The ever expanding universe of technical extreme metal is thrillingly fractal at a glance, colorful and spiraling with its acts of extremely lithe finger work and mathematical precision yet it all starts to wear thin outside of the vacuum of space where the gaudiness of soulless ‘gymnastic’ music begins to wear away at any inherent meaning and splatter under the weight of Earth’s gravity. Established lineage between generations wears out just as quickly when viewed as a linear path of influence but, those few bands that’d learn valuable lessons of self-evaluation along the way do eventually grace the discerning fan with a modern classic, often requiring some amount of duress or insanity to reach a peak level of performance. Bearing advanced technology and an ingenious mind-instrument connection soon to be overloaded by the massive knowledge of all things, so explodes the extrasensory abilities of Liège, Belgium born technical death metal quartet Pestifer on their impressive third full-length album, ‘Expanding Oblivion’. Whereas the curse of limitless access to knowledge microwaves the average engorged human brain, Pestifer manages enlightenment through carefully maintained processors.
Members of Pestifer had been conceiving the project as early as the late 90’s but it wouldn’t be until 2004 that the first properly focused formation would establish, eventually leading to a sharp promo/EP (‘Demo 2006‘, 2006) showcasing their ‘old school’ progressive death metal influenced take on technical death metal. Of course there are two ways to see this type of music and it’ll depend how well you remember the finer points of mid-2000’s technical death metal. There were many other shockwaves within tech-death at that point but the ones that’d stick with folks to this day were arguably the more fluid and organic (not fuckin’ trendy) classics from Anata and Spawn of Possession, among others. Of course there were bigger bands but when listening to Pestifer‘s debut full-length ‘Age of Disgrace‘ (2010) it is clear those sort of albums were just as important as their (assumed) taste in bands like Atheist, Sadus, and perhaps Obliveon. It’d also arrive with a science fiction theme just as bands like Vektor were sharpening their vision for the next decade and if it wasn’t important then, you’ll hear at least some of those chord shapes in the deeper cuts on ‘Expanding Oblivion’ today.
By their second album (‘Reaching the Void‘, 2014) Pestifer were reaching Obscura levels of preened-over technicality, featuring the warm DiGiorgio-esque presence of bassist Adrien Gustin as a fine selling point yet the band weren’t reaching for a lush and curly Cynic influenced sound, instead weaving modern techniques with compositions that still appeared more relevant to groups like Pavor (see: ‘Furioso’) or even Quo Vadis‘ third album, perhaps with less of a focus on melodic pieces while remaining equally ornate. There was a foot in the old ways that felt natural, realistic alongside a level of composition and performance that was still unreal by ‘modern’ standards leading to apt comparisons to groups like (circa ’14) Beyond Creation. ‘Reaching the Void’ was a real high point for the band even if just for the fact that their songwriting was an inch more clever than most peers and their sound operated with some sense of 90’s prog-death metal in mind. I’d hoped it’d have been a defining moment in their discography and judging by my time with ‘Expanding Oblivion’ it was perhaps more of a meaningful step to take as to where their skills could lead them. This third album isn’t a ‘one up’ of the last but rather a more ‘alive’ beast, a menacing being unquenched by its absorption of the universe’s resonance, a brutal void howling its depths in one great spiraling tech-death trip. Er, a completely satisfying next step in their body of work thus far.
All of the consistent pieces of Pestifer are in place: The bass tone, the ‘old school’ tech-death sensibilities, the mid-paced snarling stomp of classic death metal and yet this is no mangled wall of non-directional prog-metal flesh. When I describe a band as ‘alive’ in terms of technical death metal I’m usually referring to an organic render, a present and human station for recording that is not necessarily rough (or raw) but realistically portrayed all the same and there is the sense that this still brightly ‘modern’ production on ‘Expanding Oblivion’ is akin to a ‘live in studio’ rip. There is no meaningless distance between Pestifer and the audience, they are alien enough as a unit to create that space, and the full listen feels all the more urgent because of it. These guys have never put a particularly ‘brutal’ spin on their style, opting for something menacing but not stupidly aggressive a la ‘A Vision of Misery‘ translated to today’s standards. That isn’t to say this is a thrash record or particularly obsessed with the old ways but there is the sense that ‘Expanding Oblivion’ aims to be more abrupt and violent than its predecessor, less polished. Some of that vibe comes from the aligning theme of the album.
The suggestion is that the overarching theme of ‘Expanding Oblivion’ has no moralistic aim with some of the clinical stoicism of Asimov in mind in creating a prosaic storyline assuredly influenced by Liu Cixin‘s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy and his treatment of transhumanism or post-humanity, transference of consciousness and speculation of humanity beyond the death of the Earth. Keep in mind none of this is expressly stated by the band but it is suggested reading all the same. The themes do center around an ever-thirsting monstrous consciousness uploaded to a Borg-like world devourer, an impossibly huge assimilation of accumulated sentient knowledge that revels in the experiences of beings until it falls into the challenge of anthropocene Earth, collapsing under the weight of knowledge to consume and perishing with it. The destruction of our planet is cause to celebrate but that it takes such a being, that would consume all knowledge throughout the expanse of the universe, offers a potent nihilistic idea to consider while in the midst of this fine technical death metal album. The sci-fi theme isn’t going to seem all that extravagant to the average fan but it fits Pestifer‘s approach quite well and the cover art from illustrator David Caryn, who also did their last two album covers, is incredibly effective as a representation of the larger narrative whether you see it as a spacecraft or the crumbling desperate spires of future Earth.
I’ve had quite a bit of trouble considering which songs on the tracklist to highlight because the flow of the first 4-5 pieces represents a showcase of Pestifer at their most exuberant and impassioned, creating a thread that is almost its own section of the record. “Swallower of Worlds” punctuates that experience with a bit of a ‘release’, steering toward some broader strokes and thrilling builds toward intensity. At that point the band have shown a bit of their ‘old’ selves that’d been evident since their debut while showcasing some of the sharper technique of the last album, think of it like an old friend speaking a new but familiar dialect. Where the album begins to floor me comes with “Fractal Sentinels” this is maybe the first moment where I’d actually begin to place Pestifer‘s ingenuity next to a band like Anata, where a fairly simple melodic statement builds into an entire nuanced piece that is both technical and narrative. I don’t think they’ve announced a vinyl version yet but I’d assume this’d be the start of Side B, sparking some fresh perspective into the mid-paced swaying dread of “Grey Hosts”. I love this side of the band not only because it slows down enough to feel its ‘old school’ groove (a bit like “Prophetic Revelations” on ‘Testimony of the Ancients’) but because it fits the direction of the albums theme at this point in the narrative. Some of this reprises within the grand finale of the title track, almost resembling ‘Formulas Fatal to the Flesh’ at certain points but certainly riding a wave entirely their own still in the realm of progressive and technical death metal.
Of course if I’ve had this much to spew about Pestifer‘s latest album it should suggest I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit and I certainly have. With each release the band collectively improve and this was not a total guarantee considering that guitarist Valéry Bottin (ex-Emeth, ex-In Quest) only joined a few years ago. With that in mind, this is even more remarkably achieved and will likely stand as my favorite release from the band thus far, coming somewhat nearby the value of ‘Reaching the Void’. A high recommendation, whether you lean towards ‘modern’ or old school technical death metal there is a brilliant middle ground achieved on ‘Expanding Oblivion’ where Pestifer flourish.
High recommendation. 4.0/5.0
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