Review: Psalm Zero – Stranger to Violence

“Stranger to violence.

I never see the blood.

But every day something needs to die

For me to live.”

I was late to the Psalm Zero party. Debut album The Drain languished in my bandcamp wishlist for probably a full year before I felt prepared to deal with it. The samples I had heard had intrigued me, but would my feelings for the album blossom from petty intrigue into love? The goth-tinged art metal sounded right up my alley on paper, but in reality I knew I was going to have to meet it halfway, to learn to listen on Psalm Zero’s terms. I was afraid. When I did finally join the party, it was more out of desperation than desire; I just needed to buy something, anything. I had just injured my back at work; I was spending my days laying on the couch, half-zonked on painkillers, gaining weight and collecting workman’s comp checks; I had plenty of time to spend those checks on a bandcamp shopping spree. So The Drain became the preeminent soundtrack to my convalescence. It is intimately connected to the vivid memories I keep of that time. Every time I revisit it, I feel an illusory sort of nostalgia. I say “illusory” because having nothing to do all day for six weeks plunged me into a pretty hairy depression. Overall, it was not a happy time, and yet listening to The Drain makes me wish I could go back and do it all again.

Long story short, The Drain would have made my 2014 best-of list had I purchased it in 2014. Which automatically made sophomore album Stranger to Violence one of my most anticipated albums of 2016. I was eager to hear how the band would progress the unique formula laid out on their debut. “Real Rain” was the only single I listened to before tackling the album as a whole, and with its gorgeous chanted vocals and (relatively) intricate drum programming, it hinted at an abundance of progress. But I cannot lie: Stranger to Violence hardly strays from its predecessor at all. Frontman Charlie Looker has stated that he took on themes bigger than himself this time around, which is evident inasmuch as his oblique lyrics can be “understood”; but musically, aside from the unexpected appearance of an acoustic guitar in the first half of “Oblivion’s Eye” and a few pinches of falsetto vocal harmonies, Stranger to Violence might as well be The Drain 2.

And you know what? That’s fine. Because Psalm Zero’s sound is singular enough that I do not need them to strike out in some radical new direction just yet. And because, aside from the mid-album slump that is “Not Guilty” (those endless tom fills are rather inexplicable) and the painful anticlimax of closer “Oblivion’s Eye” (pales in comparison to previous closer “Meanwhile”), the songs on Stranger to Violence are excellent. Why fix it if it ain’t broke, right? The album may never escape the shadow of the debut, but it is far from a failure. For those readers who are not familiar with Psalm Zero, this means three key things:

Every aspect of Psalm Zero’s music is immediate. All attack and no decay. No long chemtrails of reverb, no walls of distortion (or walls of anything else). No bleedthrough. The instruments are separated in space as if quarantined from one another. The programmed drums are all punch, no flair (Psalm Zero is often described as “industrial metal”, which never sits well with me, as the simplistic and mechanical drum patterns are the band’s only claim to anything even vaguely “industrial”). The synths do not so much build atmosphere as form lead melodies with the precision of a hammered instrument. Looker’s clean vocals are fairly dry, naked, rigid to an almost robotic degree in their delivery. His melodies are as deliberate as they are catchy; there is no room here for improvisation or happenstance. And his lyrical syntax bolsters his melodic precision; he tends to choose words with few syllables and string them together in short, punchy verses which mimic the tight ticking of a hi-hat. In counterpoint, guitarist Andrew Hock’s percussive barking only enhances the sense that Psalm Zero has no patience for chaos. There is a time and place for everything: every note, every beat, every silence in between. The ultimate result of this needlepoint approach to composition is sterility. Mind you, this sterility is not a knock against Stranger to Violence. Rather, the music is a masterful reflection of the lamentably sterile world we’ve created for ourselves.

None of the elements of Stranger to Violence sound like they belong there—at first. The drums sound like they were generated by that drum machine you found at a flea market in 1989. The chintzy, new-wave-style synths have what I can only describe as a MIDI quality. Chord progressions churned out by the bass and guitar begin in familiar territory and then turn on a dime; phrases exceed the usual groupings of four to spiral off into unexpected territory, only repeating themselves once you’ve lost track of where they began. Hock’s aforementioned barking grates against the otherwise tuneful and not-entirely-metallic instrumentation. As for Looker, well…his voice is just weird. His timbre would sound more at home in a 90’s indie rock band than it does here. And yet there is something alluring and indispensable in his idiosyncratic vocalizations. Something ancient in his melodic choices, doubtless an artifact from his time evoking the essences of Renaissance music in his previous band, Extra Life. (Side note: Psalm Zero first clicked with me the instant I recognized Looker as one of the singers from some other band with whom I used to be obsessed.)

Is Psalm Zero a metal band? Yeah, sure. Is their deathrocky approach to metal artsy enough to garner the art metal tag with which they have been associated? Well, yeah. But as artsy as they get, they are never inaccessible. Oddities abound on Stranger to Violence, and yet each is conjured with an ear for simplicity and beauty. I’ve had the emotional and lyrically odd chorus to “White Psyche” stuck in my head for two weeks. And I’ve caught myself murmuring snippets of “Pay Tomorrow” and “Stranger to Violence” in the shower. That is the power of Charlie Looker’s pop sensibilities. And beyond riffs and aggression, beyond artsiness, that power should be Stranger to Violence‘s lasting legacy.

Immediacy. Peculiarity. Pop. That is Psalm Zero and Stranger to Violence in a nutshell. And if my snotty nitpicking has left you doubting, I’ll state it here unequivocally: I have fallen madly in love with this album. 


Four Out ov Five Flaming Toilets ov Hell


Stranger to Violence is out July 15th on Profound Lore. Mainline it here.

Written by:

Published on: July 12, 2016

Filled Under: Metal, Reviews

Views: 1144

Tags: , , , , , ,

  • Eliza

    After listening to the two songs that have been released so far off this record, I think this album might be one that I find more interesting that enjoyable. Obviously, that’s not for sure and I can only state my opinion on an album after I listen to it. One thing’s for certain though, this review is stellar.

  • I liked the fact that Psalm Zero comprised the post-punk sound with metal in their first album, but it was a very difficult sound to digest to me at that time for being a little bit dragged in the long harsh sections.

    From what I’m reading, and also hearing in the song that you shared with the text, I think I will enjoy this even more, because the song have a more streamed approach, more pop. From the old post-punk sound I still find The Cure one of my favorite bands of all time and this new song remind me more of them than the first album, without being completely derivative; I mean, it’s still Psalm Zero!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, man <3 I will put this record into my wishlist right now and in my #LinkNotebook, along a smiley face with your name.

  • Abradolf Lincler


  • RustyShackleford

    Great review dude. I really dig how you describe the vocals especially. Psalm Zero has a very unique sound that can make for an interesting and sometimes challenging listen. I think that’s cool cause, unlike some stuff, it’s not challenging because it’s just heavy. You did a good job describing all that stuff that I clearly can’t describe haha. Stoked to hear the whole thing soon! Yep!

  • Pentagram Sam

    Your snotty nitpicking makes me very interested! Great review duders!

  • Señor Jefe El Rosa

    Dude, that was an intense interview. The tunes don’t quite seem like my normal jams, but I’ll check it out later.

  • Psalm Zero sounds like something I could get lost in. Better start digging, I reckon. Excellent.


    • Abradolf Lincler

      lol pic from “”

  • The new albums is really good. Psyched to play with them in a few weeks.

    • chigga-whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat????

    • Dagon

      Where will the concert take place? If I was there I would buy two tickets for myself.

  • Waynecro

    This is a great review, man. Nicely done! “Pay Tomorrow” has a really infectious pop melody, but these ain’t my kind of jams. Maybe it will grow on me, though. I have been a bit mopey lately, but I usually convert that mope into rage rather than wallow in it for long enough to listen to a band like this.

  • Joaquin Stick

    If someone played this and told me it was the new Kayo Dot album, I’d probably not argue with them. Even though there are plenty of differences, I can’t help but see a weird direct link. I think this album with stick with me more than Plastic House has so far.

    • Joaquin Stick

      And also, excellent review R! For some reason I remember not liking The Drain when it was being praised here, but I also don’t remember it sounding anything like these tracks, so maybe I hit play on the wrong thing and thought it was PZ? Anyway, something weird happened, and now I need to go back.

    • slipjackthewanderer

      I hear that. Plastic House just hasn’t hit me like their last two albums did.

    • Still haven’t heard that Dot.

  • Hans Müller

    After being a little perplexed by the first tune, I am more than glad to have pressed play on the second one. The POP is strong with that one, and it hooked me immediately.
    If what I’ve missed out on by ignoring this band is anything near this good, I demand a vacation and some drug or other to catch up on these guys.

  • The Tetrachord of Archytas

    I dig this. It seems to combine that dark 80’s Depeche Mode synth sound (vocals too) with moody rock in a way that bands like AFI will always fall painfully short of.. Junius being an exception. I like the idea that nothing fits together in a sense, although I bet if they subbed the program drums for real ones and went for an organic tone it would tie everything together in a new way.

    • As it happens, I think they sound better live because, as pictured, they use a real drummer. It really amps up the intensity.

      • The Tetrachord of Archytas

        I had a feeling that might be the case

  • This is giving me total Alkaline Trio vibes.

  • Dagon

    This was a killer review. I like how you laid it out objectively but with a lot of depth.

    I still need to spend more time with this record, but my initial listen was unsurprisingly positive. These dudes are talented.

  • xengineofdeathx

    This is a great album, also you’re review reminds me of when I was out of it on painkillers after I had knee surgery listening to the Nothing album Guilty of Everything all the time. Long term injuries are a bummer.