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Review: Psalm Zero Put the Power in Corruption and Lies on ‘Stranger to Violence’

Psalm Zero
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: July 15, 2016
Label: Profound Lore

Psalm Zero was a departure for both of the New York industrial-metal group’s main members: Vocalist/bassist Charlie Looker cut his teeth in experimental rock groups Extra Life and Zs, and former guitarist/vocalist Andrew Hock explored how dense metal could get during his tenures in Castevet, Biolich, and Ehnahre. If you think of the name “Longstreth,” fans more familiar with Looker would think of David, whom he played with on Dirty ProjectorsRise Above, while fans who know Hock better would imagine John, the death-metal drummer who’s played in two of Hock’s main influences, Angelcorpse and Gorguts. This union has spawned the most straightforward music either’s made — the band’s debut, The Drain, took from Finnish metal and Godflesh with inklings toward goth-oriented dance floors. Psalm Zero’s second record, Stranger to Violence, blows the pop tendencies up and aims for Big Record status, and in the process, obliterates both their debut, and most of their peers.

The Drain‘s most notable song was “In the Dead,” where Looker took over vocal duties instead of splitting them with Hock. Violence sprouts from that song’s possibilities; turns out “Dead” was just a test run for Looker’s developing melodic dominance. When he kicked out Hock earlier this year for alleged sexual harassment towards Couch Slut’s Megan Osztrosits, he asserted that Psalm Zero was mainly his vision, and Violence bears that out substantially.

The new record’s first half in particular is a barrage of pop-metal banger after pop-metal banger, the kind of catchiness that could only come from avant-gardists bored with everything but playing it straight. The title track saunters like New Order, especially in Looker’s delivery when he belts out “Every day, something needs to die / For me to live / For my fantasy” on the chorus, bringing that clash of gloom and grandiosity. He makes the hunger he sings of universal — “Stranger to Violence” shares DNA with classics like Motörhead‘s “Overkill” and Metallica‘s “Hit the Lights,” those charging intros proving right off, this isn’t a game.

It’s not just Looker’s vocal presence that makes Violence a bigger record than its predecessor. “Pay Tomorrow” has joyous synths and bells abound that make you forget it’s a song about having potentially fatal debts hanging over your head. The song moves so briskly, it’s almost easy to miss how much of a revelation it is, seamlessly blending dance and metal. Too often, they’re at odds with each other (driven largely by metal’s hyper-masculinity) despite sharing common goals of making the most human — and at their best, transcendent — music through technological advancement. Headbangers Against Disco? Psalm Zero are blessed with nimble footwork, and they thrash way harder than you to boot.

Hock’s firing only makes it more obvious how much the record isn’t his. The only time he really comes to the fore is “Real Rain,” the anti-gentrification tirade the band released as a single last year. For most of the album, Hock’s vocals are used more as accents for climaxes, especially at the ends of the title track and “Not Guilty.” On “Rain,” he splits equal time with Looker, screaming over bare guitar about how “this town once meant something!”

Pretty much any conversation around gentrification can get messy in an instant; it’s so scant in metal (come to think of it, except for Living Colour’s “Open Letter (To a Landlord),” when has it been discussed?) that it’s nice to see these guys even bringing it up. And as New Yorkers embedded in music, they have to. When Hock yells, “RESPECT! RESPECT THE BROKEN GLASS!,” it comes from NYHC gang-vocal tradition rather than Looker’s medieval Bernard Sumner — but it’s still consistent with how infectious the album is. He brings some old-time No Wave to industrial stomp when Looker croons, “White waves spread / Colonist covenant, New York dead.”

Violence grows darker and doomier in its second half, which would feel more Hockian if it weren’t for Looker’s overarching voice guiding through the turmoil. “White Psyche” is dominated by bass drum, static-laden guitar, and out-to-get-us themes, the latter of which make the closer, “Oblivion’s Eye,” feel extra brooding. Looker’s lyrics center around trying to navigate situations where you’re just screwed, and “Eye” deals with those instances where you can’t recall how bad it really got, living in a “Blank fantasy / Where the night blood runs to the dream.” It’s the whole of the album, laid bare and at its most frightening.

There’s a key parallel between Violence and one of the only other 2016 metal records in its class, Cobalt’s Slow Forever, in that both bands ousted founding members for acting especially heinous, and then released some of their best material to date. Both also take more commercial source material — Tool’s prog-metal for Cobalt, new wave’s dark offspring for Psalm Zero — and retool it, so to speak, for metal’s more extreme, less comprehensible wing. Even as Looker weaves hymns of killing himself (and others) to live, Violence shows hope for metal to arrive at an openness it’s long been capable of, but hasn’t fully realized. Amid the despair of agonizing lows (something they’ve been too familiar with lately), are the reminders worth living for. Getting on board with this is a crucial step for metal’s future — to embrace life without losing the darkness.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Megan Osztrosits’ allegation against Andrew Hock as sexual misconduct.