Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Survival of the sickest: An essay on Pestilence.


Evolution is an odd concept. It is not that hard to grasp: things in nature and culture are optimised over time to allow flourish under prevailing conditions. The problem is that it is impossible to see. Evolution, of the sort that Darwin prescribed, occurs on a temporal scale unfathomable to human perception. If a human life is eighty to ninety years and a new variation on a higher order bird, mammal or reptile takes at a conservative estimate ten thousand years to evolve, then a single human life represents less than one one-hundredth of the time taken. In other words, it would take a hundred humans living to a hundred years one after the other to be able to observe this new creature come into being. To make matters worse, a day in the life of said human represents 1/3,650,000th of the time taken. Now given that we rarely stay focused for more than ten minutes at a time, we could subdivide even further. But we won’t. Suffice to say the temporal scales of evolution and of humanity are at best, grossly mismatched. What makes this worse is that bacteria, viruses, micro-organisms and bugs outbreed and therefore out-evolve us at factors frequently exceeding 10,000, even millions to one. It is just not fair. However, there is consolation. A place where we can witness evolution on a far kinder, gentler scale: heavy metal.

As with Death and Cynic (have I still not written a review for Focus? For shame), I came to the Pestilence party late. Not only did I come late, but I started at the present, jumped to the future and then stealthily snuck back to the past. What is worse, Spheres is my favourite album. Pesteilence’s evolutionary course is an odd one. Starting out in the same period and aesthetic as Possessed, Sepultura and Slayer, they played hard, fast, grimy and mean proto-death, thrash metal. On Consuming Impulse the Netherlanders’ sound possessed enough viciousness and momentum to allow them to stand out from their peers. Then there were van Drunen’s psychotic vocals, an unfixed back alley knife stabbing between what had been thrash and what would become death metal.

Much of the short rhythmic phrasing that characterised Impulse was carried over to Testimony of the Ancients, but the dangerous whirlwind of sound was cleaned up in terms of production. Meanwhile Mameli and Uterwijk began to move away from solos based on divebomb chromaticism and instead toward Allan Holdsworth influenced minimalist, modal, liquid runs.

However, it was Spheres which caused the most controversy. Again, short-phrase rhythmic based riffing was brought to the fore but the guitars were starved and sickened through the fledgling zeitgeist guitar synth systems appearing at the time. Washes of atmospheric sounds, timbral experiments and subtle yet constantly evolving syncopated drum lines were brought into relief at the expense of savagery. What is most compelling about Spheres is that it is such a short musical statement and had it not sunk the band, pointed to an unexplored evolutionary side track.

Then comes the ill-fated Resurrection Macabre. After a sixteen year hiatus comes this curious, highly self conscious return to savagery. In some ways it sounds like a continuation of Consuming after the brief flirtation with prog on Testimony. In many respects, it totally ignores Spheres and literally blast beats the listener throughout. What underpins Macabre’s sound is Mameli’s flirtation with groove via his one off album as C-187 (that’s an album worthy of further reflection, perhaps Mameli’s most disliked work – ahead of even Spheres). The groove and hip hop lurch is subtle but evident and combined with the “old-man-doing-young-man’s-metal” re-acquaintance with speed caused a wave of bad feelings. As for me, I have loved Pantera since way back and frankly I cannot understand the widespread, predominantly malice to do with groove. Naturally, I consider Macabre to be a great ride.

2011 saw the release of Doctrine which recombined the new-found savagery of Macabre and softly serenaded the modal adventures of Testimony and Spheres while making use of super low, 8-string tunings to create sickening bass clef harmonies. Holdsworth was back but in a register he could never have imagined.

Pestilence’s evolutionary path was neither singular nor easy. They tripped, fell, broke bones, hid in the corner and even hibernated. Even after they gave up the band, they returned with new, adult sensibilities to continue making engaging and inspired metal. Perhaps that is what Slayer and Metallica need? Just shut up, go away and do something entirely different. Given the state of the music industry, I can see that it might be hard for Mameli and co to rationalise continuing on. I sympathise. However, if only next time they could take another wrong turn and end up in Spheres territory before hanging up their hats, I would be most happy. Here are fingers crossed.
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