In 1993 Morbid Angel, Cynic, Type O Negative, Life of Agony, Tool, Carcass, Monster Magnet, Death, Sepultura, Entombed and Coroner all released high selling, classic or else genre defining albums. Also among these releases was Pestilence’s particularly malignant ugly duckling, Spheres. Spheres is an album which is wrong in so many senses: it is a major stylistic break, there is an abundance of guitar synthesis experimentation and the highly compressed, treble heavy production is a curiosity. Yet it is also these maladies which elevate Spheres to classic status.
Spheres is not an easy listen. In addition to the problems mentioned above, song structure and dynamics are fairly uniform from first to last. Similarly, the riffs are rather repetitive and not very adventurous rhythmically. Even the solos with their nod toward atonality and modern jazz modal theory are not very easy to “get”. Repeated listens of Spheres, however, yields interesting results.
When I first heard Spheres, I knew I was listening to something different and original. The problem was that I simply could not find the “groove” on this album. After repeated listens, I began to identify the subtle rhythmic tweaks and the swinging push and pull between bass and drums. After further listening, I was able to tune my ears to the different guitar synth timbres snaking throughout the album. Every time I listened to Spheres whether in the background or with intent, I continued to find new musical elements such as the interplay between metal riffing and harmonic/atmospheric ambiance underneath the music. It was on about my tenth listen that it all knitted together for me.
Unlike other jazz informed metal bands such as Cynic where the focus is on a fluid, jazz melody informed metal or Atheist where rhythmic bombast and ferocity or even Meshuggah’s emphasis on 4/4 superimposed onto complex time signatures, Pestilence focused on modal harmonic interplay. This is not an easy aspect of music to comprehend and enjoy, after all subtle shifts in counterpoint melodies and solos which start in one key and end in another yet are modally coherent amid a thick sonic stew of diverse sounds are not as attractive as pentatonic/chromatic shredding, breakdowns and giant riffs. The songs themselves are best conceptualized as frameworks around which a deeply considered harmonic and melodic sensibility is placed.
Although almost twenty years old, Pestilence’s Spheres is one of the most engaging, interesting, confounding and exciting albums I have heard in a very long time.