One of our greatest strengths as a species is our ability to learn. We (most of us, anyway) glean information from experience and apply any newfound knowledge toward future endeavors, shaping our lives with said wisdom. Fire hot? Keep hands away from that shit. Sun bright? Keep eyes away from that shit. Hinder bad? Keep ears away from that shit, problem solved. The possibilities rendered from experiential education are endless, allowing us to improve and expand our own existence. We learn what works, what doesn’t work, and how we can improve. Why tech-death insists on being an exercise in as many bands as possible doing the exact same thing as each other, is something that baffles. On that note, and with Beuller-approved levels of irony, let’s talk about some dudes from Dubai and what they’ve done with the genre on their third full-length, Past, Present… Torture.
Before we get too far down this rabbit hole, let me acknowledge that Nervecell are clearly an experienced group of musicians. Guitarist Barney Ribeiro handles the rhythm section capably, channeling Necrophagist and Nile, while Rami H. Mustafa handles Obscura-esque lead work, both wielding the tones and ‘tudes of their idols aptly. James Kazhaal invokes the growling fury of Nile as he damns the history and future of humanity, and points go to him for pulling it off with such clear enunciation. All of this familiar fare is gifted a percussive path by none other than guest double-bass abuser Kevin Foley (Abbath, Sepultura, Decapitated, and more), and it is always evident that the band has learned much from the giants of the genre.
The problem, however, is that everything works because it’s already worked before, for everybody else. When I say the guitarists are channeling their idols, I don’t mean that they communicate with the spirits to seek musical guidance. What I mean is that they wear the skin of Necrophagist for clothes, kneel at an altar of Nile’s discarded chewing gum and recite Abysmal Dawn lyrics into a mirror for hours in the dark. Nervecell have certainly learned what works within the chuggy, noodly cesspool of tech-death, but instead of diving deeper into the murk or else abandoning the waters entirely, Past, Present… Torture simply floats in the stagnant slime, opting to emulate rather than deviate. It’s not particularly explorative, it’s neither aggressively good nor bad, it’s just there.
The predictability begins with the legally required instrumental “Intro,” building an Eastern melody for two minutes longer than the album needed and threatening to mire it in the icky, schticky, gimmicky goo of Black Lake Niche-Songs. Thankfully this is never the case, since that’s apparently not the element of Nile that these guys wanted to rehash. The remaining 12 songs move more quickly than the 50 minute run-time might suggest, pounding their way down the middle of the road with the obligatory guttural “ooooohhh”’s, pinch harmonics, and shin-splinting drums that all tech-death albums require. Two more throwaway instrumentals find their way into the insipid onslaught, standing out in no way but admittedly aiding Past’s flow by providing breathers. Not much to talk about in the way of standout moments, here, as you’ll see everything coming from a mile off.
For the record, I don’t think this record sucks. “Treading Beneath” is a killer track imbued with the faintest of Eastern flavors, and “Proxy War” is just straight gangsta. These guys know exactly what they’re doing, and that’s what makes my damnation of Past so painful: none of it’s bad, but almost all of it’s boring, a well-executed reanimation of the ghosts of tech-death past. Sure, these guys can noodle and blast their way through an album like everyone else, but did they need to? This isn’t a debut or even the stereotypical sophomore slump, this is full-length #3, and I definitely expected more than this. Ultimately, Past, Present… Torture serves as an exercise in irony, reliving the glory days of tech-death yore without so much as a second thought toward innovation, and this particular dude cannot abide. Sure, it sounds killer, but it sounded just as good when bands A-Z² did the same thing. Somewhere, there is a dead horse beaten into an unrecognizable pulp, and we have Nervecell to blame.