(This is Todd Manning‘s review of the third album by Psalm Zero, which will be released by Last Things Records on February 24th.)
Like many of their NYC brethren, Psalm Zero walk a tightrope of genre-splicing madness, and their latest release Sparta is another success spurred from that scene. Including such bands as Kayo Dot, Vaura, and Stern, these groups utilize an alchemy which pulls from Metal, ’80s Art Music, Jazz, and Avant Garde among others. While all these groups are excellent at what they do, Psalm Zero might be the most Metal sounding at this point in their career.
Sparta is their third album, their first without guitarist Andrew Hock, and also the first not to appear on Profound Lore. Instead, the record will come out on band leader Charlie Looker’s own Last Things Records. Looker now handles guitar, vocals, synths, and programming and is joined by Ron Varod on bass and the formidable Keith Abrams on drums. With a combined resume that includes work in pretty much all the aforementioned bands and more, Psalm Zero bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to Sparta.
The album opens with the impressive “Open Wound”, a tune that immediately references a sort of Progressive Sludge along with a keen sense of songwriting and melodicism. Hooker’s vocals are clean and drawn directly from Gothic and New Wave musics, yet he is the perfect accompaniment to the moody and nuanced riffing underneath. The music is unmistakably Metal; the guitar riffs paired with the power of the rhythm section give the song a sense of sonic density.
In fact, the guitar work provides the focal point to most of Sparta. It often chugs away at a head-nodding pace. The riffs are heavy but not violent, rather they provide a constant groove which is nothing short of hypnotic. Each downstroked riff is full of melodic and harmonic flourishes, and will not be mistaken for Metalcore. “The Last Faith” is almost reminiscent of Godflesh’s immortal Selfless album, the drawn-out vocals contrasting with the immense guitar and plodding beat to create an out-of-body experience. Both the title track and “No Victim” utilize synths to great effect, expanding the sound palette and adding to the atmosphere, but the excellent guitar work always takes center stage.
Perhaps the focal point is the epic “Return to Stone”. The song starts off sparse and drumless and eventually rises to Doom-ridden explosions. Hooker duets with guest vocalist Kristin Hayter of Lingua Ignota in an almost operatic fashion, and the whole affair conjures a sense of intense and powerful drama. In the context of the album’s other material, “Return to Stone” seems to transplant Neurosis’ intense mysticism into a more urban setting. The soaring vocals and Avant-Doom cadences that close the song are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The album closes with “The Pill”, another longer track. Initially, it leans into the group’s Post-Punk influences more heavily, the beat almost danceable but no less intense. When the metallic guitar finally enters, the distortion is that much heavier for its prior absence. For almost nine minutes, the track oscillates between melodic richness and angular and metallic Post-Punk. One vocal hook follows another, and the song doesn’t feel nearly as long as it actually is. The track closes with an emphasis on the Metal, the guitar and drums slowing down to a knuckle-dragging pace, like a body pulling itself along until it finally collapses.
Sparta is an immense statement and sits very well-positioned within the milieu created by their fellow scene-mates Kayo Dot, Vaura, and Stern. The style doesn’t always provide the immediate and visceral attack of most Metal, although Psalm Zero currently provides more of that than the others. Perhaps they are the gateway. Either way, Psalm Zero and the others provide finely crafted and exquisite music, and one shouldn’t ignore that just because it lacks the most obvious signifiers of Heavy Metal.