In retrospect, Psycroptic‘s self-titled album looks bland; safe, dependable, unexciting, the 9-to-5 desk job or upscale barista gig that kills time and pays bills until your creative career takes off again, you know? The danger in complacence loomed, and it became all too reasonable to predict that Psycroptic had donned their monkey suits and aprons, never to take them off again. Before we knew it, the band would have a fucking crossover SUV and a mortgage. And who could blame them if As the Kingdom Drowns turned out to be phoned-in? The band wrote enough good music in the past few decades to sustain a spot on tours forever so long as they deliver a label something to print the next t-shirt design on. Maybe they lost every drop of true greatness they had to The Scepter of The Ancients – it was a lot of greatness after all, wasn’t it? Isn’t it fair to just let Psycroptic be good?
Apparently, the brothers Haley don’t think so. You’ve heard “We Were the Keepers,” and knew that at the very least, As the Kingdom Drowns would have a great Psycroptic song leading it off. Downhill from there wouldn’t be so bad – but there is no downhill. Were it just for Joe Haley’s fidget spinner riffs1 that seem to defy known laws of momentum and David Haley’s tight fills and unexpected percussion effects, this would be a huge step up from Psycroptic, but not an outright rejection of complacence. But the soulful choirs? The tight songwriting? The best goddamn Revocation riff I’ve heard all year2? As the Kingdom Drowns outdoes itself at almost every turn.
It does so not by sheer speed or technicality but through interesting and concise songs built up around the most byzantine riffs in the business. “Directive” packs hundreds of notes into a bridge that unfolds fractured phrases from the song’s chorus. Later on, the title track bathes such winding branches in the light of the full choir in a monumental mid-album highlight. Immediately after, it’s outdone by “Beyond the Black.” Psycroptic have sounded menacing, crazed, maybe even a bit introspective before. Never before did they make something so grand, tragic, and purposeful.
Speaking of “Beyond the Black,” the song provides a perfect window into the album’s performance and sound strategy. Pointed snare hits in the introduction ring with a punctuating high-frequency “ping” that sounds almost synthetic. Likewise, burbling effects cymbals feature in the chorus and bridge, making for the most interesting drumming on the record. Jason Peppiat’s constrained vocal style contrasts perfectly with the women’s choir, a choice obviously inspired by the success of similar arrangements in Terminal Redux. Psycroptic didn’t feel cohesive like The Inherited Repression because there was no stylistic flourish like the nylon-stringed guitars to bind its songs together. The choir provides that glue here, and even on songs where they’re absent, the joy of Joe Haley riffs fills the void and odd percussion sometimes sneaks back in. Remember those weird cymbals from “Beyond the Black?” They’re back again in when needed most in “Momentum of the Void,” the one song that doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the album.
Fifteen years later, Psycroptic have finally delivered an album that lives up to the brilliance of The Scepter of the Ancients, and with a completely different sound. While the band’s records between provide a glimpse into the evolution of Joe Haley’s now unmistakable guitar playing, the band never pulled all of that wizardry together into a great album until As the Kingdom Drowns. It’s still imperfect – dropping “Momentum of the Void” and moving “Beyond the Black” to the end of the record would have made for a tighter run and more exciting ending. But by restraining their creativity to simply structured songs and embellishing those with just the right combination of effects, Psycroptic have made their most compelling record in more than a decade, and one that will engage more than just the diehard fans and guitar fanatics. At the end of a stream of adequate albums, in an ocean of by-the-numbers death metal, Psycroptic hold their heads high above the water.