Justify Your Shitty Taste: Pestilence’s “Spheres”

Because you (sort of) asked for it, it’s the triumphant pseudo-return of everyone’s favorite Wednesday dork-out, Justify Your Shitty Taste! Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, once in a while, on Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. But for JYST’s second run, we’re expanding the scope of the column to include vigorous defenses of the records we love from bands with slightly less incredible track records. Let’s keep the death spiral going with Jeff Wagner “circle”-jerking Pestilence’s Spheres.

Ponytails and collared shirts… soft-knee tube limiters and Atari 1040s… oh my!

Yeah, fuckin’ “oh my”… that sums up what I thought when I first heard this weird album. Spheres had this curious production, cold and distant, with an even more “wtf??” guitar tone: small, bloodless, spongy. It was shockingly different than anything the band had done before, but its allure quickly dug its clipped and manicured claws in…

I had been a Pestilence fan since 1988’s Malleus Maleficarum. Second album Consuming Impulse was—and remains—death metal perfection, and its successor, Testimony of the Ancients, was an adventurous forward leap. But Spheres is no mere leap—it’s a sharp left turn at Jupiter when the S.S. Mameli (that spherical thing from their album covers?) should have taken a right just past Mars. But the odd place Pestilence landed by the time of their fourth album was not only unexplored terrain, it was magnificent desolation. Cold, rigid, claustrophobic—listening to it is like being stuck in an airlock for 33 minutes. And by the time it’s over, you actually like the environment and want to stay.

pestilence - spheres original pestilence – spheres original

Spheres is TRUE Pestilence! It’s true because main songwriter Patrick Mameli was genuinely turned on by various jazz fusion bands when he went into the writing of this album, and he made sure to take Pestilence wherever the guiding hand of influence led him. Mameli has credited Cynic’s Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert for turning him onto things like Tribal Tech, Allan Holdsworth and Chick Corea, and the subsequent Pestilence album was something Mameli was calling “fusion metal.” Screw the whole “He should have changed the name of the band” crap. Three-quarters of these guys played on the previous two Pestilence albums, and two of them are original members.

Spheres reflects Mameli’s ongoing evolution not only as a musician, but as a listener. That’s why Spheres remains a genuine effort, even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I would use the same reasoning defending Load as a more sincere album than either St. Anger or Death Magnetic, though I’m not saying Load is better than Death Magnetic. (As for St. Anger, your last bowel movement, mixed with my last barf, is better than St. Anger.) But I digress: Spheres seems a lot more natural, in an evolutionary sense, than Pestilence’s 2009 “comeback” album, Resurrection Macabre, which 1) you only would have recognized as Pestilence because of the logo on the cover, and 2) was helmed by a Patrick Mameli who had apparently grown out of metal years before. Mameli’s return to metal after years away came in 2007, in the form of the horrible modern/urban/junk-metal of C-187 (which also featured Cynic drummer Sean Reinert). C-187 was a huge failure, so Mameli revived Pestilence, who have released two albums since. They smell of insincerity. Which is another way to say: they stink.


Back to the good old days…

Spheres is extremely eventful. The schizoid swirling sounds in “The Level of Perception” are quite the trip; “Mind Reflections” and “Demise of Time” surge ahead with a momentum that could have easily made the Testimony album, if not for the fact they’re positively drenched in weird effects and blanketed with an antiseptic recording job; the mellow jazz-rock breakdown in the middle of “Personal Energy” was the furthest Pestilence ever went in achieving real “fusion-metal”; segues like “Aurian Eyes” and “Voices From Within” could be outtakes from Univers Zero and Novalis records, respectively; killer fretless bass work snakes its way through the entire album (played by then-new recruit Jeroen Paul Thesseling, who remains in Pestilence today, as well as Obscura). From an audiophile standpoint alone, there’s ear-candy at every turn on this thing.

Maybe none of that sounds appealing to you, but it sure did to me in 1993, and it still does. Remember, this is the same year albums like Focus (Cynic), Dimensions (Believer), Nemesis (Obliveon) and Elements (Atheist) were coming out. These super-technical, progressive, adulterated takes on death/thrash metal, with single-word album titles ending in “s” a requirement of the Tech-Metal Club of 1993. You either dig this stuff or you don’t. And Spheres was probably the one that received the biggest backlash, probably because no one saw it coming, even after the experiments performed on Testimony of the Ancients. And like so many of these kinds of albums, more people understand and accept it now than when it was initially released. “Multiple Beings” even proved that this pariah of an album was influential to at least a tiny degree, covered by Polish one-man-band Egoist several years ago (Mameli even plays some leads on Egoist’s Ultra-Selfish Revolution album… best thing he’s done since 1993!).

Even if you like it, it’s hard to call Spheres perfect. For me, it’s largely because of drummer Marco Foddis, who was fine for the band’s previous albums, but entirely out of his element here. The material on Spheres demands a more agile player, but Foddis’ style is too stiff and blocky to breathe the kind of elasticity into these songs that they need. Think of what Sean Reinert did on Human—can you imagine Bill Andrews on that album? Me neither. Mameli hired Reinert way too late (C-187). The mind boggles imagining how good this album could be with Reinert behind the kit, or Hoglan, or anybody not named Foddis. We’ll never know.

Imagine Carcass in space; think about At the Gates swirling around the cosmos for 50 minutes; dare to conceive of Napalm Death writing a NASA-funded concept album about the moon landings. Okay, that last one would really suck, and maybe I wished more bands would go for something as odd and alien as this, but then maybe that’s one of the things that makes Spheres special. Not only do I value the songs, the segues, the weird production and the tight flow of the thing, I value the fact that there is no other album out there remotely like Spheres.

Mameli all but disowns the album these days, and given the guy’s post-Spheres output, that should be endorsement enough to totally ignore what he thinks and give this album another shot. But then, this column is called Justify Your Shitty Taste, not Convince Others Your Shitty Taste Should Also Be Their Shitty Taste. I may have succeeded over the years in convincing some people of the worth of albums like Angel Rat and 34.788%…Complete, but I never go out on a limb to do that with Spheres, and I’m not trying to do that here. It’s too cold and claustrophobic, too effects-drenched, too damn adulterated to appeal to everybody. When I listen to it, I feel like maybe I’m the only one on the planet listening at that moment. Except for that dude from Egoist, who I believe has listened to this album more than any other human being alive. But there are way worse albums to obsess over…