When it comes to the sub-genre known as “technical death metal” you’ll hear fans throw out the same handful of names over and over. Those names are Atheist, Cynic, Gorguts and, of course, Death. You can call them, along with a few others, the top tier of that sub-genre.
On the other tier, you have bands that managed to get small, but dedicated, fan bases that stand by their work to this very day. A lot of these bands have a similar sound: Very technical playing and a lot of synthesizer.
This second category includes Pestilence from The Netherlands.
Pestilence’s 1993 album, Spheres, was going to be a breakthrough album for the band. Until the beginning of that year, death metal was hot and the numbers of sub-genres were exploding. By the time that Spheres was release, though, death metal was on the way down, with labels dropping the bands like flies and many of them disbanding.
To this day the album has been somewhat of a cult favorite for some in the death metal fanbase. Spheres fans will be sure to correct you if you make the mistake of saying Pestilence used a keyboard instead of a synth-guitar for this album. They’ll also tell you it’s the most underrated album ever and the majority of metalheads are to stupid to appreciate it.
Pretentious fans are probably the worst. They make you want to dislike an album before you heard it. Luckily, I listened to the album before I engaged the pretentious fans.
The line up for Spheres is Patrick Mameli, guitar, synth guitar and vocals; Patrick Uterwijk, guitar and synth guitar; Jeroen Paul Thesseling, bass; and Marco Foddis on drums.
Spheres was released on May 3, 1993. It was their fourth and final album before a 14-year long hiatus, which would see them return with Resurrection Macabre in 2009.
One of the things that you notice from the first seconds of the first song, “Mind Reflections,” to the end of the album is that the bass guitar is up front in the mix. It isn’t drowned out by the guitars and it isn’t lost in synchronicity with the bass drums, instead it sounds like it’s a co-equal with the rest.
As for the sound of that prominent bass guitar. It isn’t the tuned-down and low one we’ve become used to in modern music. Instead, it sounds tuned up and clean, offering a counter balance to the distortion of the guitars and the snarls of Mameli.
“Mind Reflections” also gives you a taste of what’s to come. Aside from showcasing the band’s rather high level of musicianship and complicated songwriting, it also sees them indulge in some synthesizers.
You’ll hear the synthesizers throughout Spheres. They don’t sound terrible, but there’s something very unnecessary about them.
The synthesizers don’t really have that organic feel in regards to the song. While the melody and atmosphere they add might be nice, one can’t help but feel they sound rather sterile. The synthesizers on Spheres sound like someone is just playing around with a new toy rather than adding to the power of a song.
That being said, they are effectively used and don’t totally lessen the enjoyment of the album. That’s clear in “Multiple Beings,” the second song. The synthesizers are pretty much restrained and used to enhance instead of lead. The song is also one of the most interesting for its use of the processed guitar that is sprinkled throughout.
On the other hand “The Level of Perception” starts out with some terrible sounding keyboard. This synth-guitar lead in doesn’t sound good. It sounds cheap. On top of that, the keyboard is used throughout the song and distracts more than it enhances. Stripped down to just the basic instruments and vocals “The Level of Perception” would be a standout. But, the keyboard just brings it down. I still recommend checking out this song though. Pestilence pushes the sounds they can get with their guitars to very cool results.
“Aurian Eyes” is an unnecessary synthesizer instrumental, which sounds like the sort of music you’d hear in an 80s horror-anthology show, like Tales from the Darkside or Monsters. It acts as a lead in of sorts for “Soul Search,” one of the most aggressive song on the album.
“Personal Energy,” despite its new-agey title and feel, is one of the more memorable tracks from the album, largely due to its ethereal vibe. It’s use of synthesizers is very reminiscent of Cynic, who would release their album Focus later that year. Seriously, this song sounds like it would fit in on that album without anyone noticing, whereas it feels kind of out of place on this one.
The title song “Spheres” isn’t bad, just not very memorable, which seems to be a consistent theme with this album. There’s nothing technically wrong with it and the guitar solo sounds great. But, as with most of the album, the production just makes it sound like they’re dialing things on 7.5 instead of 11 so to speak.
The best song on the album is probably the closer, “The Demise of Time.” It’s pretty aggressive and has a rather cool sounding whistle-sounding melody over the verses. Of course, they can’t help but use the synth unnecessarily and thus, you hear it all over the rest of the song. “The Demise of Time” also features some of the most technical playing, with the most important part thankfully lacking the synthesizer, letting the instruments shine.
Spheres is not a bad album, but it’s nowhere near being great. I think it’s brought down by the production and the overuse of the guitar-synths. Though, I would say it’s less the use of the guitar synths than it is the sound.
I wouldn’t recommend buying this album unless you’re really into the early 1990s technical death metal scene. Sure, it offers a lot of great playing, but there’s not much behind it that makes you feel something. Feeling something is just as important as the rest of the parts of the song. Spheres , aside from a few very good songs, just lacks that visceral feeling that is key to making heavy metal, well, metal.