Psalm Zero — Sparta (Review sans obvious jokes)
What about love?
The above four-syllable query may be central to the meaning of Psalm Zero‘s new album, Sparta. We’ll try to get to that later. But for now let’s have a light chat. Newcomers to Psalm Zero will of course notice nothing new happening on Sparta, while fans of the band’s previous albums will notice something new immediately. Yes—live drums! Oh, what a gift. (Don’t look it in the mouth—it’s a horse.) Although part of the charm of PZ’s songcraft has always been the sheen of cold mechanism lent by the rigid drum programming, Sparta benefits without a doubt from the addition of live human being Keith Abrams (ex-Kayo Dot?, ex-Time of Orchids) to the cast. Why? Because this thing is epic. And because it is also very metal. And because Epic Metal requires not circuitry but flesh and bones behind the kit. And while metal has always been part of the Psalm Zero equation, cross-breeding with rock and synth-pop and even a bit of goth, these days the metal part has gobbled up most of the others and grown fat in its gluttony. The result? Riffs. Yes. Gnarly ones. Whereas the guitars on The Drain and Stranger to Violence tended to let all their vitality and dexterity be sapped by the inhuman percussion or to meld with the synths into dystopian soundscapes, Sparta‘s guitars are very much the star of the show.
The mostest metallic song on display here is easily “The Last Faith”, which begins in Alice in Chains territory and ends up in the neighborhood of Metallica‘s Black Album. That is, the opening riff is a lumbering chunk of menace, and the closing one a driving, medium-fast chugger (adorned by some fetching falsetto harmonies in the style of Lane Staley and Jerry Cantrell). What happens in between is truly grand: an arduous climb toward a shining summit where synth strings sing and a synth trumpet breaks the storm. Similar climactic orchestration awaits across the album, from the trilling woodwinds at the close of title-track “Sparta” to the stirring church bells that ring over the peak of “Animal Outside”.
This level of grandiosity is what Sparta is all about, best exemplified by the opening verse to the aforementioned “Animal Outside” (contender for Song ov the Year), in which Charlie Looker’s vocals soar, carrying an upward-bound melody that no amount of drinking will ever let me forget. There is a uniformity to Sparta (a couple tracks notwithstanding) that gives the record the feel of one huge emotional road trip and—unfortunately—risks becoming its Achilles Heel. Trading experimentation for focus, this new iteration of Psalm Zero treads close to playing Psalm Zero in the role of Psalm Zero. The moves become familiar: the comfortable chord progressions that take suddenly sour turns; the delayed gratification of choruses that stretch on way past the expectations of the radio-trained brain; the breathy calm that resolves each fraught climax. The upside being that these are powerful moves, and they almost always work. It’s really the first three tracks that leave me with this conflict of feelings. They’re each great songs in their own right, and yet they’re all so similar in tempo—lumbering—that in sequence they sound the same answer to three different questions.
Weirdly enough after having said all that, it is Sparta‘s attempts at variety, at diversions, where it courts disaster. First, there is the song “No Victim”, which contains the only sustained upbeat tempo to be found on the album. It begins thrillingly enough with organ and energetic drums and the provocative lyrics: “You promised suicide/But you lied/You never died”, but muddles itself quickly with a succession of parts that simply do not hang together. There’s a wonderful sing-along tune just dying to get out of the Frankenstein-job but, alas, it never does. Next, we have “Return to Stone”, a collaboration with Lingua Ignota that is very exciting on paper yet puzzling in effect. It is primarily a vocal piece with sparse guitar accompaniment; a drifting, lilting, see-sawing experiment that abandons itself midway. Looker’s deep chants (signature at this point) are nice, and of course Kristin Hayter’s operatics are breathtaking…and yet. This centerpiece just does not fit in aesthetically in any way with all that between which it is sandwiched. The acoustic guitar interlude “Shibboleth” doesn’t fit the mold either but hey, it’s too short to get stuck all that deep in my craw.
Can we mention love yet? No—it is time to discuss that artwork. What do we have here? Two very angry infants suckling at the teat of some three-legged machine, drinking the milk of its algorithms. What does it mean? I don’t know. I mean obviously in the future our children are going to abandon nature completely in favor of semi-digital existences whose sole nutrient is data, whose sole source of succor is whatever the Singleton tells you is real, but…that inevitability doesn’t seem to jive with the recurrent lyrical themes across Sparta. As on solo-record Simple Answers, Looker is preoccupied with fire as a symbol. Does that connect to the red skin of the infants in this artwork? What about the dichotomy of Man and Machine? On Sparta, repeated references to what is animal and what is mechanical do not so much present a diametrical opposition as a case of cahoots. “Outside is Animal/Cold and Mechanical/Outside has fangs” he croons in the chorus of “Animal Outside”. Can’t say equating the menace of the organic and inorganic is something I’ve ever seen done before so…your guess is as good as mine.
Soon enough—in the very same chorus—Looker asks that pesky question: “What about love?” Then immediately decides: “Don’t mention love.” I don’t quite know where love or the not mentioning of same fits into the proposed predatory duality of animal and machine. And I don’t have to. Sparta is lyrically pretty heavy, as you can see, and yet that weight is not so much pregnant with meaning as with the hunger to chase its illusive ass to the ends of the Earth. In a monologue on his YouTube channel, Looker says something to the effect that the overarching theme of Sparta is a rejection of those ideas and forces that entice us to lose our humanity (if I have not misunderstood him). So maybe that’s it: Maybe Sparta is questing for something human to hold onto in a world that is changing rapidly in ways we did not evolve to understand.
The takeaway: You will be titillated. You will be challenged. You might even find yourself thinking of Empire-era Queensrÿche. And since there is no way to support that last claim, and I refuse to delete it, I’ll just leave it on your doorstep.
Sparta was released on February 24th, 2020.
Digital and Vinyl available Here.