Rewriting Psalm Zero – How They Escape Genre Entirely
A paradox: bands that sound unique, or have no obvious peers in terms of sound, often struggle to find an audience. Standing out in a crowd is good for a resume, but not so much for a piece of art and entertainment. Albums sometimes come with obnoxious “For fans of” stickers to avoid this problem.
Pity the poor soul who might have to write a “For fans of” sticker for the next Psalm Zero album—the New York duo, featuring former members of Castevet and Extra Life, are adding elements of Electronic Body Music and even a little hip-hop to their still-gestating sophomore record.
“Surprisingly, there has been a lot of support from people who play in and listen to more straight up death and black metal bands,” said Andrew Hock, formerly of Castevet, who screams and plays guitar in Psalm Zero. His bandmate, Charlie Looker, agreed.
“Yeah the fans we've been attracting seem to be coming from a very cult metal place. I love that,” Looker said. “But its surprising given how melodic and even pop oriented a lot of our music is. I guess [death metal] and [black metal] people recognize the honesty and the seriousness of it.”
Describing Psalm Zero comes with hurdles. The band’s sound mixes intricate guitar playing with layers of synthesizer and drum machines, as well as both screamed and sung vocals. That sounds like an apt enough description, until you remember that it’s also true of Sleigh Bells, and the two groups sound nothing alike.
“Our sound is essentially devoid of idiomatic tropes,” Hock said, and he’s serious about this point. While the group can loosely be associated with a few other metallic pop outfits from New York, such as Vaura and Stern, Hock and Looker feel that the most the three bands have in common is shared history. “I don't think any of our bands sound like one another. Everyone you mentioned has a very distinct and interesting musical voice,” he said. “They are dear friends and there's definitely overlap with our tastes. Since we are all very close on a social and musical level, we're often hipping each other to whatever it is we're into at any given time. Charlie and I have worked with almost everybody from both those bands in different projects over the years.”
“Comparisons to Vaura and Stern are definitely welcome!” Looker opined. “Those are our buddies. Chuck Stern's my best friend, we grew up together. [...] There may be some musical similarities there, but I haven't really analyzed it. Chuck and I definitely got each other into a lot of music together when we were kids, from extreme metal to more experimental post-punk, to modern classical music. I think the Vaura guys have similar influences.”
That Psalm Zero escapes easy description stems from both Looker and Hock’s desire to make music from their guts, rather than to experiment in any given style or genre. “When we formed, my personal goal was to make music that was more emotionally direct than my previous bands, something less confusing, less technically complex. Not necessarily 'poppy,' but just something that people can understand, even if they don't share our exact musical background, influences, and reference points.” Looker said. “Psalm Zero is just our version of rock music in general, which naturally incorporates little elements from all over the map.”
Hock’s goals were to make more song-oriented music than he had been making at the same time with Castevet. “If I had a better singing voice, I would have done a project like this years ago,” he said.
The duo released their debut LP, The Drain, in 2014 and toured behind it with fellow New Yorkers Pyrrhon. Following that tour, the band has put-off a follow up album in lieu of several diversions that don’t exactly scream extreme heavy metal: they recorded an acoustic cover of Today Is The Day’s “Willpower,” and followed that up with a series of unique live performances, including the Invisible Oranges-sponsored Chaos Bodies series, a set with Hank Shteamer as a live drummer and an acoustic performance as part of Looker’s residency at The Stone.
More recently, the band released a music video single, “Real Rain.” It will be the first of three videos, collectively called The Birthright Trilogy. The video, directed by Winston Case comes across as a subversive rejoinder to the popular Humans of New York blog; it’s seemingly anonymous footage of NYC residents, set to a pounding beat and the repeating chorus of “New York dead.” The footage is mostly benign, but isolated shots of a possibly homeless person shadow-boxing, and a child playing near a window, hint at a climax that never comes. future videos in The Birthright Trilogy will be directed by Roger Hayn ("Introducing Bobby") and Zev Dean (Behemoth, Portal).
It’s an unusual promotion strategy for what promises to be an unusual album. The as-yet untitled second release features Hock in a more prominent role—now that Castevet is broken up, he is channeling all of his riffs into Psalm Zero. On the other hand, judging by “Real Rain,” the band is using more and bigger hooks than on The Drain.
The band promises that the programmed elements in particular are taking a different tack. “I’ve been incorporating more electronic auxiliary percussive sounds, and taking more cues from rap music and EBM sounds. The first record was [...] pretty low-tech. This stuff is just more hooked up. There are more really low and really high frequencies, instead of just hanging out in the rock music mid-range,” Looker said. He cautioned listeners against reading too deeply into the hip-hop elements, however. “I’m not really talking about wholesale genre references here. I mostly just mean a certain hi-hat sound, maybe a few instances of some jerky syncopated rhythms that are a little outside of rock. Vocally there's nothing rap-like at all in Psalm Zero. [...] As for EBM, again, the influence is just in very specific sound elements that I'm stealing.”
It’s difficult to imagine a band like Psalm Zero existing prior to the internet. Looker and Hock’s propensity for assimilating disparate musical elements into a single whole brings to mind the eclectic aesthetic experience of perusing a well-curated Tumblr or Instagram page. At the same time, it’s difficult to think of a band that needs the wide net of the internet to find it’s fanbase—extreme metal fans with an appeal for dark and cerebral melodic rock music—the way Psalm Zero does. To their credit, they’re promoting their music in the same outsider art fashion with which they make it. Their sophomore record is slated for a release in spring.