*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #13 of the SBR Album of the Week.
Some of the finest metal comes out of Belgium. The likes of Amenra and Oathbreaker are leaders in the post-metal field; Wiegedood and Alkerdeel can stand toe-to-toe with the contemporary greats of black metal. Into this mix, come Psychonaut with their own brand of progressive music that is just as colourful as it is heavy. Now on their second album after the release of 2018’s Unfold the God Man, the Mechelen trio are at a creative high point of their career and might just have written the album that will define them.
The Psychonaut sound finds purpose somewhere between post-metal and prog-metal. This is music for the overthinker – the person who is neither left nor right wing, who operates within the system but could tear down the edifice of everything he built in a moment of colossal self-destruction. Opener, ‘A Storm Approaching’, captures this fissure of the mind with its transition from arpeggiated chord shapes and tom drums to throbbing guitar rhythms that pulsate like lobsters in a fish tank that are only minutes away from the chef’s boiling pot. The finger-tapping patterns and technical hammer-on techniques will remind you of Mastodon, but the vocal harmonies are straight from the Cave In school of psychedelic hardcore. Listen how they alternate between vitriolic screams and the confidence of singing in melody with sustained note choices. The complexity of the guitar passages in ‘All Your Gods Have Gone’ defy the typical expectations of a post-metal band. Let’s be honest – this genre is all about raw emotion and grief, and cutting-edge guitar riffs are way down on the list of priorities for the likes of Neurosis, Cult of Luna and Inter Arma. Not with Psychonaut. Stefan de Graef’s fretwork is expressive and sophisticated in the way it weaves in and out of the rhythms like a Windows Mandelbrot screensaver. The hyper-aggression at the climax will remind you of Swedish post-sludge quartet, Mass Worship.
If the slower tempos in metal are monotone in colour, they find a new radiance on ‘Age of Separation’. Here, Psychonaut prove they can match the imaginative textures of The Ocean in the way they navigate from a morbid bassline to a glistening sequence of mellifluous guitar patterns. Too many sludge and post-metal bands settle on a fuzz-heavy distortion and do nothing to get the most out of their instruments, but Psychonaut are the opposite. They want you to see shooting stars in a nocturnal blue night sky. And yet they show no signs of settling into a routine of melodious uneasy listening compositions. The title track sparkles with the sorrows of a lonely female voice at the half-way point of the album. Your mind will conjure images of a boulder water feature babbling in the loneliness of a spring Sunday before the guitars and drums accelerate the intensity levels. Like Alice in Chains, Psychonaut make the dual-harmony vocals an essential part of their arrangements. Their sudden bursts of aggression keep you on edge when you think you’ve found calm. You can only sit through ‘Hope’ with mouth agape at the stunning melancholy beauty of the piano passages and the effulgent harmonies of voice. Opeth fans will enjoy the sophistication of this composition. It might not be intentional, but the aching face gestures and closed-eyed concentration of the spacious melodies recall the brilliance of the early Simple Minds records. Listen how the piano passages convey the beauty of footprints in the virgin snow on a solemn winter’s day away from the concerns of human civilisation.
As with any enthralling prog metal album, you should marvel how the longer songs seem to pass by in half the time of their real duration. ‘Interbeing’ reminds you that Mastodon’s last album could have sounded as focused as this. ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to Violence’ is the meanest and fastest track on the record with the trademark technical guitar patterns giving way to psychedelic hallucinations before they finish in a scorching post-metal climax. A Psychonaut composition presents the conundrum of man climbing out of the quicksand rather than succumbing to its lethal abyss. Keep this image in mind as you experience closing track, ‘Towards the Edge’. It might be close to thirteen minutes in length, but it represents a triumph of the individual over the eco-system that threatens to overpower him. The band also treat us to the one guitar solo of the album here with gaping pitch bends and rapid scale shredding. Your taste buds will hiss in anticipation of the climax.
We’re right to compare Psychonaut with the post-metal greats of today, and they could join this pantheon over the next decade if they produce anything as good as Violate Consensus Reality between now and 2030. This album is a stunning hybrid of imagination and aggression.
Release Date: 28/10/2022
Record Label: Pelagic Records
Standout tracks: A Storm Approaching; All Your Gods Have Gone; Hope
Suggested Further Listening: The Ocean – Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic (2018), Mass Worship – Portal Tombs (2022), Throwing Bricks – The Burden (2022)