Picture this: a young music enthusiast (disclaimer: I am the music enthusiast), who is constantly on the prowl for new music to jam – as music enthusiasts are wont to do – finally gets around to listening to a certain band he’s heard of in a positive light quite a number of times. Said music enthusiast eventually peruses the band’s discography and searches for a starting point. Once the starting point is identified, the jamming begins: good times are had, and all is right with the world. And so I, a music enthusiast and more specifically one of Heavy Blog’s resident tech death geeks, decided to set my sights on the Australian tech death band Psycroptic, after many months of constantly being reminded that they are a band whose work was bound to match my tastes.
Every music enthusiast has their own way of finding an entry point when starting their journey through a band’s discography. Some, for instance, prefer to start at the debut and proceed in chronological order. Conversely, some may start with the newest release and work their way backwards, while others may yet begin with a record in between, such as one that may have made the most waves in the community or has perhaps been recommended to them the most. Of course, in practice, this is itself usually context-dependent: it wouldn’t make much sense to break into Devin Townsend‘s enormous discography with 1995’s largely forgetten debut Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, nor Opeth‘s discography with 2014’s oddball Pale Communion or its similarly nonstandard predecessor Heritage.
My own method is a little different, in that I – being a massive guitar enthusiast as well, like a good solid amount of metal listeners – often like to inform my own choice of starting point by looking at whatever song tablature is available online for a given band’s work. It turns out that the most popular tabs frequently correspond to the most musically interesting songs, seeing as fellow guitar players determine the popularity of a given tab, and I sometimes extrapolate from there to pick out what may well be the most musically interesting album in a discography. It’s obviously a very imperfect method that can be confounded by factors too numerous to list here, but it’s done me good enough times that I still stand by it.
In the case of Psycroptic, the most popular tab was “Carriers of the Plague”, which proved to be the first track from their fourth record The Inherited Repression (a title which I find very humorous as a molecular biologist in training). “Carriers” is a fantastic track, and I can see how it made for the top rated tab – the riffs are fantastic and intricate, but supremely catchy somehow all the way through. Guitarist Joe Haley is an absolute wizard, and the things he achieves with the relatively tame drop D tuning are nothing short of mind-blowing. The rest of the album follows suit: while few tracks grabbed me quite like “Carriers” did, I enjoyed the overall release immensely. At the time of writing, it has yet to leave my current rotation, if for Haley’s stellar guitar playing alone.
At this point, I remembered that Psycroptic only just released a self-titled album just last year that I had completely missed, and decided that it might be a good idea to make up for that, especially now that I had my initial impressions of their sound down pat. But what I found was a little off-putting. The mix did not sit very well with me, and vocalist Jason Peppiatt’s strange thrash metal-sounding delivery felt like it was working towards the album’s detriment. Yet it was not without its moments: opener “Echoes to Come”, for instance, had a massive chorus worthy of Black Crown Initiate or perhaps even more recent Cattle Decapitation, and I found myself returning to the song for that purpose at the very least.
I couldn’t really reconcile the poorer mix and distracting vocals with the excellent guitar playing and catchy moments, and so I figured that reading other people’s thoughts might help me in better understanding my own. And so this is where I decided to head to the magical World Wide Web and have a look at what other music enthusiasts thought of Psycroptic.
A good amount of the reviews I saw said fairly positive things about the album, occasionally criticizing the vocals but conceding that it was a solid album (our own review was fairly glowing). The negative comments and reviews that greeted me, however, were of a strangely singular nature. I kept seeing comments implying that the band was venturing further and further away from so-called established territory; that The Inherited Repression had in fact signalled the beginning of their fall from their glory days, and that they had abandoned their roots for a more refined and catchy sound over the spastic tech death of their past.
Furthermore, it was often argued that the band were ‘clearly’ trying to break into mainstream metal by incorporating these new elements and working with a different vocal style, but the strong presence of their tech death roots meant that this wasn’t entirely possible, leaving them suspended in some kind of limbo where their sound was too tech death to be more considered straightforward, but also too straightforward to still be tech death. The chorus of “Echoes to Come” that I’d enjoyed so much was actually singled out as being a bad thing here, since it was supposedly such a radical departure from the precedent they’d set.
Before we go any further, I should add that we can go back and forth about the pros and cons of formerly technical bands moving towards a more accessible sound, but that’s really not the point of today’s discussion.
Now it had hardly been a week since I got into this band, and they’d mostly established themselves in my head as being all about intricate yet catchy riffs. But after digging out 2003’s The Scepter of the Ancients, itself frequently described as being an essential tech death album, I understood the grievances I saw a little better. The music was indeed fast and spastic, and much closer to Spawn of Possession‘s general aesthetic than anything else. The debate about whether a band should keep making the same acclaimed album over and over or try to take risks and branch out seems to have been around since time immemorial (“if you like the old shit, go listen to the old shit”, etc) and Psycroptic, like most bands, had opted for the latter. It makes sense from the band’s own perspective too: what group of musicians wouldn’t get tired of writing the same material year after year?
But this long-winded introduction to today’s topic raises another question: do we ever really evaluate an album on its own terms? It’s understandable that a band is compared to their previous material, since they set their own precedent with regards to what they’re capable of writing and releasing. Positively reviewed albums are often talked about as if they’ve ‘surpassed’ the standards set by their predecessors, with the band having ‘outdone’ themselves, and those descriptions make sense to us as listeners and evaluators of music.
However, if a band strays from their roots enough, is it still entirely fair to hold their later material to that initial standard in the first place? For instance, it doesn’t seem fair, or even sensible, to criticize Job for a Cowboy‘s recent prog death outings in light of their MySpace deathcore roots, nor Opeth’s fantastic 2000s output by comparing it to their comparatively unpolished and sometimes even black metal inspired 1990s sound. In both of these cases, it seems as if the later releases were given leeway when the positions they occupied in a discography were considered, and thus they were evaluated in a more isolated fashion.
Of course, one could counter this by positing that both Opeth’s and JFAC’s later material was not generally thought about in light of their respective debuts because said later material was, by all accounts and purposes, “better.” These are bands whose sound has evolved to great critical acclaim, and so perhaps it doesn’t make sense to criticize them according to the standards of earlier records, since the general consensus is that they have already superseded those records in quality. For other bands whose later releases are certainly evolved but not necessarily ‘better’, such as Gorguts, these later releases have still brought about enough acclaim that the bands aren’t criticized on comparative grounds (interestingly, however, the only criticism I’ve seen of Gorguts’ fantastic new release is that it’s too similar to Colored Sands).
The criticisms I saw of Psycroptic, on the other hand, seemed to imply that the band had not evolved in a way too pleasing to these reviewers, and so the preexisting standards set by Scepter, and to a lesser extent Ob(servant), remained in place for them when evaluating the new album – despite the fact that the band’s sound had changed quite substantially over the time span between then and now. And that feels a little odd, for reasons I can’t quite fully grasp.
What makes this even messier is that other albums somehow flout these apparent rules entirely. Opeth’s Damnation sticks out like a sore thumb amongst their legendary 2000-2010 run of releases, in being a short, 40 minute album with nary a heavy moment nor a single song greater than ten minutes in length (for anyone unfamiliar with Opeth, they’re kind of notorious for that). And yet it remains one of the most universally well-loved Opeth releases, despite not necessarily being ‘better’ than its predecessors — considering it’s mostly impossible to evaluate based on preexisting standards — nor setting some kind of new precedent that the band had to live up to from there on out. Is it fair to be selective about how we evaluate albums in that regard? To give Damnation a free pass on its changes in sound, but to hold Psycroptic to a different standard simply because the change in direction is not seen as a good thing? But if we’re to consider how different the two bands’ discographies are as a whole, and the context surrounding each album, is the comparison even a fair one in the first place?
Ultimately, my personal conclusion to this mess is that our usage of a band’s discography to contextualize and evaluate a given album within it remains just as context-dependent as our means of finding a starting point in the first place, each individual person’s way of approaching that notwithstanding. It’s impossible to apply the same standards in contextualizing across every band’s discography, but I do find it interesting how discographical context can inform someone’s opinions of an album, for better or for worse. The answer does seem like a bit of a cop-out, but I guess it helps me sleep at night.
However, it remains that comparison is still a useful tool for understanding the factors that may have led to an album, and can further enhance or take away from an album’s experience. While contextualizing may not always be the best or most fair grounds to evaluate an album top to bottom, I still think the pros outweigh the cons here, should comparison be considered as more of an angle to initially approach the album from rather than a strict rubric to ultimately decide one’s thoughts on it.
And now that I’ve thought hard enough about it to write this piece, I personally think Psycroptic is rather decent. The vocals and mix do make me like it less than the previous records I’ve heard so far, but it’s still a good record. And I maintain that “Echoes to Come” has a pretty great chorus.