Review Summary: It's as good as you're expecting Tony Choy's bass to be - which ironically isn't.
The year 1990 pretty much had it all when it came to metal. Cowboys from Hell, Deicide, Cause of Death, Spiritual Healing, Incantation...
It was going to be a hell of a year to top. That's why when 1991 rolled around bands realized they would have to step up their game, and really come up with material that went above and beyond. The result of this is albums like Human, Unquestionable Presence, and Gardens of Grief. Oh, and Testimony of the Ancients.
This album uses the "metal standard" of 8 solid songs and interjects short, atmospheric transitions in between each one. While to some this is surely a negative feature, the transitions are as diverse as the songs themselves, and they're really too short to hurt the album at all. Most of them actually sound pretty cool, and one is even a bass solo by Tony Choy, his only true shining moment on the album.
That's right. Tony Choy, the low-note madman you know from Cynic and Atheist, appears very subtly on this release, sticking mostly to the death metal cliche of just buzzing along under the guitars to the same notes. There are exceptions here and there, and it he does have his moments, but for the most part the bass guitar is not what you'd expect from the man. However, of the three metal bands he has played in, Pestilence is easily the most death metal of them and thus naturally he has the least wiggle room to show off his virtuosity. Regardless, he still gives a good performance, just not an extremely memorable one.
Some albums are great because of their sheer innovation, some because of their instrumentation and technicality, some because of their unique sound. This album, however, is great because it is simply very consistent and very solid. It also simultaneously straddles new territory while refining what was already there.
In a nutshell: The drums are tight, the riffs are sharp, the solos are beautiful. The vocals are very well done, sounding like Chuck with a hint of John Tardy mixed in. Each song has has a nice progression of riffs that are for the most part varied enough that it always sounds interesting. Most of the songs also have atmospheric keyboard breakdowns with slow riffs, often occuring during or right around the time of the guitar solos, which are excellent. Very excellent. The combination of these unique breakdowns/solos, always interesting riffs, and general cohesion of the entire band makes for 8 dynamic songs which keep the listener well occupied until it's over. Songs also each have several tempo changes which further catch the listener's attention and prevent the experience from becoming stale in any way. Did I mention that the solos are awesome.
One of the coolest things about the album is that, using the above criteria, the band are able to write progressive songs that don't dwindle on for over 10 minutes (i happen to listen to a lot of songs that are over 10 minutes, I'm just saying). The songs suck you in with their catchy riffs and tight sound before building up to dense climaxes where the yet-again-awesome solos come in. There's more than a hint of Morbid Angel influence here, but the band take it to their own level and sound much more mysterious and haunting than satanic and evil. A lot of the songs present a variety of emotions and tones throughout the different riffs that are showcased. Keyboards are used sparingly for great effect. Some songs like opener Secrecies of Horror are more straightforward while some, like Stigmatized with it's rollercoaster of jarring mood swings, sum up the album perfectly and prove that progressive death metal can indeed be found in 1991 (Also in a similarly on Carcass' Necroticism).
This album pretty much takes the death metal template and perfects it, leaving behind the boring and repetitive parts that plague so many albums and keeping only the savory meat. And boy that meat is good.