Our most recent encounter with Tasmanian tech death band Psycroptic saw the four-piece shift gears for the second time in their career. Where the band’s preceding releases demonstrated a groove-focused style of death metal, 2015’s self-titled release pivoted towards a more overtly thrash-influenced look — and further away still from the maniacal and unpredictable chaos of original landmark record The Scepter of the Ancients. However, despite some strong high points, whether Psycroptic meaningfully pushed the envelope remains harder to say. Of course, the core of the band’s sound — namely sole guitarist Joe Haley’s inhuman riffage — remained undeniably present, and it’s hard to argue with a formula that so consistently delivers. Still, even with Psycroptic taking some strides to introduce something new, the threat of stagnation loomed large all the same.
Three years later, 2018 brings us As the Kingdom Drowns, whose opening statement immediately sets it apart from its predecessor. Where previous albums started off with more gentle, ambient sounds, Kingdom wastes absolutely no time in making its presence felt. “We Were the Keepers” is furious and unrelenting, its adrenaline-pumping riffs and drum work tearing forward from the very first second on. The same core formula is present, but cranked up to 11: the drums hit harder, the guitar work feels more fluid, and the vocals hit like a blast furnace. This is easily Psycroptic at their best, and to cap it off, the song builds towards a gargantuan climax before wholeheartedly delivering the chill-inducing goods. A better start to the album is hard to envision.
While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about what else works. The production throughout the album, for starters, is razor sharp; the band have never sounded quite this massive, while Joe Haley’s guitar tone is probably the best it’s ever been. This style of production may be derided as somewhat sterile by those preferring the more analog sound of Psycroptic’s earlier works, but it works undeniable wonders for the material here, doing ample justice to the sheer weight of climactic moments like the chorus of “Directive” and the final riff of the outro track.
Moreover, the apparent disconnect between the vocal style and the remainder of the music heard on the self-titled album has been remedied here. Vocalist Jason Peppiatt’s delivery is once again more in the vein of earlier records such as Observant, trading out the frequent punk bark of Psycroptic for a furious bellow that better meshes with the guitar work. Beyond that, Psycroptic add a surprising clean vocal dimension to the album courtesy of vocalist Amy Wiles, who adds a welcome melodic dimension on several of the album’s bigger moments. It’s a relatively subtle change but adds a lot to the overall sound in a way one may not have expected out of the band.
Finally, the slower songs on offer are brilliantly written and paced, and often add a more sinister tone to the band’s sound. “As the Kingdom Drowns” opens with a veritable Gojira death march of a riff, while “Upon these Stones” is more of a slow-burner that gradually makes its way to the band’s trademark explosive riffs. Both songs are obvious high points in the album despite somewhat deviating from the band’s usual formula, but the change is definitely for the better and serves the album well.
Despite all this, it’s unfortunate that Kingdom is not without its flaws. For all the incredible high points the album manages to achieve, the same issue that plagued 2015’s Psycroptic sets in, with a sort of predictability setting in for most of the album’s second half. The surprise of the clean vocals aside, there quite simply isn’t anything particularly new on offer after a certain point. It bears mentioning that said latter half is still quality material, and there is absolutely nothing ‘bad’ about it: indeed, each track is still impeccably produced and features guitar work just as furious as its forebears, making for quality death metal all the same. But it stands that the momentum generated by the explosive initial tracks doesn’t quite carry over, leading to the later songs, such as “Beyond the Black” and “Momentum of the Void”, simply not feeling as memorable as their predecessors. It’s a real shame that this is the case, since the better parts of As the Kingdom Drowns may well constitute Psycroptic’s most focused and cohesive work in years, a feat made all the more impressive considering the quality of the band’s recent releases up to this point.
Thus, what one gets out of As the Kingdom Drowns depends, mostly, on what one expects of it. Anyone looking for a consistent onslaught of no-questions-asked modern tech death will likely find their needs more than satisfied here. There’s no doubt that the record’s high points are utterly explosive and an absolute spectacle to behold, perhaps even more so upon repeat listens. However, for those hoping that the album brings something more to the table, it’s hard not to feel that the band could have gone even somewhat further in varying their sound on this outing. Still, as compared to its predecessor, As the Kingdom Drowns takes more meaningful strides in the right direction with regards to the continued evolution of Psycroptic’s post-Scepter sound — going to show that nearly two decades into their career, the band still unquestionably possesses the ferocity and drive that propelled them to tech death stardom in the first place.