As we all know, reunion albums almost always stink. Especially when the only reason the band is recording one is so that they’ll have a reason to get back out on the Eurofest circuit in hopes of cashing a couple of nostalgia checks before people once again stop caring about them.
Rare are the occasions when bands unite after an extended amount of time and are able to recapture the chemistry that served them so well in their youths. There’s the mighty NWOBHM veterans Satan, who came back better than ever after a staggering 26-year hiatus. Cynic reuniting to record another near-perfect album 15 years after their game-changing debut is another example of catching lightning in a bottle twice, but these types of success stories are few and far between.
After a 24-year hiatus, cult progressive metal act Psychotic Waltz are giving the reunion album a try. Let’s see if they’ve succeeded in pulling it off.
First, let’s talk a little bit about the history of Psychotic Waltz. Bursting onto the San Diego metal seen in the late ’80s under the moniker of Aslan, the band released two demo tapes that were highly-touted on the European tape-trading scene at the time. They would go on to self-finance and self-release their debut album A Social Grace in 1990, which today is considered one of the godhead albums of early progressive metal by anyone in the know.
Shockingly unique, the band played a psychedelic, marijuana-fueled style of progressive metal that was as strange and original as it was mature and well-formed. You almost never hear a band put together a perfectly defined and singular style of their own right from their debut album, but Psychotic Waltz were able to do just that.
Far less focused on technical proficiency than Dream Theater, not nearly as pristine as Fates Warning, and far less theatrical than Queensryche, Psychotic Waltz were practically destined for “cult classic” status from the get-go. While progressive metal bands of their era were more informed by the imagery and sounds of bands like Rush and Yes, Psychotic Waltz were the hippies of the bunch.
“For most of my life, I never could thank them for the purple hazed experience of the electric lady’s voodoo child. Yes, they were bold as love. Just ask the axis,” lyrics from the song “Butterfly” off their second album Into the Everflow. It was obvious that the Waltzers were more about vibing to The Doors, Beatles, and Hendrix than transposing 15-minute keyboard solos to guitar in their formative years.
Unfortunately for everyone who loves metal bands that aren’t afraid of getting weird, Psychotic Waltz initially broke up in the late 1990s after releasing just four albums. The aforementioned debut was a genius slab of trippy yet aggressive prog thrash. Their sophomore Into the Everflow pushed the psychedelia and technicality even further and is probably their most revered offering among prog nerds.
1994’s transitional album Mosquito, while still great and full of magical musical ideas and chemistry, was a bit of a pit-stop in between the busy style of the first two records and the chilled, big-riff-oriented psychedelic stoner metal of 1996’s Bleeding, a brilliant final statement as any in the history of heavy metal.
Psychotic Waltz bowed out of the game with a fairly flawless record. Over the next two decades, members of the band focused on their careers, family, and other musical projects. Most notably, singer Buddy Lackey (now going by the name of Devon Graves) moved to Austria and recorded five albums with his new band Deadsoul Tribe, who were one of the originators of the “more melodic and less repetitive Tool” style of progressive metal that bands like Soen comfortably occupy today.
The band members started communicating again about a decade ago and decided to reform to play some shows in 2010. They spent the next decade playing scattered European tours and slowing putting together new material, a process that culminated in their first new music in 24 years, The God-Shaped Void.
Did they manage to avoid the reunion curse?
I’ll give them one thing, they really know how to rile old fans up. The cosmic Travis Smith-designed album artwork, the original logo in all its trippy glory, the first seconds of album opener “Devils and Angels” recalling the dramatic synths of “Sleeping Dogs” off the debut album, quickly followed by Graves’s signature flute work. Could they really do it? Are they really going to pull it off?
Not so fast. Once the ambient intro ends and the actual song kicks in we’re brought back to reality. And that first track, “Devils and Angels,” actually encapsulates the album very well. It’s a song filled with moments that remind you of classic Psychotic Waltz but just as rife with moments that don’t come close to capturing the magic of those first four albums.
Vocalist Devon Graves is one of the main reasons why. His singing on “The God-Shaped Void” actually sounds more like the vocal style he employed with Deadsoul Tribe than what he sounded like while in Psychotic Waltz. And it really is hard to fault him for that, being that it’s his most recent vocal work.
But it’s also hard to overlook. Graves’s weeded out, acrobatic tenor remains one of the signature calling cards of Psychotic Waltz. His vocal style today is less volatile, more methodical, and more restrained than it ever was with Psychotic Waltz. And while there’s certainly no denying that he’s still an absolutely brilliant vocalist, it’s hard not to miss the excitement and unpredictability that his youthful delivery offered.
Putting all the fault on Graves would be absolutely unfair, however, because the entire band is operating on a very similar wavelength. Musically, as expected, we are getting a continuation of the Bleeding style but with a little bit of a modernized approach. That means big, catchy mid-paced riffs with a little bit of quirkiness and unpredictability thrown in and blanketed in the psychedelic tapestry that guitarists Dan Rock and Brian McAlpin have managed to preserve wonderfully between themselves, which stands out as the most impressive aspect of this new album.
The opening riff of “All the Bad Men” harkens back to the magic of “Need,” one of Bleeding’s many highlights, but fails to fully capture the same magic when all is said and done. And as the album continues on, almost every time you catch yourself thinking “Hey, this really does sound like classic Psychotic Waltz,” you get hit with a section of music that makes you think “This actually just sounds like Deadsoul Tribe with better guitar work.”
But if you’re someone who’s not very attached to the Psychotic Waltz sound of old and are able to listen to The God-Shaped Void in a vacuum, it’s actually a really good record. If you’re riddled with the expectations that come with being very aware and familiar with their nearly perfect 90s discography, it’s also hard not to be disappointed.
So yes, Psychotic Waltz were able to avoid the reunion album curse. It’s a well-written record with top-notch performances and constant reminders of the musical trailblazing they were able to achieve in the 90s. But it’s also a testament to just how hard it is to recapture the same creative magic and chemistry after two decades of being apart.
Cover photo by Axel Jusseit
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