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A triumph for the brothers Haley, but... - 65%

DarthVenom, January 21st, 2009

I really want to like this record.

So the Tasmanian devils are back with their fourth full-length. This was my first exposure to their new lineup, and the taste it left in my mouth was…disappointing, in a word.

Joe Haley could possibly be my favourite guitarist from the land down under; his playing seamlessly blends impressive but unpretentious technicality with the strength and driving power that a genre like death metal demands from its performers. It’s his licks and riffs that shine throughout this album, giving me a reason to spin it occasionally or to pay attention when its songs come up on shuffle. It’s because of Haley’s unwavering devotion to laying down those consistent, frenetic riffs, flowing into each other like a choppy but powerful sea, that this record is worthy of the Psycroptic name. The other Haley brother pounds away on the skins with a hair trigger, keeping up with any time changes with mechanical precision. It does well for the robotic lyrical themes of the album. Had this been an instrumental album, I’d have slapped it with at least a 75 or something: not fantastic, but good to spin once in a while.

And then there’s the elephant in the corner: mister Jason Peppiatt. Forgive me for this bit of vitriol, for we’ve discovered the Gene Adam of death metal: sure, there’s probably worse singers out there in the respective field, but to imagine that a band as big as Psycroptic can get away with this…good lord. In fairness, he’s tolerable when he’s grunting along with a standard growl. But when he attempts to hit the high notes, he just sounds like he’s trying to do a bad Jon Nödtveidt impression. Don’t even get me started on the garbled mid-tone shouting that sounds less like a death metaller and more like someone trying to alert the immediate company to perform the Heimlich maneuver since they’re choking on a log of meat.

And he doesn’t. Shut. Up. Most of the time I’m trying to enjoy Haley’s blazing riffs, and keep getting thrown out of it because of this warbler and his incessant vocal lines. It’s not even that he’s not an appropriate replacement for Chalky, one of the most inhuman-sounding and diverse vocalists I’ve ever heard; it’s that he’s just not a competent vocalist at all. The ghost of Matthew Chalk is sure to dog this band, but even when you look at this album as a standalone piece, Peppiatt just doesn’t work. There are moments where he’s tolerable, like when he’s just ordinarily growling, and a few times when he takes that mid-tone shout and distorts it a step further. If by any odd chance he’s reading this, my advice is to focus on those strengths and build your way up from there. But if Peppiatt was the best out of the pool they auditioned to replace Chalky…I really don’t want to know what that says about the ones who didn’t make the cut.

Apologies for ranting like this, but it needs to be said: I don’t have high standards when it comes to my vocalists, so long as they fit the music. Elvenking, Megadeth, Motorhead: all bands that produce good music and have a good vocal/instrumental synthesis because their singers compliment the music, despite a marked lack of raw technical singing talent – at least, as far as I know. But Peppiatt is literally, for lack of a better term, abrasive: when you’re trying to listen to the riffs, his grating barks can actually be painful, both in their texture and overall amateurism. Right – I’m done roasting Peppiatt. He has potential to be a good vocalist, but as it stands, he’s tolerable in his best moments.

As for the lyrics, it’s a minor point, but I rather miss the fantasy/narrative style of the early Psycroptic. It doesn’t like we’ll be visiting any more Lacertine Forests or picking up any more ancient Scepters with these Aussies, and it’s a shame – those were some damned good lyrics, as opposed to the far more ambiguous lines on this album, and helped for what it was worth to give the old stuff an extra degree of flavour.

And the production is slick like a water slide. Normally I appreciate good production values, but it’s all context-sensitive, and all bands should produce their albums in a way that benefits their style of music. Case in point, the guitar tone on the latest Nightwish record is crunchier than what’s on display here. If your pop-focused symphonic metal has a heavier crunch than your technical tech metal, something may have screwed up somewhere. It’s not a terrible thing, but just something to watch out for.

But I can’t bring myself to give this album a failing score, because dammit, they’re playing their asses off and really trying – and the results are sometimes quite good. Blood Stained Lineage and Initiate in particular are packed with solid riffs, clever structures and tolerable vocal moments that, I will grant, don’t detract from the music. Unfortunately, the music here lacks a lot of the identity that made inventive numbers like The Valley Of Winds’ Breath And Dragons Fire so memorable. Instead, the songs are far more samey. That’s not intrinsically a terrible thing, though: when Peppiatt lets the guitar take the lead, the songs are fairly enjoyable either way, like the mid-paced crusher of a riff that comes in halfway through Removing The Common Bond.

Psycroptic fans owe it to themselves to check this for the instrumental prowess on display – just be warned about the abrasive, and not in the good way, vocalist. I almost feel sorry for him, to be honest: at his skill level, he’s really in over his head with a band like this. But I’d love for him to prove me wrong and churn out an absolutely spellbinding performance on Psycroptic’s fifth opus – after all, good vocals are good vocals, no matter who’s growling them out. Overall a solid effort brought down by some rather glaring aspects; try before you buy.

Props for the Metroid Prime-ish cover art, though.