There was a time on the stitch of the 80’s and 90’s when progressive metal was being born. Dream Theater, newly awakened from their initial state as Majesty, were beginning their career. Death had just released Spiritual Healing and was about to release Human. Something was shifting in the way metal looked at composition, vocals, their progressive rock influences and what metal meant. From this atmosphere later emerged retrospective narratives that are way too clean, with their official lists of which albums mattered and why. Many amazing releases have fallen to the waysides of such linear progressions, their genius forgot in favor of a tighter and easily marketable story.
One of these albums is Psychotic Waltz‘s A Social Grace. This Californian band’s first iteration lasted a decade, until 1997 (they are now reunited and working on new music, whose quality is yet to be tested). During that decade they released four albums, with a clear difference between the first two and the latter two. Those two first album, and the debut especially, are masterclasses in progressive metal and represent to this day some of the best actualizations of why progressive metal is great. They are technical but furiously aggressive, drawing from the pools of progressive rock and thrash equally. The result is two fantastically deep albums with the first being a timeless classic which has sadly gone forgotten.
At the core of A Social Grace lie a few things. First, it is impossible to ignore the importance of Devon Graves (who went by the name of Buddy Lackey during the Psychotic Waltz years). His shrieking vocals (and his flute, at times) are at the center of the thrash influences on this album. Later, Graves would go on to form Deadsoul Tribe, where his vocals deepen and draw more from rock, but here they are all resplendent screech and operatic crescendo. The best place to sample their unique style lies at the end of the album, with “Strange”.
One of the finer tracks on the record, it showcases Graves’ ability to draw a unique and varied performance from his vocals. The opening shriek wouldn’t shame Iron Maiden‘s Bruce Dickinson while his modulations and flavor on the iconic verses and choruses add the exact degree of theatrics to the mix. This track also highlights the second pillar of what made Psychotic Waltz so good and a beast of its time, namely the amazing interactions between bass and guitars. Anyone familiar with what Death was doing during the time will recognize the style and intent immediately. The intricate interplay and compositions are the best of what progressive metal can do; they’re complex but also inherently groovy, keeping the track forever moving forward.
Perhaps the best examples of what this ensemble approach to instrumentation can be found on “I of the Storm”, one of the best tracks on the album. They straight up meaty riff in that sits on the basis of the track is all the more rewarding for the agile leads which build up to it, perfectly buoying up the epic vocals on the track. Add in the loud drums, a staple of the age’s production, and their excellent execution and you begin to see the genius of Psychotic Walt’z unique sound. By the time the groovy bridge to the chorus hits, you should be well and sold, more than ready for the brilliant outro and its recurring accelerations.
The last aspect which makes Waltz’s debut work so well is the more ballad-y tracks. Later on in the career, from their third album forward, these will take the front and center of the band’s sound (not to mention Deadsoul Tribe, where the softer approach will dictate the band’s entire sound). Opinions on whether that was a good thing or not are still heated and divisive. This writer believes that Mosquito at least is well worth your time.
In any case, on this album, tracks like the closing “Nothing” (which has plenty of fangs on its own) and “I Remember” add a beautiful and expansive contrast to the album, perhaps pushing its canvas even further. The latter offers a respite while still holding its own ground, more than just a filler track but rather an interesting take on the band’s core sound seen through softer instrumentation and composition. Worthy of note is, of course, Graves’s aforementioned flute, which enjoys a fantastic spot on this track, clearly drawing from the harsher notes and stylings of a little-known band called Jethro Tull.
When you get down to it, A Social Grace has something for anybody with even a fleeting interest in progressive rock. Despite enjoying minimal popularity in the US, it became an underground hit in Europe and influenced a large number of musicians. Today, as the band gear up for more music and have been touring extensively, it’s worth going back to an all-time classic such as this release, made at a time where the progressive genres were being formed. It reminds us what it’s all about and what a great progressive should set out to do, namely explore the boundaries of the band’s abilities while never forgetting to ground itself in a well defined and shared sound. A Social Grace is one of the best examples of how to do that and thus, deserves a spot in the progressive metal hall of fame. Long live!