Given my track record on stripped-down and synth-heavy New York bands1, I’ve been meaning to check out Psalm Zero for some time. Their 2014 effort, The Drain made it on to some year-end lists around the metal
chaosblogosphere, but in the time between it and Stranger to Violence, I never quite followed up on the buzz. Turning to The Drain in preparation for this album, I was blindsided by the band’s unique and difficult sound – a combination of crooned baritone vocals with simple drum machines and electronics and minimal riffing. Strange indeed, but the combination of simplicity and extremely dated sounds made for a less than spectacular listening experience despite a couple quite solid songs. Stranger to Violence proves no different.
Let’s start with the positives here; hidden in Stranger to Violence are a couple of very good moments. “White Psyche” is by far the standout song of the album, with an atmosphere straight out of an ’80s dystopia and tense guitars backing up buildups as huge as the band can muster. Guitarist Andrew Hock’s shouts back up the disaffected croons of frontman Charlie Looker to an almost sublime effect, and there’s nary a dull moment across its six minute runtime. “White Psyche” confirms that the group’s sound can be extremely successful when deployed correctly – but it just so rarely is.
The opening tracks “Stranger to Violence” and “Pay Tomorrow” are lethargic and forced, largely due to a lack of actual riffs. Psalm Zero‘s minimalist guitar work is a far cry from Hock’s riffing in Castevet, and consists almost entirely of strumming at midtempo – this works a couple of times, but after about ten minutes of nothing but strumming, expressionless drum machine and godawful MIDI flourishes, you’ll be about ready to blow your brains out. “Oblivion’s Eye” swaps out the band’s typical trappings for acoustic guitar and a wood flute in its intro, the change doesn’t help the flow or the album or the feeling of monotony that kicked in about thirty-five minutes prior.
Psalm Zero‘s choice of tones – all of which the band have dragged out of a well-deserved retirement – are irritating to say the least, but there are plenty of other pieces to take issue with. Looker’s clean vocals are among the least emotive and interesting I’ve ever heard2, and at times he seems to be really floundering to find a good pitch to drone on. This is especially irritating when his lyrics reach poignant points in “Stranger to Violence,” which deals with the sheltered life of any processed-meat-eating city-dweller, and later in “Real Rain” and “Not Guilty.” And for every point in which his lyrics strike a chord, there’s another postmodernist word-salad.
It’s unclear why Psalm Zero are painting with so few and such gaudy colors, but one need not question their impetus to assess the results. For a few brief moments – the intro of “Real Rain” or the entirety of “White Psyche” – their music is successful and stimulating, but the standards of the album are set so extremely low that the weaker songs bring the whole edifice down to ground level. In fact, the album would almost be more understandable without any good songs – at least in that situation, one wouldn’t have to wonder how the band gets it all so wrong so often when they’re obviously capable of great things. Stranger to Violence is a singularly frustrating album, most of which is made almost unlistenable by the inclusion of one very good song.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Profound Lore Records