When news arrived that Pestilence had parted ways with Martin Van Drunen, I admit my heart skipped a few beats. What the hell were they thinking? This was one of my favorite bands! How dare they do this to me? Well, it turned out that I was not the center of the universe after all, and they probably had a pretty good reason for the split, but I was loathe to hear what the band might become sans those bloodied, hostile, unforgettable vocal tones. Patrick Mameli was to replace Van Drunen, manifesting his destiny as the multi-tasking frontman, and Drunen's almost nonexistent bass skills were assumed by Tony Choy of Cynic and Atheist, a rather excellent choice for the progressive direction Mameli had planned to take the band in, with a fusion of jazzy principles and guitar synth. However, this transformation would not be fully manifest in Testimony of the Ancients. Only hinted at. Once I caught an advertisement for the great new cover art and album title, I allowed my hackles the chance to recess back into their lair, still poised to strike out in desperation.
The first thing one might notice about this album is that there are 16 tracks. Sixteen whole new songs? Well, not exactly. There are eight new death metal tracks and then eight interludes which alternate between the songs, most labeled with simple titles like "Blood", "Bitterness", "Soulless", "Mindwarp", "Darkening", and so forth. The purpose of these bits and bytes is twofold: to create some poignant scenario that lends additional weight to the real tracks, and to showcase the band in their newfound extravagance. Their 'open minds'. A willingness to temper their masterfully crafted, if brutal metallic core with all manner of experimentation. Surprisingly, many of these work, despite the girth of their variation. For example, "Bitterness" is a scintillating flourish of angelic synth and acoustics that perfectly sets up the hard and slow "Twisted Truth". "Impure" offers morbid smut. "Darkening" creates a chaotic tension. "Soulless" allows Tony Choy to take flight, his hammering finger spasms adjoined to a subtle, well plotted ambiance. Unfortunately, they're not all that great, and many are so short that they might better have been saved for full length songs on a more experimental album, post-Spheres, perhaps. After a few of the better breaks like "Bitterness" and "Impure", the rest seem pretty scattered and distracting.
Another distinction to this album is the production, which sounds quite a lot cleaner than Consuming Impulse or Malleus Maleficarum. This is because the band decided to record the album with Scott Burns in his legendary Morrisound studio. Having already met with two excellent producers in their career, why not a third? Burns was already responsible for work with Atheist, Cancer, Death, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, and other acts from Florida and beyond, so he seemed a pretty natural choice. As one who preferred the harsh, grinding tones of Consuming Impulse to almost any other metal album ever recorded, I was dismayed by the level of polish on this album. It does make a few of the better songs on this album seem a little sterile, though it's probably a better match for the band's increasing jazz tendencies and Mameli's desire to move outside the 'safer' parameters of brutality that were spawning a thousand new bands into the death metal fold internationally.
Fortunately, this is a Pestilence album, and the band still knows how to write a damn fine song. In fact, almost every one of the full-length tracks on this album is good, even though they might not be nearly at the level of the first two albums. "Secrecies of Horror" has an excellent fade in intro, before the circus-like, clunky rhythm of the verse arrives. Not one of my favorite riffs, but it does transform into a string of serious octave chords, an atmospheric bridge with a synth, and a pretty sick lead segment followed by a more mechanical, thrashing rhythm at about 2:10. "Twisted Truth", on the other hand, is pure fucking greatness, with one of those super simplistic riffs that will have you scratching your head, wondering why it hadn't been done before in quite that way. That the band creates such momentum through such a slower pace is a marvel, and the bass is quite good throughout, in particular as it struts below the proggy sounding solo sequences, of which there are two. "Lost Souls" bristles with a faster beat and thriving energy, replete with escalating, simple chords and further excavations from Choy, resolving in large, atmospheric chords that suffocate the listener like rust-tinged clouds of acid. "Land of Tears" opens with another bouncy, circus-thrash riff, but then breaks into one of the better sheer death metal rhythms on the album, a fairly powerful charge despite the sterility of the studio sound.
Indulge in the tempation
Your mind will show you the way
Ghosts of the damned will guard you
In this journey into decay
The second half of the album took a little more acclimation than the first, for the songs don't feel as immediately memorable. "Prophetic Revelations" starts with a slow, lunging half-groove before it picks into a verse rhythm similar to that of "Lost Souls". Again, there is an extremely polished and almost mechanical subtext to the writing, as if the band were afraid to get their hands dirty beyond the vocals. Ultimately, the song is a winner due to its furious lead break at 2:15, and the return to the sluggish dementia of its intro. "Testimony" is a chugging horror that mutates into a decent floe of progressive thrash metal, with sizzling leads and an excellent, atmospheric bridge. "Presence of the Dead" is one of the better overall songs on the album, with another of the simple sliding octave chord patterns that would reappear often on the band's 2009 reunion effort Resurrection Macabre. However, the true strength is the jazzy bliss of the bridge, the mystique of the leads and the tight, playful thrashing that reminds me of something which might have appeared on Consuming Impulse, albeit in a much cleaner form here. But it is perhaps the final full-length track "Stigmatized" which most closely resembles the band's past albums, at least until the extended fusion of the bridge, which I might add features one of the best lead licks on the album just before 2:30.
One thing I must admit is that, while he's no Van Drunen, Patrick Mameli does manage to somehow pick up the vocal slack and offer a distinct performance here. It's honestly the most brutal element of the album, though it's got a more reserved tone ala Chuck Schuldiner or a less passionate Chris Reifert. I was fully expecting to hate the vocals, and yet I wound up impressed that he could pull it off (turns out he can also pull it off live, as I found out when the band toured North America on this particular album).
In the end, Testimony of the Ancients is just too tidy and 'ambitious' to compete with its predecessors. If you're a sucker for a very sterile, procedural tone to the guitars and mix of your death metal albums, then you'll still be a sucker for this one. And to be totally fair, it's a very interesting record. The cover art is cool, and the 16-track setup intriguing, even if several of its constituent pieces are rusting at the hinges. The actual metal songs here are almost all very good, barring a few lackluster riffs that made me feel like I was at a carnival. While I greatly prefer the spontaneous violence of the band's earlier solos, the leads here at least accessible and catchy. I feel like there is an obvious parallel here to Death. Both bands got their heads out of the graveyard and into the clouds, deciding to expand outwards of their genre without wholly abandoning it. I feel like Testimony of the Ancients was the more successful of the band's first 'breakout' albums, as I believe Human to be a tedious bore with a few pretty solos at best (Remember kids, stoning is illegal here in my country.) At least with this album Pestilence retain a little of their menace.
The lyrics are not as good. The songs...not as good. The production all too underwhelming. But Testimony of the Ancients earns its stripes for the attempted cohesion of so many wandering parts into a streamlined progressive death metal experience, and I still listen to the album rather frequently these days. Far more than I would listen to Human, Atheist's Unquestionable Presence, or Cynic's Focus, at any rate. There was very little chance that Pestilence would surpass the power of their first two albums, which remain flawless to these ears over two decades later, so the forging of this new path was hardly a slap in the face to the fans that so idolized their work.
Highlights: Twisted Truth, Land of Tears, Lost Souls, Presence of the Dead, Testimony
Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (a language unheard before)