Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void Review

Through 10 years of frustrating underexposure and relative obscurity, Psychotic Waltz never compromised their vision. Even in the comparatively wide open world of heavy metal, they broke boundaries and defied expectation, creating music that was theirs completely and that reflected the band’s perpetual drive to evolve. Throughout their many progressions and transformations – heavy metal with progressive inclinations, aggressive technical thrash with progressive structure and melody, polished technical progressive metal with a psychedelic sheen – Psychotic Waltz has only ever sounded like themselves, and no other band has replicated their sound at any stage. Now, 23 years after their quiet split and 10 years since the original members reunited for a long run of live performances, how are we to anticipate the product of their overdue return to the studio?

Release date: February 14, 2020. Label: InsideOut.
The current progressive metal climate is different than it was in the 90s, that’s for sure. The notion that Psychotic Waltz might horn in on some modern trend (djent or pop prog metal) seems easy to dismiss outright, but they have made use of modern sounds before. Overall though, the state of progressive metal in 2020 is such that there really is no heavy push in the subgenre toward any approach in particular; it’s more varied and multifaceted than ever before and its fan base seems more willing than ever to embrace whatever a band has to offer, as long as it’s smart and well-executed. Even the most devoted prog fans know that true innovation is exceedingly rare and seem pretty content with a band doing their take on prog metal with a unique flair. So if you’re expecting anything truly new from Psychotic Waltz, you’re perhaps a touch deluded. The same could and ought to be said, though, of anyone expecting Psychotic Waltz do do anything that isn’t truly their own. So then, if you’ve followed the band at all or even caught up on them through various writings in the run up to the new album (I gave a rundown of their star-crossed history just last Friday), the smart money would be on the next step along their path.

The God-Shaped Void is absolutely the next natural step for Psychotic Waltz, sounding just as if it was made in 1998 as the follow-up to Bleeding. That may seem a little anticlimactic, but this is a band that made four great albums and found a way to progress from each one to the next, so a next step should be pretty exciting. It must have been really difficult, actually, to pick back up right where they left off almost a quarter of a century ago. Surely there were a thousand voices telling them to modernize, catch some trend, do something flashy and therefore relevant. It’s evident, though, the voices they tuned into were their own, as true to the band’s vision as they’ve ever been.

Now, let’s be clear, The God-Shaped Void doesn’t sound like it was made in 1998. It sounds like it was made in 2019. It is a full, rich, heavy album, clearly benefiting from the cache of resources that comes with an InsideOut Music contract, a luxury Psychotic Waltz hadn’t enjoyed before. The resulting production is heavy and wide in the bottom end and just as attentive to all the many layers of sound above, which makes sense in the trajectory of this band; fullness of sound is consistent with an emphasis on dark and heavy mood, as overt technicality has been all but worn away, smoothed out to accommodate voluminous emotion. The intricacy is still there, less obvious but evident in song structure that makes complex time signatures feel natural and comfortable, in carefully layered harmonies and counterpoint melody, and in effervescent leads and solos that shine through the dark like lightning through a fat silver cloud at night.

Lead single “Devils and Angels” was a great choice to (re)introduce the world to Psychotic Waltz. It isn’t the best song on the album, but it is a great representation of what the new record has to offer, old and new, familiar and novel. The opening track begins with a slow surge of psychedelic sci-fi sounds from Dan Rock’s keyboard, creating an air of mystery, of advent. Rock is joined shortly by Devon Graves (Buddy Lackey) on flute and distant toms from Norm Leggio before Brian McAlpin and Ward Evans explode the open space with guitar and bass, respectively. It’s all pretty familiar, a more modern, stretched out version of the dark, moody feel of Bleeding, which itself reformulated those vibes from earlier records. Lackey’s vocals are angry but thoughtful and strong.

It’s done very well and it’s everything a new Psychotic Waltz song should be, but there’s a couple things unexpected and wonderful that reveal the band’s commitment to growth. One is the addition of angelic choir backing vocals. It isn’t novel, of course, and that alone isn’t necessarily noteworthy, but it is one example of how they’ve decided to fill in all the corners. Ethereal backing vocals, bass drops, flute melodies, drum and guitar fills are all used extensively but judiciously, really maximizing the space opened up by the production values. A very excellent example of this is in that opening track, where the chorus is winding up and McAlpin whirls a spinning riff up into the next verse. Seems a small detail but it turns good into great, and this album is chock full of those little details, filling in the open spaces just enough like glimmering stars in the vastness.

That riff is also a great example of the other thing that shows change for the band on this new record. Lead guitar has always been a key component of what makes Psychotic Waltz great, but on The God-Shaped Void it’s been elevated to showpiece. Every track on the album features an amazing lead melody, solo, or both from McAlpin and Rock, quite often together. As always, the guitars do some of their best work in concert with Graves, working some triangular combination of harmony and counterpoint. The guitars on this new album are emblematic, too, of Psychotic Waltz’s continued reverence of the past even as they forge ahead. The tone throughout these 10 songs feels very much a piece of the glory days of progressive heavy metal, while somehow also fresh in the context of the album’s lush and modern production.

Which is essentially what Psychotic Waltz has done with The God-Shaped Void; they’ve created a bold, contemporary statement of progressive metal relevance and folded into it a beautiful and wonderful paean to their past. There’s no world-changing revelation here. Indeed, the band was wise to resist the temptation to exploit their newfound spotlight by making something flashy and alluring but ultimately shallow. Instead, they took their time, prioritized their values of integrity and craftsmanship, and created an album full of melodic and emotional hooks that will set slowly but deeply for listeners willing to invest. What a coup for a band who had so many years and apparent reasons to give up, yet stayed true to themselves and their musical vision.

Through it all, they refused to relent their drive toward the light.

Posted by Lone Watie

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