PSALM ZERO – Sparta
There is no shortage of bands influenced by the British synth-pop masters Depeche Mode: Katatonia, Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, Dark Tranquillity and even Opeth members openly reportedly aware of this influence, but Psalm Zero, formed in 2012 by Charlie Looker (vocals, guitars, synth, and programming), is strikingly Depeche Mode-ian down to Charlie’s baritone a curious mix of both Depeche Mode vocalists, David "Dave Gahan" Callcott and Martin Lee Gore. As for the art metal New Yorkers the previous two albums, "The Drain" (2014) and "Stranger To Violence" (2016), were both more metall-ic than "Sparta", and for this third LP, Looker, Keith Abrams (drums, additional synth) and Ron Varod (bass) dropped much of the former metallic fiber, with the result that the synth pop stylings were even more emphasized. It goes without saying that Looker, an East Coast American, sings with an incredible British accent, but then again, Chicago native, Paul August Kuhr, III, has been doing just that for years on Novembers Doom’s albums.
What is more remarkable is how Looker’s sarcastic, cynical and predominantly negative lyrics are in the same vein as Martin L. Gore’s. Similarly, there’s even a notable religious streak to them, such as when Looker references Exodus 32:19 with "I love the way you smashed the tablets, but the stone caught up in my throat, and then I choked" (No Victim), but mostly he is a master of word play with lyrics such as "you make a mess of the cradle with the dirt you stole from the grave". Apparently not a big fan of the current far right administration, with its Hitler Jugend-like militias brandishing a motto stolen from Spartan military leader Leonidas, "Molon Labe" (come and take them, that is, our guns), he cleverely hints at Friedrich Nietzsche’s "Will To Power" in the chorus of "A Pill" asking "you speak for power but where is your will?" and that he purposely butchers English grammar by asking "are we animal still" instead of "are we still animals", evoking an image of mankind being stuck in a single giant collective animal flesh. But looking at the album cover, there’s obviously more to the concept than man turning into animal, but also man turning into machine, and then machine STILL man, animal AND machine at once. Now that is a horrifying concept, but isn’t it simply a reflection on our animalistic technocracy worshipping at the grave of democracy? Charlie Looker comments on our human condition which will eventually cause our demise, not necessarily as a race but as species, wherein we will become something else entirely, "Terminator", "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall", no longer such sci-fi ideas in our world of military use of unmanned drones, robot soldiers and genetically modified deadly viruses going AWOL. Whether Skynet TM extinquishes humanity or human animal will prevail remains to be seen but the most important part of both, "Sparta" and this review is, after all, music, so let’s turn to that.
The album is fairly diversified, although it does take its time to build up the momentum (only to destroy it later) with two very similarly paced tracks, "Open Wound" and the title, right up front. The heavily Katatonia-n (Brave Murder Day/Discouraged Ones) excellent "The Last Faith" truly shows off Looker’s compositional and intrumental chops, that is to say, yes, he rivals the great Alan Wilder, but "No Victim", which begins with an old Daylight Dies melody, is not as impressive as its predecessor. It is awhile, though, before we get to the crown jewel, the perfect, georgously melodic and insanely catchy "Animal Outside", which both Martin L. Gore and Dave Gahan likely would welcome on their band or solo albums, even with the obvious nod to The Smashing Pumpkins’ "Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness" toward the end. And finally the Pantera-ic/Tool-ish/Dark Tranquility-ish closer "A Pill" reminds that this is, doubtless, a heavy metal album, especially with the stylings of Madder Mortem thrown in amids, for good measure.
"Sparta" mostly standing strong, there is, however, one significant flaw: "Return To Stone". Frankly, it both sticks out like a sore thumb and kills the momentum, the admittedly, though, fantastic acapella male/female vocalizations, notwithstanding. I do hear some Derek William "Fish" Dick Marillion, some psychedelic Pink Floyd, but the concept of an extremely minimalistic track spanning 8 minutes at pace of a sloth in a loving embrace with a snail is just too much for my taste. And I appreciate the obvious Opeth fascination in the instrumental "Shibboleth" but, since it’s so short and distracting, why was it necessary? I wonder if part of the charm of "Animal Outside" is that it follows "Return To Stone" and precedes "Shibboleth"?
From a fascinating lyrical concept, mostly great music and a ridiculously talented vocalist, instrumentalist and songwriter, comes out an album that deserves to be heard despite its few shortcomings. If you like Depeche Mode, early 90s Katatonia, late 90s Paradise Lost and the idea of marrying all that to heavy metal, you should check it out.