by longstanding members Sebastian Swart (guitar) and Harald Busse (guitar), and with Sotirios Kelekidis (bass) and Marc “Speedy” Reign (drums) by their side it seemed that Morgoth were ready to take on the world again.

‘God Is Evil’ was a solid death metal track suggesting that a return to the old school flavour was much needed; not just for Morgoth but the scene in general. But imagine the shock for fans when it was announced shortly afterwards that Grewe was out of the band. I immediately became worried that the new album would not live up to expectation. Although Grewe was not the most original vocalist, his style was perfect for the Morgoth sound. The other issue of course was just how would fans feel at having a new vocalist at the helm? The likes of Massacre proved they could carry on with Edwin Webb, and yet the material was nowhere near as strong as what it was with Kam Lee.

And so now, suddenly we come to Morgoth being old school but in a sense with a new school vocalist. Having previously featured for German band Disbelief I was unsure if new throat Karsten “Jagger” Jäger was the right man for the job, and now having been presented with Morgoth’s new 11-track platter I’m still unsure. Maybe it’s my loyalty to Grewe and his Chuck Schuldiner (Death) styled rasps, but Ungod seems somewhat lacking in that department. However, by today’s death metal standards Jäger is probably up there with some of the best vocalists within the genre, but I just feel that I’ve heard it all before with countless Swedish bands with that flailing rasp.

Even so, in spite of being formulaic the vocals are effective, but it’s the twin guitar menace of Busse and Swart which remains the most engaging as they coat us with melancholic rage on short opener ‘House Of Blood’. It’s solid, death metal by numbers drudgery that worked back in the early 90s and still does today if executed correctly, and because Jäger’s vocals are pretty much no frills they fit in perfectly as the leads worm their way in melancholic fashion accompanied by Reign’s hefty, meaty stick slaps.

And so, with Morgoth’s return we aren’t instantly blown away but merely comforted by their reappearance. ‘Voice Of Slumber’ features a deathly purr with the guitar sound; again the lead filters through the grey haze and the bass rattles with threatening aplomb. This time the sound is more cutting rather than fogged, but for me the vocals just don’t match the musical prowess – they appear as a watery drool amidst the haunting darkness of the musical backdrop. Some nice complexities make inroads as the drums jar towards a mid-paced doom-drenched tempo, but the dehydrated rasp of Jäger is more suited to the defter, intricate tones of Pestilence rather than the thickening gloom of Morgoth. While there’s no doubting the catchiness of a majority of the songs, there just isn’t enough in those vocals to convince me that Jäger is merely papering over the cracks.

However, with ‘Snakestate’ we do have that simmering intro and juggernaut riffage, while ‘Black Enemy’ and the speedier ‘Descent Into Hell’ are good, old fashioned death metal numbers.

The composition offers up two lengthy instrumentals; surely one would have been enough? The title track (which screams out for a Grewe wail and bellow) seems so bereft in its lack of vocal, because the music is so ominous at times that some perverse poetry wouldn’t go amiss on that doom-laden landscape. The second instrumental is the closer ‘The Dark Sleep’; a storm-battered monolith that oozes from the cracks like a lethal black liquid until it ups the tempo.

In-between these two empty voids we receive the harsh treatment of ‘Nemesis’, where Jäger excels himself with that dry, chesty rasp and the twin guitar attack offers up some truly haunting structures, before we reach a reworking of ‘God Is Evil’, and again I’m struggling to see beyond the vast shadow cast by Grewe. It’s still a solid, hammering death metal track, although the original version had Grewe coming close to John Tardy (Obituary) for gore-soaked growls.

While Jäger seems a tad limited in his vocals, his looser style hints at a more hostile-sounding Morgoth, and this becomes apparent on the juddering ‘Traitor’ where he literally sounds as if he’s coughing up his sphincter, and one cannot argue either with the eerie leads that puncture the dense riffage and percussive fog. And for extra slabs of rotten meat we receive the sneering ‘Prison In Flesh’, again featuring some classy musicianship, throwing in big melodies on the leads and driving hard with Reign’s drum, Kelekidis’s bass and Jäger’s maniacal drools.

When Ungod comes to a halt I’m unsure if this is going to be enough to satisfy the old school lunatics who’ve grown up with Marc Grewe and his morose band, and will no doubt be itching to hear another of his drawn-out screams. However, what we have here is a record that betters most modern death metal releases, and Ungod is bulging with dark tones and old school mustiness that I’m sure will please many. I just guess us old school fanatics are expecting some sympathy after Grewe’s unexpected departure, but as it stands Ungod is still a very good album.

Neil Arnold

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