Posted on November 25, 2009 -
Feeling nostalgic, I recently ordered this set, the jewel of Roadrunner Records’ “Two from the Vault” series of two-for-one reissues, and now I can’t seem to get it out of the CD player.
The package collects 1989’s “Consuming Impulse” and 1991’s “Testimony of the Ancients” by Pestilence, Holland’s superb answer to the first wave of real death metal. The forerunners of the genre were spawning in Florida and England but “Impulse” was regarded as something of a landmark at the time, in large part due to the tortured vocals of Martin Van Drunen, who was also posing as the group’s bass player at the time. By his own admission, Van Drunen had been hired as the lead vocalist, but as Pestilence had no bassist at the time, they handed him an instrument and told him to play. His inexperience resulted in guitarist Patrick Mameli playing all the bass lines on “Impulse” and its rawer predecessor, “Maleus Malefecarum.” By the time of the release of “Consuming Impulse”, Van Drunen had become a true vocal maniac, somewhere between Jeff Beccera of Possessed and John Tardy of Obituary, comparisons I certainly don’t take lightly. He screams like his shorts are on fire throughout the album, giving distinctive character to the violent riffery of Mameli and newly recruited second guitarist Patrick Uterwijk.
The musical backdrop combines thrash-metal aggression with a burgeoning technicality that would come to full fruition on later releases. In a few spots on the CD, Mameli and Uterwijk step out of typical death metal confines by blending seperate rhythm guitar parts for a deeper web of sound, most notably on the fan favorite “Out of the Body.” They also suggest their later prog tendencies with the quirkily timed opening riffs of “Echoes of Death.” A personal favorite, lyrically and musically, is the eerie, keyboard-tinged “Suspended Animation”, probably the most interesting sci-fi scenario on the disc. Van Drunen and murderous drummer Marco Foddis trade off writing lyrics for the album, touching on many standard themes of horror, religion, pollution, etc., and while neither was an ace with the English language yet, “Suspended Animation” could be the synopsis for a Twighlight Zone episode.
Van Drunen hits a vocal peak toward the end of the album with “Deify Thy Master”, a shrieking fit that seemingly had him puking blood on the studio walls. Throughout the CD, producer Harris Johns is able to use what is obviously a low budget to its fullest, with every sound pounding from the speakers like it has something to prove.
Fast forward two years, and one lineup change has morphed Pestilence into an almost completely different band: Van Drunen, shockingly, has exited from the band, joining Asphyx, and with no way to properly replace him, Mameli steps into the role of guitarist/vocalist with admirable gusto. “Testimony of the Ancients” sees a stylistic shift beyond just the difference between the voices of Mameli and Van Drunen: the CD feels almost like a concept album, with 30-second interludes of samples, melodic guitars, and keyboards courtesy of Kent Smith (who provided similar creepy moments on Obituary’s “Cause of Death” album)in between each song. The lyrics, now almost exclusively penned by Foddis, have improved substantially and tell tales of conjuring demons from pits of lost souls amidst revelations of Lovecraftian alternate universes and such. Mameli’s diction is clear and concise; it’s possible to understand most of what he says without consulting the lyric sheet. Overall, his sound is most easily compared to “Leprosy”/”Spiritual Healing”-era Chick Schuldiner.
The production is squeaky-clean Scott Burns all the way, with the drums settling back into the mix rather than pummeling your face off, and a nice, pleasant studio crunch in the guitars not heard on the earlier albums. The biggest step forward musically is the selection of the riffs themselves. Each riff on the disc is memorable and easy to follow, even in the most technical sections. Pestilence had truly learned how to write good songs by this point in their career. Foddis’ English is tremendously improved, and his lyrics (as well as those of Mameli’s sole lyrical contribution on the title track) are actually RHYTHMIC, falling in catchy, tribal cadences, particularly on “Twisted Truth”. There is a stony, bendy hook riff on “Prophetic Revelations” which acts as a super satisfying intro and outro, melting through a moaning porn sample into Mameli’s “Testimony”, which is direct, simple, and absolutely superb. The band goes full-on prog metal for sections of the closer, “Stigmatized”, which paves the way for Pestilence’s final studio record, “The Sphere”, a CD that pushed them to another level of technicality before the group disbanded at a creative impasse. Finally, a noteworthy contribution is made to the CD by then-Cynic bassist Tony Choy, who frankly isn’t given much of a chance to spread his wings except on the bass solo “Soulless.” Choy would miss out on the chance to play on Cynic’s sole offering, “Focus”, but would later become a full-time member of Atheist after guesting on this disc.
I can’t say enough good things about this set. If you don’t own it or plan to own it, you suck.