Pestilence Attempts Comeback But Forgets What Makes Death Metal Great

Listen to a track from the upcoming Hadeon from longstanding Dutch band Pestilence, one is immediately struck by the similarity to late-1990s Morbid Angel: the riffs are there, albeit a bit impatient and tightly circular, but the whole experience is not. What is missing? To understand this, we must go to the core of what made death metal what it is.

If you wanted to explain to a normal person what death metal is, looking at the core of its spirit, you might haul out Slayer Hell Awaits, Hellhammer Apocalyptic Raids, and Bathory The Return… because these influenced the techniques, composition, and spirit of death metal. From Hellhammer and Slayer, it got its song structure and aesthetics; from Bathory its themes and riff technique.

Death metal took the original idea of metal, formed when Black Sabbath and others began using power chords to make phrasal riffs instead of harmony-oriented open chord riffs, and developed it further. This is different than doing something “new” or “progressing” because it means undertaking the much harder task of developing an idea further at a structural level instead of just changing aesthetics.

With the rise of underground metal, death metal adopted chromatic riffing and made the interplay between riffs form a narrative to each song. This abolished typical rock song structure and, because the guitar served as a melodic instrument instead of a harmonic one, forced vocals, bass and drums into a background role. How well the riffs fit together and portrayed an atmosphere, idea, or sensation defined the quality of the music.

Pestilence came from a solid death metal background with Consuming Impulse but showed a speed metal styled approach on Malleus Maleficarum, and this tension has stayed with the band for its entire career. The speed metal style of verse and chorus built on a singular theme that is present in the music is easier to jam on and use harmony to complement, where death metal rarely explicitly states its theme, only silhouetting it in the interaction between its many riffs. With speed metal, bands can set up a chord progression and develop it in layers of internal commentary like jazz, and this puts vocals back in position number one among the lead instruments.

“Non-Physical Existent” is a two-riff song with both based on the same note progression. It creates its intensity through the clash between a ripping circular high speed riff and a slower chromatic riff that uses odd harmony to distinguish notes in an otherwise linear theme. The song breaks into a solo section over one of the riffs, and has a type of turnaround the drops into the faster riff as a return. But there is no real interplay nor any narrative.

From the riffs themselves, this is a good song, but unfortunately, it is not death metal. Nor will it last because essentially it is a closed-circuit video of itself, a riff commented on by another, without resembling any particular experience or emotion, therefore being a null journey, more like stasis in space while riffs loop. It is better than not bad, but still not of real interest to the death metal fan.

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22 thoughts on “Pestilence Attempts Comeback But Forgets What Makes Death Metal Great”

  1. A dick says:

    Peel away the vocals and blast beats, and what you you have is Blink 182.

  2. Coolest Monkey In The Jungle says:

    Did you intentionally use the rejected plagiarism cover art for the main picture? I think it is very appropriate.

  3. N.L. says:

    Wow, it actually is a two-riff song, and the riffs kind of stink too. How repetitive and boring. I know Pestilence’s reputation better than I know their repertoire, so I’m actually a bit shocked at the lack of creativity that this “Non Physical Existent” song reveals. I do remember the first song on Malleus Maleficarum using verse-chorus structure though, and even Consuming Impulse, if I remember correctly, had a relatively small number of riffs per song.

    It’s interesting to compare “Non Physical Existent” with something of the opposite extreme, like At the Gates’ Gardens of Grief, which shows a band overflowing with ideas and stuffing riffs into every nook and cranny of its songs. Another example is Soulside Journey; however, I find that album kind of unorganized (though it is possible that I don’t “get” it yet). Fenriz commented on that aspect of the Darkthrone debut in his commentary (which can be heard on the 2016 Peaceville release of that album… or on YouTube): “We also sort of came out of the ’80s here, and the ’80s were like the hectic, intense decade of metal. Few bands played a riff more than four times*; most songs were like real riff-o-ramas. This still sort of seeped into the metal scene into the ’90s (the ’80s backlash). The bands that made a name for themselves in the ’90s often turned that on its head and started playing monotonous, playing riffs a lot of times and so on.” As far as I can tell, he was more making an observation than judging whether this change was a positive one.

    *It’s unclear to me whether Fenriz meant that riffs were generally repeated no more than four times in a single occurrence (and appeared only once in a song), or whether they appeared no more than four times in a song. Given that Soulside Journey sparked the remark, I would guess the former.

    I wouldn’t argue that quantity of riffs correlates with song quality in death metal. No, the greatness of a death metal song lies not in the number of riffs that it contains, but rather largely in how the riffs are developed and the song is constructed (and of course, how good [memorable, evocative, powerful, etc.] the riffs are). Like you said, Brett, it’s all about the narrative as a vehicle for communication. Thanks for the article.

  4. I really support and enjoy the (sometimes) analytical level you step on death metal on But with all this i really think you lost it what death metal and its fundaments once were. Not that nerdy and bashing aspect you bring up all the time, there were enormously less bands and fans, and they were all (likely blind) supporters AND lovers of death metal, with all its greats and bads, the godline and the childish parts of it. It never was the science you suggest pretty much with all these analytic, theoretic, nerdy take on death metal. Im 40 years now, and still who am i to judge like you do on those who defined death metal and still stick to that definition? Not to mention all the kids in your shadow who werent even mature to select their own music when bands like pestilence released their “comeback” almost 10 years ago, after 15 years hiatus… why do so many death metal listeners today hate what they listen to?

    1. taller more autistic looking man says:

      because most of the shit being released now is exactly that

  5. Rainer Wekusat oompa loompas 4 Trump says:


  6. 1349 says:

    Simplistic commercial Schlacke with a tinge of “progressiveness” for the clueless.
    The riffs are probably software-generated.
    Soon they’ll be able to not just generate note patterns but whole “produced” albums:

    …No, I can’t fucking believe how stupid this song is.

  7. Mister Syre says:

    It would be a good idea to feature what you consider amazing instead of building around the music you like to hate.

    I think this new Pestilence album is a simple but still interesting take on their earlier days and the dissonant riffing of their later works. It’s a catchier take on Death Metal, indeed, but surely not as bad as you’d want it to be.

    1. Rainer Weikusat says:

      This is total shit.

      Moreover, it’s essentially the same as
      (another track from the album)

      An attempt at “prog-lite metal-lite” by combining a fairly simple, dissonant chord progression with a generic speed metal riff, the individually bland parts supposedly supposed to rescue each other via some sort of contact magic which doesn’t work. Well, maybe it does for people who want “metal aesthetics” without “metal”, no idea. The batch of positive reviews focussing on how nice and simple this is and sooo old school suggests so.

      1. You are a fuckin nerdy autist who should rather finally get a good fuck than ANALyze death metal, rainer schwuchtel

        1. Rainer Weikusat says:

          You should really put your head “into the pizza oven”, dear jackass.

  8. Mesh-pattern says:

    The music does not build at all, they’re clearly trying hard to emulate some of the riff aesthetic from earlier albums with a flat result. On Consuming Impulse there a thematic and energetic flow from riff to riff, so they ‘work’. Here we really don’t have ‘death metal’, but technique born out of death metal riff styles- but no more. The result is a distinct lack of kinetic power, and dynamic moment by moment shifts in a ‘story’. I feel like the band was probably more interested in making music that sounded ‘like’ death metal than actually writing death metal (with the kind of mentality that this entails).

    1. Mister Syre says:

      Right, maybe the band was more interested in making music that sounded ‘like’ death metal than actually writing death metal. Would it make it wrong? Maybe we shouldn’t seek Death Metal and appreciate it as it is. This is the first Pestilence album I gave a few spins in a long time. Spheres was innovative and challenging, this is obviously different but more enjoyable than the last 3 albums they released.

      1. Than actially write death metal? What the fuck has gone wrong with you sucker? You’re like actually rather behave gay than being gay? You are gay if this isnt written death metal HISTORY
        before your autistic dick even was born, so you rather go and ANALyze yourself before you shit on and get pestilence

        1. Rainer Weikusat says:

          If you’re so fascinated with muscular (somewhat) bald men performing a circus stunt on a stage, maybe, you’re gay?

          This is different from the version with Martin van Drunen on vocals I know but still a 100,000 times better than anything which came after Consuming Impulse.

          1. If its about muscular bald men then its homosexuality, if its about seeming smarter than you are, writing dumb stuff ina sophisticated manner, having the right opinipn on any matter – thats gay, so rainer schwuchtel, is this something you recognize yourself, if your autism allows recognition at all dumbass…

            1. Rainer Weikusat says:

              I’ve already told you this a couple of times but to no avail — nothing of this stuff you like to project onto me has any resemblance of the truth. That’s all you and not exactly a pretty picture (or one anyone would look at weren’t you so hell bent on forcing it onto others).

              Eg, I bought a bunch of Pestilence demoes on CD in 2015 because the local HMV happened to stock them. That was before Hammerheart re-issued Consuming Impulse, something I was missing badly at that time, so, this was just an overjoyed “Hey, they have something from Pestilence here!” reaction. Bit of a letdown because it was just demoes re-issued on CD but I nevertheless don’t regret it.

              Whether or not anybody considers this “the right opinion”, anybody especially meaning “you”, someone who’s so dumb that he considers typos and language errors made by non-native speakers a sign of “inferior intelligence” and so numb that he can’t see a difference between “Fight the Plague” and “Non Physical Existence”. As far as I’m concerned, you can shove your “opinions” as far up your ass it you can manage. I hope you’ll enjoy the experience.

            2. Rainer Weikusat says:

              Shorter version: Keep you to yourself.

              1. Rainer Weikusat says:

                Since the long flame got eaten by the powers of the WWW: Unless you give me a reason to believe you have something of value to say – and you certainly heaven’t – you are, insofar I’m concerned, completely free to shove your opinions on anything as far up your ass as you can manage.

      2. Rainer Weikusat says:

        Maybe we shouldn’t seek Death Metal and appreciate it as it is.

        Did the idea that somebody would perhaps not »appreciate what this is« ever cross your mind?

  9. Flying Kites says:

    Pleasant evening to you Mr. Stevens!
    This may remind you of good times. Would you say which man you are in this photo? The chubby cheeky guy or the cannabis terrorist?

    1. poopy underpants from india says:

      what – the – fuck

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