One of the oddest releases to cross my headphones this year has to be Stranger To Violence, Psalm Zero’s sophomore effort. The album also has quite a turbulent background.
Psalm Zero came into being in 2012, a collaboration between singer/multi-instrumentalist Charlie Looker and guitarist Andrew Hock. They released their debut Drain in 2014, a sparse, intriguing art metal album featuring lo-fi production, drum machines, baritone clean vocals from Looker interspersed with harsh vocals from Hock.
The disparate styles of Looker and Hock, who has a death metal background, made for promising tension, and I was curious to see where they would take things on 2016’s follow-up, Stranger To Violence.
Unfortunately, this release isn’t without turmoil, nor without fault. After recording was complete, Hock was ejected from the band for reasons I will let the readers Google on their own. His guitar playing and harsh vocals are still present on this album, but Looker has replaced him in the band on guitar, with Ron Varod taking over on bass.
Production has improved since Drain, although the choices for sounds from Psalm Zero’s drum machine has not. Loops are kept simple, but the samples are harsh – in keeping with the overall theme and style, but a more discriminating choice in snare drum wouldn’t have hurt.
Looker’s deep croon is at the forefront of the mix, and his bored delivery is jarring alongside Hock’s feedback-driven riffs. Synths are prominent throughout, and this bizarre combination (bad drum machine, arty clean vocals, and synth lines along with metal guitars and harsh backing vocals) makes Psalm Zero sound as if they don’t know what they want to be.
“Real Rain” is a standout track, where the oddities of the band coalesce into something enjoyable. The song opens with deep choir oohhhs and builds into what sounds the same as the first two songs, synth-driven art metal, before breaking down into a staccato verse featuring Hock’s harsh singing. “White Psyche” is another song that works, starting with cheesy ’80s synths and odd lyrics (catacombs of dopamine? Shaved pussy?), but with an explosive guitar riff, shouted backing vocals, and a compelling weirdness, the song is a keeper.
“Not Guilty” is a great example of Stranger To Violence as a whole – a churning, vivid track that almost succeeds in spite of the bad ’80s drums, cheesy synth patches and one instance of poorly executed falsetto backing vocals. Album closer “Oblivion’s Eye” opens with acoustic guitar and Looker singing in a higher register than the rest of the album, and is completely out of place. Thankfully, a few minutes in the song reverts to the band’s regular style, but it doesn’t quite make up for such a peculiar intro.
Psalm Zero’s style remains as intriguing as it was two years ago, and the improved production lets us listen to the songs without distraction, but Stranger To Violence is an uneven record, without enough well-executed ideas to really take off. It comes across more as a curiosity than an album that will garner repeated plays.
(released July 15, 2016 on Profound Lore Records)