Fear, Emptiness, Decibel: Read an Extended Excerpt from the Revised and Expanded Edition of Choosing Death
Before there were blogs there were these things called magazines, and the only metal magazine we still get excited about reading every month is Decibel. Here’s managing editor Andrew Bonazelli…
Choosing Death Fest, featuring Dying Fetus, Nails, Misery Index, Deceased, Noisem, Horrendous, Derkéta and Taphos Nomos, is just around the corner. It goes down Saturday April 16 in Philadelphia at Union Transfer, so you might wanna jump on the $22(!) tickets right now!
Obviously, the festival takes it name from Decibel’s Editor in Chief Albert Mudrian’s death metal history tome Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore. So, what better way to get you pumped for CDF, than with this new book excerpt from the revised and expanded hardcover edition, where legendary death howler Martin van Drunen joins Pestilence in the late ‘80s? Enjoy, and then snap up a hard copy here—there are only 1000 left in stock!
While Thanatos impressed their friends, two hours east in the old industrial town of Enschede, guitarist Patrick Mameli was equally smitten with one particular American band who also had yet to graduate beyond the demo stage.
“I was into tape-trading a lot,” he says. “We were into bands like Death and Mantas, which is pre-Death. I love Death. Death is like my fucking child. It helped me try to become more brutal and stuff like that—that’s what’s it’s all about. Fuck, man, those guys were so good. I understand what they were doing. I wanted to be the European answer to Death. Listening to them, it was like, ‘OK, that’s what you do? That’s what I wanna do right now.’”
That would have to wait several more months, however. Mameli was still jamming metal covers with any like-minded musician he could find in Enschede. That’s how he first crossed paths with another local metal fan, Martin van Drunen. A few years older, and raised on KISS, Motörhead and Venom, as well as Dutch headbanging heroes Picture, van Drunen was hanging out at a friend’s band’s practice space when he first encountered Mameli.
“One day they were looking for a guitar player, and Patrick showed up,” recalls van Drunen. “I think he was like 14 or 15 years old. He was riffing Kirk Hammett and Slayer riffs, and I was like, ‘Hey, I know those songs.’ The singer was drinking too much and he didn’t show up at the practice session. I was always going there just to hang out because I had nothing else to do, so they said, ‘You, grab the microphone and sing something.’ So, we did [Slayer’s] ‘Evil Has No Boundaries’ and [Metallica’s] ‘Metal Militia.’ I was impressed by Patrick, like, ‘Hey, this kid can play, and he plays the music that I like.’ Most of the guys in those bands were into mainstream metal and hard rock. That was the first time that I met Patrick. He soon quit there and I didn’t see him for years.”
In the middle of 1986, Mameli formed the trio Pestilence, and assumed vocal and guitar duties. In its earliest incarnation, the band bore a much closer resemblance to the more extreme thrash sounds emanating from neighboring Germany than anything Chuck Schuldiner was developing in central Florida. By the time Mameli recorded Pestilence’s first demo, Dysentery, released just a few months later, elements of Death’s debut LP Scream Bloody Gore infiltrated the band’s style, while the group grew more technically proficient than their German counterparts. However, they were by no means looking to the sterile sounds of American thrash for influence.
“I didn’t care about the stuff that Testament was playing at that time,” Mameli explains. “I just wanted to be the next Death. That’s what it’s all about. I didn’t care about Testament—I could play that shit when I was fucking 14 years old. I wanted to be playing stuff that was just so humongous and crazy. We just loved it. People needed this stuff.”
Mameli also soon realized that he needed a singer. As he prepared to record the band’s second demo, The Penance, he encountered van Drunen for the first time since their impromptu rehearsal space jam.
“I was walking on the square in Enschede and I bumped into him,” recalls van Drunen. “So, we started talking and he says, ‘We can’t find a singer.’ I don’t know where it came from, but I said, ‘OK, I’m a singer, and I’m looking for a band.’ But I never was in a band, you know? So, he said, ‘OK, then just come by.’”
Soon after, Pestilence were officially reconfigured as a quartet, showcasing van Drunen on vocals and bass (though Mameli recorded the bass on The Penance), and they began gigging with more frequency at home, as well as in neighboring Germany.
“As a demo band, we already had contacts in Germany, and we played there a lot,” confirms van Drunen. “We sold a shitload of demos at concerts. There were bands with record deals—a German band called Darkness—that we played with, and I think it was 500 people inside the room, and we just blew them away. And after that show, we sold over 100 demos. Back then, if you sold 1,000 or 2,000 copies of your demo worldwide—not to mention the amount of people who copied it—record labels start to get interested.”
Those then-elusive recording contracts were significant motivators for nearly every band in the underground. But by 1988, it was a two-horse race between Thanatos and Pestilence to be the Netherlands’ first extreme metal act to land a record deal. While that contributed to some friction between the two bands, an even deeper rift stemmed from something actually written by Thanatos’ frontman Stephan Gebédi.
“I still am now, but back then I was writing for Aardschok magazine,” he explains. “I was reviewing demo tapes, and I reviewed the first Pestilence demo tape for Aardschok, and then this little feud between me and Patrick emerged. I gave it a good review, but I didn’t say that it was brilliant! Then they were starting to talk shit about us. So, there was a big controversy in Holland at one point between Pestilence and Thanatos. In Aardschok, you had a readers’ page where people send in letters, and for months and months, there was a big onslaught going on between Pestilence and Thanatos fans until [the editors] pulled the plug on it, so it wasn’t like a fanzine for those two bands anymore.
“So, the western part of Holland was pro-Thanatos and the eastern part was pro- Pestilence,” Gebédi continues. “Until about 1988, both bands were pretty equal, in Holland at least.”
Pestilence were about to pull ahead of the competition, however, by recording a song called “Hatred Within” for the Teutonic Invasion Part Two compilation. Released by the Netherlands-based Roadrunner Records, the comp was basically an A&R vehicle for the label to harvest young talent. And considering Pestilence were located right in their backyard, offering the band a contact was an easy decision for the Dutch company.
“For us, it was something really special, as we were the first Dutch extreme metal band that got a major deal,” admits van Drunen. “There was a lot of… well, I don’t wanna use the word ‘envy,’ but there were bands that were jealous—like, ‘Fucking hell, why do they get it and we don’t?!’”
“We were the first band to get fucking signed,” Mameli says bluntly. “We were better than all those fucking bands from Holland. We were just the best.”
They had their chance to prove it with Malleus Maleficarum, their Roadrunner debut. Released in September 1988, the album was ultimately more thrash metal than death metal, but infinitely more extreme than, say, State of Euphoria or …And Justice for All—both of which were released within weeks of Pestilence’s debut. Though Malleus was well-received in Europe, both Mameli and van Drunen hoped to the take the band in a more death metal-leaning direction with their followup. This decision resulted in drummer Marco Foddis and German-born guitarist Randy Meinhard exiting the group.
“Randy wanted to do more melodic kind of thrash,” van Drunen reveals. “There was a verbal fight between Randy and Patrick, and of course Patrick said something to him like, ‘Fuck off, you stupid German.’ And Marco decided to go with Randy.”
Meinhard and Foddis formed a thrash band called Sacrosanct, while Mameli and van
Drunen recruited guitarist Patrick Uterwijk and started auditioning local drummers. While Uterwijk’s style was the perfect match for Mameli’s playing, Pestilence’s drummer search hit a dead end. Foddis eventually returned in 1989 with much of the new album’s material already finished.
When it was released in December that year, Consuming Impulse completed Pestilence’s swift transition from thrash upstarts to death metal elite. Mameli’s Death influences resonated more clearly through the crush of Harris Johns’ production, but it was the change in van Drunen’s vocal approach that helped foster one of the most distinctive voices death metal has ever heard.
“From the first demo I sang on, I was just looking for what I could do,” says the vocalist. “On Malleus, I had this kind of ‘bllaaaauuugh’ thing, you know? But that was a terrible technique because I had a headache after every show. Also, at that time, Xecutioner had a demo out, and we heard it and thought, ‘Jesus Christ—this fucking singer!’ And every day, the boys rubbed my nose in it: ‘You need to sound like this John Tardy guy—this guy is good!’ So, when I started to sing for Consuming, they were not happy. They were like, ‘You gotta get rid of that fucking Malleus voice.’ So, then I started singing more from [the] belly, which is what I do now. And they all went, ‘Yes, that’s the voice! Keep that one!’ I said, ‘OK, if that’s what you guys want, I can do this.’ So, on Consuming, it was more or less a tryout. It may sound astonishing, but it is.”