Review: Psalm Zero – Stranger to Violence
“Stranger to violence.
I never see the blood.
But every day something needs to die
For me to live.”
I was late to the Psalm Zero party. Debut album The Drain languished in my bandcamp wishlist for probably a full year before I felt prepared to deal with it. The samples I had heard had intrigued me, but would my feelings for the album blossom from petty intrigue into love? The goth-tinged art metal sounded right up my alley on paper, but in reality I knew I was going to have to meet it halfway, to learn to listen on Psalm Zero’s terms. I was afraid. When I did finally join the party, it was more out of desperation than desire; I just needed to buy something, anything. I had just injured my back at work; I was spending my days laying on the couch, half-zonked on painkillers, gaining weight and collecting workman’s comp checks; I had plenty of time to spend those checks on a bandcamp shopping spree. So The Drain became the preeminent soundtrack to my convalescence. It is intimately connected to the vivid memories I keep of that time. Every time I revisit it, I feel an illusory sort of nostalgia. I say “illusory” because having nothing to do all day for six weeks plunged me into a pretty hairy depression. Overall, it was not a happy time, and yet listening to The Drain makes me wish I could go back and do it all again.
Long story short, The Drain would have made my 2014 best-of list had I purchased it in 2014. Which automatically made sophomore album Stranger to Violence one of my most anticipated albums of 2016. I was eager to hear how the band would progress the unique formula laid out on their debut. “Real Rain” was the only single I listened to before tackling the album as a whole, and with its gorgeous chanted vocals and (relatively) intricate drum programming, it hinted at an abundance of progress. But I cannot lie: Stranger to Violence hardly strays from its predecessor at all. Frontman Charlie Looker has stated that he took on themes bigger than himself this time around, which is evident inasmuch as his oblique lyrics can be “understood”; but musically, aside from the unexpected appearance of an acoustic guitar in the first half of “Oblivion’s Eye” and a few pinches of falsetto vocal harmonies, Stranger to Violence might as well be The Drain 2.
And you know what? That’s fine. Because Psalm Zero’s sound is singular enough that I do not need them to strike out in some radical new direction just yet. And because, aside from the mid-album slump that is “Not Guilty” (those endless tom fills are rather inexplicable) and the painful anticlimax of closer “Oblivion’s Eye” (pales in comparison to previous closer “Meanwhile”), the songs on Stranger to Violence are excellent. Why fix it if it ain’t broke, right? The album may never escape the shadow of the debut, but it is far from a failure. For those readers who are not familiar with Psalm Zero, this means three key things:
Every aspect of Psalm Zero’s music is immediate. All attack and no decay. No long chemtrails of reverb, no walls of distortion (or walls of anything else). No bleedthrough. The instruments are separated in space as if quarantined from one another. The programmed drums are all punch, no flair (Psalm Zero is often described as “industrial metal”, which never sits well with me, as the simplistic and mechanical drum patterns are the band’s only claim to anything even vaguely “industrial”). The synths do not so much build atmosphere as form lead melodies with the precision of a hammered instrument. Looker’s clean vocals are fairly dry, naked, rigid to an almost robotic degree in their delivery. His melodies are as deliberate as they are catchy; there is no room here for improvisation or happenstance. And his lyrical syntax bolsters his melodic precision; he tends to choose words with few syllables and string them together in short, punchy verses which mimic the tight ticking of a hi-hat. In counterpoint, guitarist Andrew Hock’s percussive barking only enhances the sense that Psalm Zero has no patience for chaos. There is a time and place for everything: every note, every beat, every silence in between. The ultimate result of this needlepoint approach to composition is sterility. Mind you, this sterility is not a knock against Stranger to Violence. Rather, the music is a masterful reflection of the lamentably sterile world we’ve created for ourselves.
None of the elements of Stranger to Violence sound like they belong there—at first. The drums sound like they were generated by that drum machine you found at a flea market in 1989. The chintzy, new-wave-style synths have what I can only describe as a MIDI quality. Chord progressions churned out by the bass and guitar begin in familiar territory and then turn on a dime; phrases exceed the usual groupings of four to spiral off into unexpected territory, only repeating themselves once you’ve lost track of where they began. Hock’s aforementioned barking grates against the otherwise tuneful and not-entirely-metallic instrumentation. As for Looker, well…his voice is just weird. His timbre would sound more at home in a 90’s indie rock band than it does here. And yet there is something alluring and indispensable in his idiosyncratic vocalizations. Something ancient in his melodic choices, doubtless an artifact from his time evoking the essences of Renaissance music in his previous band, Extra Life. (Side note: Psalm Zero first clicked with me the instant I recognized Looker as one of the singers from some other band with whom I used to be obsessed.)
Is Psalm Zero a metal band? Yeah, sure. Is their deathrocky approach to metal artsy enough to garner the art metal tag with which they have been associated? Well, yeah. But as artsy as they get, they are never inaccessible. Oddities abound on Stranger to Violence, and yet each is conjured with an ear for simplicity and beauty. I’ve had the emotional and lyrically odd chorus to “White Psyche” stuck in my head for two weeks. And I’ve caught myself murmuring snippets of “Pay Tomorrow” and “Stranger to Violence” in the shower. That is the power of Charlie Looker’s pop sensibilities. And beyond riffs and aggression, beyond artsiness, that power should be Stranger to Violence‘s lasting legacy.
Immediacy. Peculiarity. Pop. That is Psalm Zero and Stranger to Violence in a nutshell. And if my snotty nitpicking has left you doubting, I’ll state it here unequivocally: I have fallen madly in love with this album.