Even as the traditional metal revival cribs unabashedly from beloved 70’s & 80’s hard rock giants, the current trend in progressive metal seems to consist in a flirtation with mid-90’s grunge. From the choice of texture in guitar distortions to a dry, aggressive drum sound juxtaposed with reverb-massaged vocals, through to lyrics trading in sci-fi tropes for the hard rock equivalent of vaguebooking—metal is looking back to look forward, and progressive metal is taking more than a few sips from this particular well. In the case of Psychotic Waltz, this is more second nature than nostalgia, as the band originally developed alongside the early progressive metal of Dream Theater and groove metal of Primus straight through the rise of grunge, and they were already combining all these elements on 1994’s Mosquito. After a long hiatus and a long gestation period following their 2010 reunion, The God-Shaped Void sounds not so much like a return, but like a reviving, of Psychotic Waltz’s mid-90’s corpus.
Gorgeous cover art from Travis Smith (long-time collaborator with Devin Townsend and Opeth) is both a knowing wink and a sleight-of-hand; the fantasy-drenched cover deftly hearkens to the band’s previous work with their artist-friend—especially the cover for Into The Everflow—but this album is no walk through an enchanted forest in space. 90’s grunge elements permeate the song set, with some more doom-y Black Sabbath inspirations accenting via Iommi-esque acoustic fluff and Ozzy Osbourne inflected vocals that spew vague menaces wrapped in mournfulness. The very live drum sound, with a lot of solid wooden thuds, anchors the overall sonic aesthetic. Layered over top are chunky grooves, some piercing doubled leads, and quite a lot of grungy sustained distortion. It’s heavy, it’s moody, it’s metal, and while a start-to-finish listen can feel a bit same-same-y, the individual songs mostly work.
Album opener and first single“Devils And Angels” is representative. Flute and shadowy synths evoke Ayreon temporarily, but two minutes in the album has settled into a characteristic groove. Something unpropitious is about to occur, and this is the sound of inner anguish in the face of that spectre. “While The Spiders Spin” opens with a very pretty, very brief prelude of acoustic picking destined to die at the hands of electric screeches, tapped solos, and booming power chords. Look again at the album cover; see those dark spaces? That’s where the spiders spin.
On “Sisters Of The Dawn,” the band explore more aggressive, industrial textures in the verses before submerging into the portent of a ‘classic’ progressive metal chorus. Lyrical guitar solos carry the song for a bit before a return to that foreboding chorus and a delightful end in the ramped up aggression of the verse sequence. The whole song feels thick with a layer of ferric oxide. And who doesn’t like a lyric that rhymes “Satanic balladeer” with “get out of here”?
Psychotic Waltz took a long time preparing this album, and that care has paid off in clean production and a unified musical vision that sounds authentically “like them.” Skipping the easy reunion-excitement-album-cash-grab, they’ve made an album that stands on its own merit, both in comparison with their past work and as paving the way for future endeavors. Got nostalgia? The God-Shaped Void will scratch that itch. Just want a solid, heavy album for your winter moods? This’ll do.