Retro-review: ‘Above the Light’ by Sadist

Sadist is a band I never really gave much thought to. I was aware of their existence mostly due to advertisements in magazines like Metal Maniacs and RIP, touting their T-shirts and albums next to countless other bands that seemed to be on the periphery of the metal scene. Like many of these bands, there was very little buzz about them, at least back in 1993. They weren’t reviewed much nor were there many articles wrote about them as far as magazines I read.

Upon listening to their 1993 album Above the Light, I really have to wonder why.

Hailing from Genoa, Italy, Sadist, at the time, were one of the many death metal bands that were moving into a progressive direction, incorporating synthesizers and non-metal influences into their music.

Unlike many of those other progressive death metal bands, they managed to keep a rather raw sound without getting overwhelmed by their synths. To me, this is an accomplishment in of itself.

Being able to hold onto that death metal rawness puts Sadist a head above many other bands often touted as the pinnacle of the movement, like Pestilence and Cynic in my opinion. Often, my problems with the progressive death metal at the time is that many bands seemed to exchange that underlying brutality that gave death metal its charm in exchange for over-technicality, overused synthesizers and way too-clean productions, which kind of felt like a hospital, sans suffering, blood and patients.

Seriously, this album isn’t perfect, but it kicks ass.

The reason that it kicks ass is because the album sounds great and the band’s performance is top notch, combining brutality and beauty.

Tommy Talamanca who plays guitar and keyboards on this album just sucks the listener in right away. Talamanca does an excellent job combining crushing chords with morose melodies, which gives this album its rather distinct sound. His keyboard performance is good as well, never overcoming the other instruments in the mix.

Bassist Andy Marchini handles vocal duties on this album. It’s his only album as the lead vocalist and he makes the most of it, being somewhere between a shriek and a growl, avoiding the generic cookie monster sound many death metal vocalists have. I’m not sure why he declined vocal duties after this because his performance is excellent in my opinion. His bass sound, on the other hand, is clean sounding, choosing technicality over downtuning and distortion. This works pretty well when combined with his vocals and Talamanca’s guitar, offering a nice balance to the sound of the band.

Marco “Peso” Pesenti rounds up things on the drums. His performance isn’t the typical blast that hits you like a herd of cattle. Instead, he acts as sort of a grounding force for the band, keeping things from floating off into artsy nether reaches.

If there’s one thing about Above the Light, it has a sound that wouldn’t be popular until almost a decade later when Lacuna Coil started making an impact with their combo of death metal guitars and  keyboards. Considering both are from Italy, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Sadist had some influence on Lacuna Coil, directly or indirectly.

The album

Sadist’s songs are each like individual roller coasters that attendees of an amusement park in Tartarus would ride. There’s a lot of tempo changes that keep you on your toes. Like a good rollercoaster, the songs don’t fall apart apart, instead, they manage to hold together giving you an exhilarating ride. If released today, they might have been considered closer to “avant-death” instead of “progressive death.”

It’s hard to pick out a standout song on Above the Light. All the non-instrumental songs show a fine level of musicianship, writing and creativity which lends to the album’s strength as a whole. It’s like I’ve said about other albums like this — the excellent songwriting makes it hard to pick out a song that’s better than the rest. Each song seems to have a moment of its own that makes it excel and really reaches into the listener, squeezing their heart with its awesomeness.

Above the Light doesn’t really kick off until the second track, “Breathin’ Cancer,” a pretty cool mid-paced death metal song. The lead-in solo is good, building on the initial midpace into a blast of speed which sets a wavelike rhythm of fast to mid paced throughout the song. The keyboards also sound good here and are used sparingly, giving you an idea what to expect from the rest of the album. Altogether, a pretty awesome song that goes a lot of places and I think it should have kicked off the album.

Enslaver of Lies” is next and compliments “Breathin’ Cancer” well with an initial frantic blast of speed that turns into a lone clean guitar playing at a slow place during the verses before speeding up again at the chorus. The guitar solo is exceptionally good because it doesn’t just show off skill, but also makes the listener feel something.

Hell in Myself” is the song where you’ll find the most prominent keyboards on the album. It’s the only song where they can be said to be almost “too much.” Luckily, the keyboards are balanced by the rawness of the song itself, which is pretty heavy and memorable for its use of tone.

Talamanca’s guitar work hits its pinnacle on “Sometimes They Come Back” and “Desert Divinities.” These two songs stand together as probably the two strongest guitarwise on the album. It also hopes that they’re pretty solid death metal numbers.

You’ll notice over the course of the album that Sadist seems to particularly like using the synthesizer to incorporate a harpsichord sound, giving it a distinct Italian feel. It brings images of a death metal band playing in 1700s Vienna where men in powdered wigs are playing death metal in a banquet hall full of society’s elite.

Happiness ‘N’’ Sorrow” ends the album much like it begins, with the sound of waves and seagulls. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make as much of an impression as the five songs before it, ending the album on kind of whimper instead of a roar.

Honestly, if there is a weak point to the album, it’s the instrumentals. It’s not that they’re bad. The band plays them proficient enough. Unfortunately, they’re just not very interesting, a prime example being “Nadir,” the first track on the album. The two instrumentals just don’t add anything to the overall album and can just be skipped.

The verdict

Would I recommend Above the Light?

I would, but remember, it’s five out of eight tracks I’m recommending. I wouldn’t call it a ground-breaking release, but it’s definitely a very good album. You can hear things in it that influenced death metal that followed.

So, if you see it at a used CD bin at $5 or under, I’d say snatch it up. I wouldn’t buy it new unless you’re one of those people with money to burn.

Whether you choose to listen to Above the Light for free on Youtube or on your own bought copy, it’s definitely worth at least one listen.


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