Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. Looking back over the decades we can see metal’s development carried out in waves rather than a simple timeline of clear, deterministic steps. One thing that always correlates however, is when the money is followed over artistic intent, quality is reduced to fluke. We see it in metal’s inception in the early 1970s quickly be swept away as Black Sabbath and Judas Priest turned into a hard rock bands. And with NWOBHM’s inevitable distillation into banal clownery. The rise of thrash as the blue-collar response, before it too was swept away by the irresistible urge to emulate the festival packing trends of early 1990s alt rock. We see it in death metal, whose inevitable crowning by the mainstream press as the reluctant messiah of all things extreme ending all too predictably in an Ace Ventura film. All the while black metal waiting in the wings to enjoy its day in the sun, or the cover of Kerrang! at least. After that, was it any wonder the decade ended with Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir? But running in parallel to these more predictable waves of history, is a more complex story to track in the underground. From this fertile soil there are many stories to tell. One such story is of those divisive albums, released at a time of great turmoil and chaos for the scene in question, which usually get an unjust hearing, either overly positive or negative, as a result.
The history of Pestilence from the late 1980s to mid-90s is – much like Death – a pretty neat allegory for the history of death metal as a whole around this time. From primitive, thrashy beginnings to the harder, fully formed death metal of ‘Consuming Impulse’, and then a quest to develop this music further, to remain relevant. Whilst some like At the Gates chose to gradually dilute their sound with elements that pandered to a more commercial ear, many looked to prog and jazz as worthy new dimensions for this music to evolve into. The results were….mixed. And Pestilence’s effort of 1993 known as ‘Spheres’, rather than being an unadulterated pleasure to listen to, is more an historical curiosity. This is because it manages to demonstrate the very best and the very worst of progressive death metal. Unlike ‘Unquestionable Presence’ which is a near flawless album in the same field, and unlike Cynic’s ‘Focus’, which is too over-indulgent and pleased with itself to say anything, ‘Spheres’ is a confusing, schizophrenic release. It’s so dense that in the same thirty second stretch are some genuinely intriguing moments and some ideas that just don’t come off. For this reason it leaves me thinking…’they tried’.
Production is clear and crisp to the point of being mechanical. This album wastes no time in revealing its true intentions, with the choppy staccato guitars immediately jumping out of the speakers with a much cleaner tone, fully showcasing the more unorthodox (by death metal standards) direction the riffs will be taking. The same can be said of the bass tone, which cuts through the mix like a razor blade, and has all but abandoned metal techniques in favour of jazz. The drums, despite raising the game required for this style, are actually the least altered of the instruments, grounding the music in more conventional beats, or else hiding the odd time signatures with some clever accenting. The other thing to note is the ‘not keyboard’ effects. And this is where we enter the hit and miss territory. Nocturnus used keyboards sure, and sure it felt like a gimmick at the time. But on ‘The Key’, although they did not add anything to the music, they were not much of a distraction either, being either inaudible or at best enhancing the guitar leads. On ‘Spheres’ the ‘not keyboards’ jump out at odd intervals with little regard for tension, build, or the general mood or emotion that the rest of the music is currently settled on.
And that brings us on to the real problem with ‘Spheres’, and a lot of death metal’s early attempts to transcend itself via the progressive route. The clue is in the terms ‘mood’ and ‘emotion’. For all the music packed into ‘Spheres’ I’m still not sure what the band are trying to say. What are they conveying, beyond opening a box of technical curiosities? Not being that technically minded I could honestly listen to it for days and still uncover nooks and crannies within that are certainly noteworthy. But this would be an academic pursuit, not an artistic one. For all the techniques chucked into ‘Spheres’, the final work is static, a dead end of both human and mechanical ingenuity. There is character and heart to this music, it feels like an honest attempt at a higher aim. But it seems that they were so caught up in what they could achieve that the real heart was sucked out. All that remains is a series of unconnected ideas that are more for the benefit of the musicians and enthusiasts of the technical aspects of music theory than the impassioned ear pounding we received on ‘Consuming Impulse’.
Fast forward a few years and death metal’s day in the sun was all but over. The popular notion of what death metal sounded like was reduced to melo-death or…Fear Factory…? Rather than look at this as the death of another extreme genre, I would l say it allowed the underground time and space to rediscover what made this music so exciting in the first place. There were still plenty of quality releases coming out at this time from older acts, and still new acts arriving. But the frantic energy of the late 80s was gone, as was the irresistible need to chase sales pressured by bigger labels. Out of these paradoxical times came albums like ‘Psychostasia’ from Finland’s Adramelech, released in 1996. Recorded at Tico-Tico studios in Finland, the same studio that Demigod set down their legendary ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’ (1992), the similarities with this Finnish legend are immediately apparent. The meaty, brooding guitars, the power and clarity to the snare sound. The whole thing is layered with menace. Vocals operate at the very low end of guttural growling. They are maybe a little too low in the mix, operating more as a presence than a lead instrument in their own right. Nevertheless, they bolster up this music’s intimidating qualities.
And whilst there are many similarities to the Demigod’s approach to mid-paced death metal, building the riffs up with tremolo picked riffs underpinned by slower drums with pounding double bass maintained, Adaramelech walk a different path. Firstly, their approach to riff construction is heavily informed by the drums, which interact with the phrasing of the guitars far more than mid-paced death metal. They serve to chop the riffs up and disorientate the listener before grounding them once again with a simple 4/4 rhythm. The riffs themselves trade on very clever use of the tritone combined with atonality in a way not unlike ‘Nespithe’. Indeed, the whole album reeks of the same alienating, truly otherworldly death metal that operates on its own plain of reality. Although both guitar parts generally follow the same patterns with the occasional lead jumping out, they make good use of dynamics through simple as fuck tricks like dropping one guitar track out for a few bars, before jumping back in at unexpected intervals. When set to these off-kilter chord patterns, such a basic idea is given maximum impact, as one idea compounds on another.
Adramelech exemplify how rhythmic diversity can augment the riffs within death metal. For example, after working with a fast paced yet standard blast-beat they will then drop out to a more bouncy rhythm, with the climax of each iteration given extra emphasis by the drums. Sporadic and unexpected blasts will continue to jump out which further adds to the alienating quality to these oddly droning, yet frantic chord sequences as they progress. The mid-section of the track is usually where the tempo drops down to a walking pace. At times they even work in swing qualities to the beat, almost mocking in their mutation of the familiar now monstrous. And through no components beyond guitars and drums a unique and dark atmosphere supervenes on this well constructed musical base; a subtle, droning darkness carried throughout the album; identifiable more by the absence of something than the presence of anything as pedestrian as keyboards.
Two releases from the mid-1990s, death metal’s awkward teen years for all intents and purposes. And one of the defining features of adolescence is experimentation. But of course, by nature, experiments sometimes fail, in fact they fail most of the time. But the odd thing about ‘Spheres’ – given just how far Pestilence attempted to push death metal into the realms of jazz and the like – is how they neither succeeded nor failed. It’s a fine album despite its flaws and almost garish need to demonstrate just how out there it is. But one cannot help notice that, for all the discussion we could have around this album’s success or failure, the true artistic meaning behind this rarely comes into the picture, if it even exists at all. The ‘what is it trying to say’ beyond technique and experimentation remains elusive. ‘Psychostasia’ by contrast, is an example of one of adolescence’s other defining features, that of consolidating the confusing myriad of ideas and emotions that make up childhood into a complete person with a world view, ideas, and unique outlook. It’s a sign of death metal’s maturation into a style of music no longer focused on being the ‘most’ of anything (fastest, loudest, evilest, technicalist), and rather becoming a unique form of metal with its own language, its own sui-generis ability to communicate ideas through art. Deep in the underground, away from the chaos of metal in the mid-1990s, death metal was solidifying its purpose as a unique form of music which could aspire to artistic potentials that other forms of music simply could not reach.