Friday, May 21, 2010

Psycroptic - The Scepter of the Ancients

Psycroptic - The Scepter of the Ancients
2003, Unique Leader Records

I believe this album was originally released on Psycroptic's own label, the imprint under which they issued their debut as well, but at this point I can not be sure. I honestly can not remember, and if you go to Psycroptic's website and try to investigate this album's manufacturing there isn't that much information to be found. It does say, at this time, that this second album of theirs is only available from them in Australia, so I'm assuming that they released it over there and searched for other labels to either spread it farther abroad or take over its production completely. There isn't any kind of licensing information on this copy that I received from Unique Leader that I can find so I'm not really sure. Oh well. In any case this album is a little dated at this point being recorded in ten days from September to December of 2002, and I'm sure that Psycroptic, if they're the kind of band who like to rehearse and progress [and I'm guessing they are], are far beyond this material already. Still, it doesn't mean one shouldn't seek this album out and at least listen to it. It of course stands on its own as a complete, legitimate, worthwhile work of art.

Plus people are talking about it, so...

Psycroptic are somewhat out of the ordinary in that they employ an original take on the stylistic links between thrash and death metal. The exact nexus at which those two styles meet, divide, interrelate, etc. [even considered historically - at what? 1988 or so?] is the realm of inspiration which this band seems to want to explore, albeit it is in a highly idiosyncratic manner. Think Metallica's "And Justice For All" or Confessor's "Condemned" meeting with a brutal death album that had been launched ten years into the past with a time machine. That's a start. They have a voice/sound of their own, at this early point in their career, and what is even more noteworthy is that almost all of this "originality" seems to firmly reside within the riffing style of their guitarist, Joe Haley. Some instrumentalists just develop their own way of playing when faced with a certain set of influences [based on what only they could tell, outside of talent, drive, will, etc.] and he is one of them. Once you hear this band and get their style firmly embedded in your head you won't mistake them for any other band. Of course the other group members bring just as much to the table as Joe does [well I'm guessing the bassist does, because I can't really hear his contributions to this work], but it is his understanding of late thrash and how it interacts with death metal paradigms that really informs and fills out the lion's share of their distinctive techniques. For example, his brother David is a great drummer and really adds an immense rhythmic dexterity and creativity to this band's sound, a layer of their approach that would be sorely missed if he were to be absent. His interaction with his brother, the way they have designed the riffs, the way both the drums and rhythm guitars strike in unison, withdraw, comment on each other, etc. is the engine that drives Psycroptic forward. And yet his brother, without the guitars, would not be Psycroptic. This is obvious, however, and I am wasting your time in saying so.

Joe Haley is a guitar player that you will probably be hearing a lot more about in the future. I am just guessing that based on the impressive material here, having not heard this band's debut [and so being unable to track this band's progression], and knowing how the metal scene interacts with original six-string artists. His ingenuity, adroitness, nimbleness, and sheer rhythmic skill is a wonder to behold, and the guitar playing alone on this album should be a treat for anyone who appreciates idiosyncratic, thoughtful takes on genre rules/laws. His methodology is simple, yet bewitching: a very deliberate, careful, minute appreciation of rhythmic subtlety and the ways in which riffs can be altered, spun out, shortened, repeated, varied, etc. in the process of a song, and the way in which they can be offered, retracted, altered, and made to bear the burden of a guitarist's individual style while still carrying a song forward. Much like the school of guitar playing that descended from the first few Van Halen albums, this approach does not press for a deliberate execution and exact repetition of song cells/riffs/rhythms so much as it calls for the guitarist to constantly be searching for subtle ways in which to change each repetition of the motif elements. A riff will not be just repeated ad infinitum, a rhythm will not appear and then pop up again only to be some kind of structural sign within a composition; everything is constantly in flux and feels "alive" in that each time a musical element is cycled through [real] time and the band concentrates on it the guitarist is trying to change it while it is being played. It's almost as if the guitarist is "attacking" the rest of the band, daring it to repeat what he has just offered - but this illusion is ameliorated by the dry precision with which the drummer is shadowing the string rhythms. It's not correct to say that Psycroptic never plays the same riff twice [that's just a cliché, a commonplace], because they do, but I feel sometimes when I'm listening to this album that they do so only in order to make a sort of sarcastic bow to songwriting tradition - or in order to offer signposts to the listener so that he/she does not feel completely overwhelmed by music that sometimes seems to lack a simple structure [at least upon the first few listenings]. Where will they go in the future? What makes this all the more unique is the fact that they are using thrash riffing, intensive, short, sharp percussive, palm muted elements [but not in a Meshuggah sense, different] to create these free-flowing forms. It only gets "worse" as the album progresses. For example, consult the song "The valley of winds breath and dragons fire", the seventh on this nine track album, for an instrumental dissertation on the art of making songs that offer the listener very few concessions as to structural cohesiveness/simple integrity. The catchiest, "simplest" songs are at the beginning of this record, it opens up and seems to breathe as it advances, but it also loses cohesion...it loosens...

I also feel like I should at least mention the performance the vocalist Matthew Chalk displays here, although I am not qualified in any way to comment in depth on the permutations and complications of his delivery. It is original, let me say that, and Psycroptic did a good job of finding a vocalist that had a voice that was at least as distinctive and idiosyncratic as the guitarist's advances. Matthew mixes a sort of midrange scream and crawling growl with deeper, darker grunts, choking sounds, high squeals, a black metal shriek, and even a type of hoarse hardcore shout in order to get his point across, sounding like at least three different vocalists within the space of a few seconds. Very strange, but very nicely done. I do not know if he wrote the lyrics, but they are extensive, convoluted, and [seemingly] almost too much to handle sometimes as he races the other members of the band to the finish of each track...yet he still manages to send his voice through all the different pitches and ranges that he can manage. I wonder how much practice that took in rehearsal before the recording of this album, and what his throat feels like after they play all of these songs back to back, if they ever do. I would like to see this band live.

I admire Psycroptic's technical ability, I admire the talent on display here, and I especially the admire the amount of work that obviously went into the crafting of this material. I can not say I especially enjoy their riff-based approach to songwriting because I usually look for more of a two-guitar interplay/overlay or atmospheric "feeling" in the metal I listen to by choice [when I'm not reviewing], but that's just my personal bias. I was never into one-guitar bands and I probably never will be. That doesn't stop me from appreciating what Psycroptic are trying to do here, though. They mainly "succeed", in my opinion, when they stick to the basics of their style and do not try to compose over-long, especially complex [in terms of overall structure] material. Take the first four songs on this album, for example...I think they "succeed" because they are self-enclosed, coherent, expressive creations that have something to say and which follow definite patterns and traditional [if warped] songwriting forms. On the later tracks Psycroptic sometimes feel unfocused [almost as if they really didn't know where to take the song] and a little "exhausted" and I don't know if that comes from the way the material is structured or what happened in the studio, etc. The first few songs here just feel fresh and sound tightly coiled, immensely focused. They sound like they were worked over and calculated through a number of times, measured, refined and processed until they weren't holding anything much more than what their [first] basic design called for. Lean and mean, the way I think this band sounds best.

That's just my opinion, though. For all I know you would really like the last few songs on this album and think they are the best this band has to offer.

In any case, this is another good album from Unique Leader, another worthy addition to one's collection as death metal is slowly beginning to pick up momentum in its "return to form".