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A Calculated Effort (but a little hollow...) - 75%

TheWarmaster, December 13th, 2008

Okay, I guess I should start this one off by saying that I had rather high expectations for “Ob(Servant)”, the latest release from Tasmanian technical death metal band Psycroptic. The first reason is the fact that their first two albums, “The Isle of Disenchantment” and “Scepter of the Ancients”, were simply amazing, with “Scepter” perhaps being one of the best technical death metal albums of the decade. And the second reason... well, their third effort, “Symbols of Failure”, was a rather average effort overall, mainly due to a substandard delivery from the band’s new vocalist, Jason Peppiatt, who ended up drawing too much attention to himself (and, as a result, away from the rest of the band) with his rather weak mixture of growls and snarls. So, as you can expect, I found myself hoping that this album would manage to preserve the qualities that made the first two so good, whilst touching up on the elements that ended up dragging “Symbols” down. And did Psycroptic manage this?

Well, yes and no, really. As I first sat down to listen to this record, just after purchasing it from the band’s drummer himself at their latest adults-only hometown show (yes, I happen to live right near Hobart), I found myself both surprised and disappointed by what I heard. Whilst they had managed to fix the problems that blighted “Symbols of Failure”, they had also decided to take a more simplistic and catchy approach in the writing of this album (no doubt a result of their signing with Germany’s Nuclear Blast). However, this new approach seems to have drained away a lot of the band’s substance, which automatically brings down their performance as a result. To put it simply, it’s a rather good album, but it’s far from their best, and I’ll explain why as I go along. And, be mindful that I’m not doing a track-by-track analysis, seeing as how the tracks are all quite similar to one another.

First of all, I’ll discuss the guitar. In the past, Joe Haley has completely blown me away with his guitar work, whether it be through his insane technicality (“Skin Coffin”, off “Scepter...”), groove (some moments on “The Valley of Wind’s Breath and Dragon’s Fire”, from the same album), or simply just through sounding awesome (from about 1:23 onwards on “Merchants of Deceit”, from their last album). However, “Ob(Servant)” presents what I can only call a dumbed-down version of Joe’s previous efforts. Sure, there are still quite a few moments where the guitar work almost kicks you in the balls but it was the fact that previous efforts were saturated with such moments that made Joe’s guitar work all the more special. This time, about half of these uber-technical riffs have been replaced with simple power chord progressions and palm-muted chugging. Of course, this was bound to happen, given the band’s desire to make their music more accessible, but Joe seems to be a bit lacking in the “memorable” department this time around.

Bass is more of the same, really. Cameron Grant is definitely an extremely skilled bassist, given that his bass lines are usually just Joe’s guitar parts, transposed down an octave. However, the fact that he often plays along with Joe is also his weakness. Yes, you can hear him in the mix, despite what people often say – it’s just that he’s not really giving you anything that the guitar isn’t, and so isn’t really worth noticing. That’s the curse of the death metal bassist, I suppose.

Next, we come to the drums. Dave Haley seems to have the same issue as Joe on a lot of the songs, in that he’s sacrificed some of the insane technicality that made his previous efforts so memorable. Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s no shortage of moments on here where you’re held in awe by his insane double-bass drumming. And, yes, he still blasts with the best of them. It’s just that the number of these moments seems to have decreased, with the remaining space being filled with sparse, generic rhythms that would seem more fitting on, perhaps, In Flames’ “Whoracle” (which was a good album, yes, but the drumming really didn’t do much more than keep time for the most part). I swear, at a couple of points, the drumming even sounds more akin to AC/DC than a technical death metal band (I’m talking as simple as straight-eight beats) – and, when it comes to Psycroptic, that’s pretty much unheard of. Or, at least, until now. Good effort, Dave, but try to bring some of that insanity back in the future!

Now onto what I think is perhaps the album’s strongest point – the vocals. Yes, I know that this was considered to be one of the weak points of the album by a number of people, considering the fact that they’re a great departure from the venomous barrage that Psycroptic had become known for. But “Ob(Servant)” is where Jason Peppiatt really shines. On “Symbols of Failure”, Peppiatt’s goal seemed to be to imitate his predecessor, Matthew Chalk – a goal which he fell short of, with his mediocre vocals taking too much off the spotlight and, ultimately, making the majority of the tracks dull and forgettable. On “Ob(Servant)”, however, Peppiatt’s realised that he simply doesn’t have Chalky’s endurance, and has decided to slow down and give himself, and the music, time to breathe. Also, the focus has largely shifted away from traditional death growls (they’re still there, though), with Peppiatt now employing two new vocal styles for most of the album – a nicely-done black metal shriek (reminiscent of Ihsahn’s efforts on Emperor’s “Promethius: The Discipline of Fire and Demise”), and a loud, hoarse shout that will definitely put off all of the close-minded death metal purists out there (whose obligatory reaction to anything of the sort seems to involve condemning it as “gay metalcore shit”). He even seems to slip into a midway point between two of his three styles at some points, and different vocal techniques are often overdubbed over one another, helping to add depth and reinforce particular moments of tension. This is where you belong, Peppo – give yourself a round of applause.

The album’s production is your typical Psycroptic fare - clear and sterile. The vocals are mixed perfectly, as they’re not too prominent, yet not too quiet (if you need to know, an example of “too quiet” would be the harsh vocals on Ensiferum’s otherwise-brilliant “Iron”, although that was really only a minor inconvenience... yes, I like a rather wide range of metal). As for the guitar tone, it’s definitely an improvement over the last album. Whilst it still lacks gain and, as a result, heaviness (which I think is rather necessary, given that overly-distorting it would make it harder to appreciate Joe’s more technical riffs), it no longer has the tinny, robotic quality that it had on “Symbols”. The drums sound good, although the triggers on the bass drums have a “clicky” sound that can get irritating at times. And the bass... well, I can hear it, but not well enough. If Cam started to use a more contrapuntal style, I could comment further.

And, before I forget, I feel that I must mention is the electronics on the album. Contributed by Sydney’s The Amenta (misspelled in the booklet as “The Ementa”), the electronic sections present on this album are used to great effect, providing a number of ambient interludes that help to break up the monotony a little (not that said monotony is necessarily bad, of course). These sections, which are comprised mainly of faint drones and distant wails, and are often accompanied by simple guitar work from Joe, really help to set the mood, providing you with mental images of a bleak, far-distant future, where humanity has long since breathed its last, and the stars themselves are haunted by the phantoms of mysterious and long-dead alien races – something which may seem more at home alongside the lyrics of “Symbols of Failure”, I know, but I personally think it sounds much better here.

In conclusion, I’d have to say that “Ob(Servant)” is both a step forward and a step backward for Psycroptic. Jason Peppiatt has finally managed to establish himself as a vocalist, instead of simply trying to fill in for Chalky, and has proved to be a rather effective force (and, from what I witnessed when attending their hometown show just over a week ago, an amazing stage presence). However, the rest of the band has gone and simplified things, which has made it blatantly obvious that Psycroptic’s strength lies in the chaotic and technical songwriting approach that they applied to their previous albums. So, it’s not exactly the most memorable or groundbreaking of albums, and it leaves a fair bit to be desired, but I’d definitely recommend this to any death metal fan with an open mind.

Recommended Tracks – “A Calculated Effort”, “Horde in Devolution”, “Immortal Army of One”, “Initiate”.