Black metal needs more fretless bass. This is the immediate takeaway from Psychic Secretions, the fourth album from Australian prog-metal act StarGazer. Actually, that’s not fair, because black metal is a relatively minor component of their sound. It’s present, in the form of blast beats and croaked vocals, but the guitar riffs are much more rooted in death metal, particularly the progressive, even jazzy death metal of the early 1990s — Death, Atheist, Sadus and to a certain degree early Opeth.
By the time their first album, 2005’s aptly named The Scream That Tore the Sky, was released, they’d been together for a full decade, so it was no surprise that they seemed to emerge fully formed. The two primary members, guitarist Denny Blake aka The Serpent Inquisitor and bassist Damon Good aka The Great Righteous Destroyer, share vocal duties, and are capable of a variety of styles including black metal screeches, guttural death metal growls, dramatic recitation (on “Ye Olde Magicks”), and the occasional piercing power metal scream, just to keep the listener on their toes. On The Scream…, the riffs were fast and complex, winding around each other and changing often. When the jazz fusion bass broke through the roar, though, it added a dreamlike, almost psychedelic quality.
The band took five years to return, releasing A Great Work of Ages in 2010. The jazzy and psychedelic elements were toned down substantially, that deep liquid bass buried in the mix beneath layers of shredding guitars. The songs were longer, too; where many of the tracks on the previous record had been in the two- to three-minute range, with the 7:43 “Ye Olde Magicks” a notable exception, this time out they were charging on for five or six minutes on average, really blowing things out on “Chase for the Serpentsong,” which ran a full 9:15. The blurry, roaring mix was more akin to early Morbid Angel, with some Portal-esque chaos thrown in, than the comparatively airy The Scream…, and drummer Selenium (real name unknown) was capable of more complicated rhythms than Blake, who’d played on the debut. A few tracks, “Pipes of Psychosomatis,” had an almost catchy, anthemic headbanging quality, but overall Great Work was a deliberately challenging effort.
Their third album, 2014’s A Merging to the Boundless, started out rawer and more assaultive than anything that had come before. The opening “Black Gammon” was a headlong, almost punky black metal blast recalling bands like Black Anvil. The riffs sawed the air; the drumming was a thunderous rumble; and the bass frippery was totally absent. Fortunately, it reappeared on the second track, “Old Tea,” and stuck around for the rest of the album. As titles like “An Earth Rides Its Endless Carousel,” “Ride the Everglade of Reogniroro” and “Incense and Aeolian Chaos” might indicate, this was in many ways an extremely proggy, noodly record. It never lost sight of the main goal, though, which was to bludgeon the listener with RIFFFFFSSSSS. (They later released an instrumental version of the album, A Merging to the Boundless: Void of Voyce, which I have not heard.)
Psychic Secretions is almost the polar opposite of A Merging… This time out, StarGazer are leaning all the way into their jazz fusion side. The album opens with “Simulacrum,” a short but immediately mood-setting fretless bass duet, Good harmonizing with himself in a manner not far from “A Last Farewell,” the equally jazzy coda to Diluvium, the 2018 album by German progressive death metal act Obscura (reviewed here). The actual songs, beginning with “Lash of the Tytans” (as always, titles hover right on the line between grandiose/melodramatic and silly), feature some of the band’s most anthemic, fist-in-the-air riffing, even if Blake’s guitar is mixed as a jagged, ugly grinding sound like someone chain-sawing through sheet metal. Good’s bass is as loud as or louder than the guitar throughout, a cross between Lemmy and Stanley Clarke, and he gets a few more moments to himself, like the dreamlike interlude two-thirds of the way through “Star Vassal.” The drums, from new member Alan Cadman (aka Khronomancer) are mixed more powerfully than before, with greater separation and crispness. The way he cuts off his crash cymbals seems particularly crucial to maintaining the intensity of the attack.
The album gets heavier and thrashier as it goes along, with almost psychedelic guitar solos emerging like demon horses galloping out of the fog. On the penultimate track, “All Knowing Cold,” the drums are processed in a 1970s manner, and the song begins with a slow, chugging riff to which it returns again and again, Good’s bass rumbling like an evil car idling right behind you. The bursts of speed are clearly only brief diversions from the overall mood of creeping doom (with bonus proggy fusion). The album’s final track, though, is a complete departure. For the first four of its seven minutes, “Pilgrim Age” is a kind of power metal dirge, with mournful vocals laid over clean guitar and liquid bass. In its second half, though, the song cranks up and becomes a headbanging anthem, the riffs soaring atop Cadman’s massive, explosive drumming.
StarGazer started strong 16 years ago, and have delivered one solid-to-great album after another, taking enough time between to make sure that everything they release is as good as it can be. They’ve evolved without ever moving so far from their earlier work that they seem like a new band, and are now one of the most interesting groups on the “progressive” end of the extreme metal spectrum. Psychic Secretions is likely to wind up one of the best metal releases of 2021, so don’t miss out.
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