Just At The Edge Of The Light: A Psychotic Waltz Primer

Every passionate music fan has a litmus test band or artist, the one that, when mentioned, signifies the speaker’s legitimate expertise in that area. For a lot of progressive metal devotees that band is Psychotic Waltz. When chatting with a newly acquainted fellow fan, one looks for the requisite mentions, including Dream Theater, Fates Warning, and Queensrÿche. Maybe some respectable but newer bands are mentioned next; Haken or Riverside, perhaps. Usually, there’s acknowledgement of other early and great but less well-known acts, such as Symphony X or Threshold or Savatage. There’s likely an attempt to appear deep (Sculptured) or diverse (Unexpect or Devin Townsend). But it’s when the new acquaintance mentions Psychotic Waltz that the bells ring and a light shines and, “Yes! This guy knows his shit!” It’s not because Psychotic Waltz is the answer to some crazy elitist cred-check, a deep-dive into ultra-limited hand-numbered demo tape obscurities, but because this is a band that seemed to do everything right (or mostly, anyway) and somehow never really managed to get past that “what might have been” level of notoriety, despite making a profound impact on those who were lucky enough to know them.

The lack of exposure for Psychotic Waltz manifests in the very nature of those conversations between fans. When you get old metalheads talking about great old bands from the great old days of heavy metal, you’ll almost always get a great old story about how they caught some particular great old band at some not so great old venue before the rest of the world had any idea who that now legendary great old band even was. Those old metal yarns don’t seem to include Psychotic Waltz very often, at least not in America outside of southern California. It’s certainly not because they aren’t one of those great old bands (they are), but because most American fans of heavy metal never had the chance to see them since they rarely played in their home country! Instead, it seems most of the mystique surrounding Psychotic Waltz has bubbled up through the internet over the years, looking back and noticing how the band was at once uniquely talented and almost summarily ignored in their home country, at least while active. Add the sad fact that they kind of fell victim to just about every old cliche about making it in the biz that ever comes up in stories about why some great old band never really got the wider, brighter spotlight that their fans have always known they deserved, and it’s no surprise that Psychotic Waltz ultimately became best known (among those who know) as the most underrated heavy metal band of the 90s.

A BRIGHT BEGINNING: ASLAN AND PSYCHOTIC WALTZ DEMOS

Things began rather propitiously for Psychotic Waltz as a bunch of smart, nerdy pals from San Diego who got really good at playing heavy metal together, dubbed themselves Aslan, and earned enough from local shows and merch sales to cut a self-titled demo tape. It was 1986 and the sound of that tape was definitely of the time, slotting favorably alongside Fates Warning’s Night on Bröcken and Dream Theater’s Majesty demo, though with much less Rush than that last comparison implies. Rather, they drew their primary influence, like Fates Warning and Queensrÿche before them, from Iron Maiden, particularly that band’s more epic and progressive songs.

You can definitely hear all the aforementioned bands in their earliest work, but Aslan was more than a reflection of their influences and peers. Dan Rock’s and Brian McAlpin’s lead and solo guitar work is wonderful, sounding much more seasoned than their young age would seem to allow, and the rhythm section of Ward Evans on bass and Norm Leggio on drums was both tight and adventurous. But it was Buddy Lackey’s vocals that really set the young band apart. Lackey’s made no secret of his love for progressive rock and you can hear that too in these early recordings, as he channels all the histrionic verve of Peter Gabriel and Peter Hammill through the heavy metal filter. His work on the Aslan demo compares favorably with and even bears a striking (though surely coincidental) resemblance to that of Dark Quarterer’s Gianni Neppi.

The Aslan demo established the band in the San Diego metal scene and provided momentum to keep playing and writing new songs. About the same time, after they discovered another group called Aslan, a buddy suggested their music sounded like some kind of psychotic waltz. The band liked it so much they adopted it officially and released a second, four-song demo under that name in 1988, which also got some positive response. Strangely, however, the enthusiasm that the Psychotic Waltz demo rightly garnered was predominantly centered in Europe, especially in the underground German metal zine- and tape-trading scene.

BREAKING BOUNDARIES: A SOCIAL GRACE

Each of the second demo’s four songs was included on the 1990 debut Psychotic Waltz LP, A Social Grace, which found (or rather created) a remarkably sweet spot between melodic progressive heavy metal and aggressive technical thrash, a combination that remains difficult to fairly describe and has never really been duplicated. Between and within songs, complex rhythms and riffs are folded into progressive arrangements, which are themselves interspersed with more conventional sections designed to support a focus on melody. The variety of styles on A Social Grace can make for a challenging listen, and likewise, makes choosing a representative song difficult. That said, there remains through it all a cohesiveness that reflects a dedication to songcraft, from the driving and sharp technical thrash of “…And the Devil Cried” to the evocative ballad and tribute to Jethro Tull, “I Remember.” “Another Prophet Song” showcases the band’s technical chops as well as their progressive songwriting acumen and some of the best melodies Buddy Lackey ever belted out.

On the other side of the pond, A Social Grace was a modest success, thanks in part to up-front financing from small, independent German label Rising Sun. Fans in Germany were enthusiastic about the record and turned out for shows, indicating an upward arc for Psychotic Waltz and a bright hope for what lie ahead. Unfortunately, this was also the time that gave the band their first experience of working with a label that reportedly over-promised and under-delivered in terms of promotion and distribution, which appeared to have limited the length to which that momentum could carry them.

Even despite some success overseas, wider American support for Psychotic Waltz proved elusive. Though the strange resistance to A Social Grace in the United States is still hard to fathom all these years later, one theory is that record labels just didn’t know what to do with the music Psychotic Waltz made. It was heavy metal, sure, but progressive metal? Technical metal? Yes to both, but neither entirely.

Metal Blade had released albums for prog metal bands Fates Warning and Lethal in 1990, and Noise (a Germany-based label!) had recently released records for technical thrashers Coroner and Watchtower, (MCA carried Voivod’s Nothingface, for Pete’s sake), so these labels were certainly brave enough to sign and distribute a heavy and unconventional band, but A Social Grace seemed to be either too much of one or not enough of the other, so the first proper Psychotic Waltz album was instead released stateside to little fanfare on the band’s own Sub Sonic Records label and remained relegated to the underground in America.

Positive response in Europe led to several months of touring in Germany and Holland, including major festivals. After the tour, Dan Rock fell while rappelling and broke both wrists and both ankles, thrusting the band into hiatus and delaying plans for a second album, but clearing the way for Buddy Lackey to set the stage for a solo album.

THE STARS ALIGN AND THEN DO NOT: INTO THE EVERFLOW

Fortunately, Rock recovered quickly enough that the band had recorded their second full-length, Into the Everflow, for release the following year, late 1992. With production by Ralph Hubert of Mekong Delta and release-backing from German label Dream Circle Records (which had close ties to Rising Sun and was reportedly about as scrupulous), Psychotic Waltz was once again primed to enjoy European success and endure US indifference, but Into the Everflow proved to be the album that would earn them at least a bit of stateside accolade, as well, especially in home town San Diego.

If A Social Grace is difficult to describe with a reasonably brief collection of words, Into the Everflow is nearly impossible. Outside of the most general descriptor of the overall sound – again, heavy and technical progressive metal – Everflow is so idiosyncratic from song to song that no single pick gets at what the record is all about. It is a less aggressive album than the debut and at the same time more technical, evident in the playing of every member, but especially the guitar play of Rock and McAlpin, which can be heard to echo in the work of later, prog/tech metal bands like Spiral Architect and Cynthesis. The other notable shift in songwriting is a focus on an atmospheric dynamic that expands on Dan Rock’s affinity for sci-fi themes and sounds that were evident on A Social Grace‘s “Sleeping Dogs,” but can be found even as far back as the Aslan demo in the form of “The Fry Tape.” Fans and critics often refer to the sound as psychedelic and the band likes to call it their hippie vibe (note the Learian lyrics to “Out of Mind”). Ultimately it comes down to spacey, trance-like feel and flow in the music that does much to buoy all that technicality. Closing track “Butterfly” is a band favorite, probably because it does all those things mentioned above, but also likely because it makes reference to a heap of favorite influences.

Psychotic Waltz toured Europe three times over the next couple years. It’s important to note that these “European” tours were focused on a concentrated area of fan support and were so limited almost entirely to Germany and Holland. During the first leg, in which they shared stages with German thrashers Deathrow, a friendship blossomed between Deathrow guitarist Uwe Ostenrlehner, Dan Rock, and Norm Leggio. From that new kinship, and with bassist pal, Siggi Blasey, a collaboration was born in the form of End Amen, and they made an album of their own. A fine effort that tracks a progressive line through thrash and power metal, Your Last Orison was a one-off and enjoyed very little exposure, but it is another bright signal of the burgeoning talents of Rock and Leggio in their younger years.

Buddy Lackey’s solo album, The Strange Mind of Buddy Lackey, was released in 1993, reflecting a swelling creativity in him, as well. As might be expected, it’s pretty similar to the music his main band had been producing, but with a much deeper nod to Lackey’s eclectic style, as well as his progressive rock heroes of yore, especially Jethro Tull. Most notably, Lackey’s lone solo effort was a portent, both of Psychotic Waltz’s upcoming stylistic shifts and the vocalist’s later musical ventures post-Psychotic Waltz.

A TURN TOWARD WARMTH AND A COLD RECEPTION: MOSQUITO

It’s at about this point in the Psychotic Waltz story that it becomes a little bit easier to talk about the music they made. The band, and Dan Rock specifically, said in interviews at the time and after that playing complicated riffs in complex time got exhausting and, more than that, began to create a bit of a fog on stage, an increasingly formless cacophony from the perspective of the players playing it show after show. Buddy Lackey added the sentiment that technicality, while challenging and rewarding, necessarily limited the scope of the band, especially where ideas revolved around emotional subjects that naturally resist the colder nature of a technical approach.

The result of the shift in perspective was 1994’s Mosquito, an album much more focused on mood than the technical albums before it, and as one might predict with any change from a band with dedicated fans, the immediate response was… not good. Band members still talk today about how surprised they were then (and still are) by fans claiming they’d sold out by dumbing down. The band would tell you they simply followed their muses, wrote from their hearts, without regard for trendhopping or anything like a sell out; they were, after all, releasing Mosquito on a very small European label (Zardoz, one more label that reportedly failed to live up to promises made) and, according to the band, never dealt with a red-faced fatcat record exec pushing for the next big radio hit. In fact, writing the music they wanted to write is one of the silver linings they tend to note when discussing the frustrations of underexposure in the 90s.

On the surface, Mosquito is no doubt a record of its decade, full of groove and completely at home in at least the outskirts of Grungeville. No more than a little bit of interested attention to the songs within that sound, though, reveals pretty quickly that the band’s incredulity was more warranted than some fans’ apparent reaction. Twenty-five years later and those songs still stand up, oblivious to the passing of the fads they ostensibly embraced. Overall, it’s certainly pared back, slowed up, and stretched out, and yet it’s anything but dumbed down–just a different kind of smart. There’s certainly a great deal more of that psychedelic air that began swirling on Into the Everflow, just a little easier now, breezier, especially reflected in the sweet, beautiful guitar work of Rock and McAlpin. So, yes, Mosquito sounds a lot more like a mainstream(ish) album of the 90s than its predecessors, but it also owes much more to Pink Floyd and Kyuss than to, say, Stone Temple Pilots. Listen to the magnificent interplay between Buddy Lackey and the guitars behind him on “Haze One.”

Psychotic Waltz had done well to maintain their entire lineup through the trials and tribulations of nearly 10 years before they lost their first member. Bassist Ward Evans left the band right after Mosquito was recorded and Phil Cuttino joined to handle the bass for the upcoming European tours in 1995. Tours for Into the Everflow had reached beyond Germany and Holland, adding a small number of dates in France, Denmark, and Belgium, and the Mosquito tours saw them expand further to Switzerland and Italy. Things were looking up and the band entered the studio to record album number four in 1996.

NEARLY FULL ACTUALIZATION: BLEEDING

After releasing a record that disappointed a good lot of their fans, Psychotic Waltz would have been forgiven for capitulating and attempting to rewrite their earlier works. Instead, they continued along their path. By now a defining characteristic of the band, it was a willingness to embrace the past that set the stage for their next step forward. Bleeding was released in 1996 and continued with the simplified vision of Mosquito, focused on Lackey’s vocal melody as prime mover, but also remembered the rich, deeply layered production of Into the Everflow, yielding a record that prioritized and ultimately maximized feeling over overt complexity. Some of the band’s most beautiful songs feature on Bleeding, and some of their heaviest, reflecting a band at their creative peak in terms of songwriting. If there’s a point of contention to that last statement, it’s that Bleeding is full of arguably incomplete songs. None feels necessarily underdeveloped, but with every song being between three and five minutes long and only two being longer than four, Bleeding is beset with a pervading sense of insatiety. It’s not a dealbreaker, as every track is at least good and plenty are great, and being left wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but many of these songs just feel like they deserve to be longer, their ideas further explored. Rather a sadly fitting picture of that moment for the band, actually, as Bleeding was the last album Psychotic Waltz would release before their slow drifting apart began in 1998, leaving fans and the band to wonder for years to come what might have been.

Two more European tours followed in 1996 and 1997, tracking pretty much the same localized course the band had followed on tours prior, but now expanded a bit to include Spain, Hungary, and Slovakia for a few dates. Brian McAlpin had been forced to stay home due to family obligations and he was replaced by Steve Cox for the tours. Things were going well enough that the band had recorded a video for Bleeding opener, “Faded,” filmed by new bassist Phil Cuttino. During filming, one of the video’s actresses experienced vision problems and eventually sued the band, claiming it was due to improper lighting on set. The case was ultimately settled after a lengthy court battle, but the ordeal ended up being too much for the band to endure, each member going his own direction after.

DISSOLUTION AND DIVERGENCE

The band’s eventual split appeared to be much more about unfortunate circumstances and the toll they took on working relationships than a lack of will or ability to create. The directions taken by individual members showed they each had plenty left in the tank. Dan rock made a couple albums with Siggi Blasey under the moniker Darkstar in 1996 and 1999 that flew a banner very similar to that of Psychotic Waltz if they’d carried on with the torch lit by Rock’s sci-fi fantasy proclivities. Norm Leggio stayed busy manning the kit for both Teabag and Broken Foundation, each a more modern progressive metal band with Steve Cox, and later for a pair of albums with American power metal band, Cage. And Buddy Lackey, having changed his name to Devon Graves, continued the direction he took on his solo album with several releases throughout the 2000’s as lead member of Deadsoul Tribe, a progressive/alternative metal band that released five albums.

Graves’ best work after Psychotic Waltz was with a band he put together called The Shadow Theory, which included Kristoffer Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation on bass and Johanne James of Threshold on drums. That album, called Behind the Black Veil, sounded like what Psychotic Waltz might have made if they’d fully embrace the progressive rock influences that Graves brought with him. It was a fantastic record that received a great deal of critical acclaim, but turned out to be a one-off, nonetheless, because even before it was released in 2010, there were rumblings of a Psychotic Waltz reunion, spurred by requests from fans.

A NEW SPARK

A tour did eventually materialize in support of Symphony X and Nevermore for the European Power of Metal tour in 2010, and the fan response was positive enough to convince the band members that it was time to create more music together. Key to that decision seems to be that those shows and many that followed over the next several years were attended not only by fans of old, but also by a whole lot of younger fans, a revelation that apparently had band members scratching their heads. To those who have long sung their praises in the far corners of the heavy metal online community, though, it’s a no-brainer. The internet has quietly but consistently provided the most underrated heavy metal band of the 90s a good bit of the exposure so sorely missed back then. It’s probably also not inconsequential that the internet has allowed for the vast expansion of musical sounds and styles, overall, as well as an open and accepting place for fans to appreciate them. Great music gets talked about on the internet and, whether it’s through an ad-driven click harvester that features heavy metal acts, a low-key niche site devoted to personal writings about favorite weirdo underground bands, one of the vast archiving treasure troves dedicated to preserving all things metal, or one of a million nerdy fan forums, Psychotic Waltz has been passionately, if quietly, very well represented in all these places.

InsideOut Music, long time champion of some of the best progressive metal on the planet, have taken note and signed Psychotic Waltz to a contract for the worldwide release of a new album, called The God-Shaped Void (out today!), as well as the reissue of the full back catalog. For the first time in the band’s tumultuous history, the enthusiasm of their fans has led to a partnership with an established, internationally reputable record label that specializes in the band’s niche. For over a quarter of a century, the story of Psychotic Waltz had been one of missed opportunities, being overlooked and left undiscovered by the majority of the heavy metal world despite being a shining example of the best that world has had to offer. Now a roster member of the leading name in progressive music promotion, the band has finally got the support necessary to share their vision with all of us.

Check back Monday for our review of The God-Shaped Void.

Posted by Lone Watie

  1. Great summary, you reminded me to check out The Shadow Theory.

    Reply

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