Thrash ‘Til Death #11: Pestilence (Netherlands) 1986-1993

THRASH ‘TIL DEATH is a 50 week long set of features exploring the legends who crossed over between thrash and death metal between 1983-1993. The focus is primarily on under-served, unknown, and exemplar bands/releases. The selection is comprehensive but the numbering is not indicative of any type of rank or value: The order of appearance is arbitrarily chosen. E-mail me if you want to suggest any relevant bands!


If there was an archetypal form or exemplar entity that still persists in the greater death metal ‘mainstream’ consciousness few projects are more natural a suggestion than Dutch legends Pestilence combined ‘brutal’ thrash and proto-death metal influences would find them rising into greater European and North American focus just as death metal would begin to flow beyond the limits of the underground. Formed by Patrick Mameli and Marco Foddis in 1986 and influenced by a then nascent niche of heavy thrash (Possessed, Death, Sepultura, Slayer) the duo would have to rely on relationships of convenience to form an extreme metal band in the eastern Enschede region of the Netherlands where even thrashers were apparently scarce. They’d end up scoring guitarist Randy Meinhard from across the German border in Gronau and the rest truly is history in terms of old school death metal, death/thrash hybridization, and one of the first (with no discredit to Thanatos) death metal bands to give the Netherlands their star on the European extreme metal map. I’ve included demos from Sacrosanct and Asphyx to provide some extra context for the history of Pestilence and where key members would go as the focus of the band would shift from thrash towards death/thrash and then an increasingly progressive form of death metal.

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Artist Pestilence
Title [Type/Year] Dysentery [Demo/1987]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | [Remastered version]

Take a look at that logo and those song titles before you spin this fantastic brutal thrash demo and it should be obvious that these guys were a reaction to what Possessed had done on ‘Seven Churches’. This is the first death metal demo tape I’d ever heard when it was bootlegged with ‘The Penance’ and it completely blew me away just in the sense that I had no idea why anyone found demos, or rehearsals for that matter, interesting up until that point. I got it, this is a formative release that shows talent and intent while also clearly coming from a time and place when archetypal death metal didn’t exist yet. Throughout the years collecting as many death metal tapes as I could manage and reading some of Mameli‘s notes on the early years it really does seem like he had listened to a few of Schuldiner‘s Death tapes and said “I can do better” and to be fair it didn’t take him long to do much better in terms of musicianship, finding the most effectively heavy aspects of thrash and funneling it all into exciting death/thrash music. A few things are clear in terms of ‘Dysentery’ and style, the first is that Meinhard/Mameli had almost assuredly been early Sodom and ‘Hell Awaits’ fans around this time but it’ll be more obvious that ‘Seven Churches’ is the blood that drives tracks like “Against the Innocent” and the Celtic Frost influences aren’t far behind. While I would personally consider this a thrash metal demo regardless of legacy or however you define sub-genre, ‘Dysentery’ feels more extreme than ‘The Penance’, messier and wilder in that sense.


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Artist Pestilence
Title [Type/Year] The Penance [Demo/1987]
Rating [4.5/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | [Remastered version]

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite death metal demo of all time is I generally default to Pestilence‘s second demo from 1987, ‘The Penance’. Why? Because it more or less condenses everything great about death/thrash guitar riffing into one inspired jolt of memorable thrash metal songs. It marks the entrance of Martin Van Drunen, a soon-to-be fixture of Dutch death metal who would also become the figurehead of Asphyx several years later. Van Drunen could not yet play an instrument confidently but his voice was incredible on this demo, sounding like ‘Darkness Descends’ Don Doty and this fit Pestilence‘s now Sepultura and Slayer leaning sound like a damned glove. It is incredible how ‘The Penance’ more or less takes the best elements of ‘Schizophrenia’ and ‘Pleasure to Kill’ and cleans them up just enough to sound like its own thing. I’m not suggesting plagiarism so much as I can hear distinct influences throughout this demo and that is one of the major reasons I love it. There is such a raw thrash energy here that I often find myself wanting to flip over to ‘The Penance’ whenever I listen to some slightly reworked versions on ‘Malleus Maleficarum’.


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Artist Pestilence
Title [Type/Year] Malleus Maleficarum [Full-length/1988]
Rating [4.5/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp | [Original Version]

The quintessential death/thrash record and perhaps the finest form that could have emerged from the demo years of Pestilence, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ is a true classic that was quickly overshadowed by its follow-up a year later. Today it would seem that the relative popularity of Death‘s ‘Leprosy’ snubs the far superior vision (and musicianship) of ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ but music is a personal art and not always driven by professional merit. Before we had ‘Time Does Not Heal’ as an open-air riff market there was this album, a true hulking beast of relentless rhythm guitar gymnastics played at a blistering speed that makes ‘The Penance’ appear sluggish by comparison. If you’ve ever wondered why I love Destruction‘s ‘Release From Agony’ or Drifter‘s ‘Nowhere to Hide’ you might notice that each (including ‘Malleus Maleficarum’) have a sharp ‘old school’ thrash metal guitar tone engineered by German producer Kalle Trapp though they’d lost some of the loud tom hits that made ‘Schizophrenia’ and ‘Pleasure to Kill’ (and ‘The Penance’) so distinct. This album along with Vader‘s debut really sold me on the perfection that is death/thrash and the potential of the riff within those confines back in the mid 90’s (when I’d discovered both) and I still hold both albums in too-high regard.


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Artist Sacrosanct
Title [Type/Year] The Die is Cast [Demo/1989]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

Guitarist Randy Meinhard would leave Pestilence in 1989 but remain in Enschede and form progressive thrash metal project Sacrosanct that same year, releasing ‘The Die is Cast’ demo to some reasonable reception. I’ve included this demo here for two reasons, the first is that it also features drummer Marco Foddis and the second is that it will quickly clarify what kind of guitar work Meinhard had contributed to Pestilence up to that point. Complex and ripping thrash riffs along with Foddis‘ intense style of drumming make ‘The Die is Cast’ a satisfying and promising tape from Dutch thrash history, which is admittedly not a huge list even at the end of the 90’s. Sacrosanct would release ‘Truth Is – What Is’ in 1990 and ‘Recesses For the Depraved’ in 1991 to no considerable success but if you’re a classic thrash fan these are vibrant and complex thrash masterpieces that should not be ignored.


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Artist Pestilence
Title [Type/Year] Consuming Impulse [Full-length/1989]
Rating [4.5/5.0] LISTEN on Bandcamp | [Original Version]

Here we arrive at the inarguable peak of Pestilence‘s career and the main reason people care about this band in the grand scheme of ‘old school’ or classic death metal. Whereas ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ was a brutal thrash riff machine at nightmare speeds ‘Consuming Impulse’ would adopt a style of drumming closer to that of Death‘s ‘Leprosy’ and the underground Scandinavian death metal of the time which now moved beyond the limits of extreme thrash metal at the time. This was a step beyond what’d happened in 1989 and honestly, consider the impact of records like ‘Slowly We Rot’, ‘Beneath the Remains’, ‘Altars of Madness’, ‘Severed Survival’, ‘Realm of Chaos’ and ‘Symphonies of Sickness’ all coming months before Pestilence had the final word at the end of December that year. Death metal was a thing, a really big thing, and luckily Pestilence were able to fire off this new forward-thinking second full-length just in time to ride that wave. Amsterdam based guitarist Patrick Uterwijk had left thrashers Theriac at the point and he’d stick with Pestilence from this point until ’94 when the band split and then for two terrible comeback albums from ’09-’14. Why does this album how so much sway in the minds of folks today? These weren’t just ripping death metal songs with slight thrash influences, they were huge, often catchy riffs that would emphasize Van Drunen coming into his own as a distinct and imposing vocalist. Just listen to “Out of the Body” and it should be clear why ‘Consuming Impulse’ has had such a lasting impact upon death metal as they’d set a standard so high much of the next four years of death metal’s original peak ’89-’93 would struggle to recreate that magic.


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Artist Asphyx
Title [Type/Year] Promo ’91 [Demo/1991]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | ‘The Rack’ (1991)

Martin Van Drunen would leave Pestilence by 1990 and join legends-to be Asphyx as they reached a similar point in their career as Pestilence were in 1988. This promo found the band figuring their way through the death/doom metal style they’d created with former vocalist Theo Loomans, who would go on to form Swazafix in the meantime. Although this promo isn’t as remarkable as ‘The Rack’, the sound quality is complete garbage, it does show the beginnings of what great legacy Van Drunen would create beyond his experience in Pestilence. For what its worth, I don’t think Mameli ever really came close to Van Drunen‘s distinct vocal on the forthcoming Pestilence ventures.


Artist Pestilence
Title [Type/Year] Testimony of the Ancients [Full-length/1991]
Rating [3.25/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | [Demo comp. ’91-’92]

By 1991 Pestilence would be one of the only European bands to fully integrate their style into the Tampa, Florida scenes style with their third album ‘Testimony of the Ancients’. Still a ripping thrash band at heart the loss of Van Drunen would find Mameli taking over the vocals and the result is an album that sounds like what would’ve been the fourth Death album if they’d taken notes from Nocturnus instead of juicing Cynic and Sadus of their key members. The vocals are almost too typical as they resemble ‘Evil’ Chuck and Don Tardy stunningly but it doesn’t really hurt ‘Testimony of the Ancients’. This record is notable for including bassist Tony Choy who’d just exited Cynic after their second demo to fill in on Atheist‘s second album after Roger Patterson‘s death. Choy would also join Mameli in a terrible rap-metal band in 2007 and a equally awful comeback record for Pestilence in 2009 but I never felt like he added anything truly notable on this particular album. This would be remembered with more significance if not for the weird keyboard interludes from Kent Smith between each song, he’d also provide in-house keys for other Scott Burns productions (Loudblast, No Return, Iced EarthResurrection etc.) and this added no particularly worthwhile value in hindsight. I appreciate how aggressive this album is but it is fairly weak when considering the bulk of progressive death metal that came in the first half of the 90’s.


Artist Pestilence
Title [Type/Year] Spheres [Full-length/1993]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on YT [Remaster] | LISTEN on YT [Original]

I might not have been on board for ‘Testimony of the Ancients’ but Pestilence had reached beyond their past with ‘Spheres’ a forward-thinking progressive extreme metal album that features the Netherlands’ answer to Steve DiGiorgio in bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling, who leaves an incredible mark upon Pestilence with his work here; Thesseling would later serve as the original bassist for Obscura (Germany) and perform on their first two records as well as Pestilence‘s wretched ‘Doctrine’ in 2011. It would be easy to overlook ‘Spheres’ today as we’re graced with this sort of record on a regular basis but for 1993 it holds up quite well as a distinct album next to ‘Individual Thought Patterns’, ‘Focus’ and ‘Elements’. It isn’t the most enjoyable release for my tastes, in fact it is wholly challenging for its poor drum production and unfitting synth work, but it does deserve credit for delivering on what ‘Testimony of the Ancients’ could only go halfway with.

A weird end for Pestilence‘s first set of releases but they would go out in style and leaving behind a few great leaps in style and quality along the way. Looking back it does seem like Mameli would chase after Chuck Schuldiner‘s legacy a half-step behind in those later years but with some closer analysis they were simply both arriving into distinction beyond formative works and higher skill levels allowed them to change with the times. For my own tastes I am forever focused on the ’87-’89 burst of death/thrash and consider those first two full-lengths two utmost classics of 80’s death metal. If you’re somehow not familiar with Pestilence I’d say no question ‘Consuming Impulse’ is the record to know and ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ is exemplar for the death/thrash hybrid style.

 


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