One of the more unfortunate pieces of historical revisionism propagated by various mainstream cultural outfits since the dawn of the new millennium is the puzzling notion that the ’90s were a time of stagnation for metal. Most fans by now should be aware of the tired go-to argument, that the genre was read its last rites and laid to rest by the arrival and eventual explosion of the Seattle “Grunge” sound. Setting aside record sales or Billboard chart positions, utterly useless measurements of quality if ever there were any, the claim that metal was “dead” in the ’90s is an objectively absurd statement. Not only was metal very much alive in the 90’s, but the early-to-mid 90’s, in particular, saw the genre evolve at an exhilarating rate. The death and black metal subgenres that emerged the previous decade transitioned into fully formed beasts of their own while bands in the US and all throughout Europe pushed doom metal into more extreme territories leading to subgenres like death/doom and funeral doom.
Subgenres birthed new subgenres, bands became more daring, more experimental, and even cross-pollinated with outside sources, often to the disdain of many a conservative-minded fan but very few bands seemed concerned with fan backlash to experimentation. In his dissection of progressive Norwegian chameleons Solefald’s 1999 album Neonism, drummer for Georgia-based tech metal instrumentalists Canvas Solaris Hunter Ginn summed the decade up perfectly, christening it “a sustained fever dream, a hallucination of potential and fearlessness.”[i]
While 90’s metal wasn’t without its fair share of bands that opted for a more stripped-down, groove-centric sound following Pantera’s breakthrough, the genre as a whole nevertheless seemed to embrace progression and for a time the specific subgenre of progressive metal found itself in the spotlight. Just as thrash metal has its “Big 4” of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax, progressive metal has its own collective of breakthrough bands known as the “Big 3”: Fates Warning, Queensrÿche and Dream Theater, who all achieved various levels of mainstream acclaim in the early ’90s, particularly the later following the surprise traction gained by “Pull Me Under” in 1992, itself saw as a reaction to the overall direction of the airwaves and proof of an underserved audience for more demanding music. While the prowess of the big 3 is unquestionable, as is all too often the case, there was no shortage of progressive bands who, for a variety of reasons never achieved the same level of attention yet became cult heroes to dedicated, adventures listeners.
Perhaps no band defines that class of cult prog heroes better than San Diego’s Psychotic Waltz. Formed in 1985 originally as Aslan, the band recorded one demo under that moniker in 1986 before changing the name to the much more evocative Psychotic Waltz and it was with the release of their debut full-length album, A Social Grace, in November of 1990 that Psychotic Waltz set an early standard of originality and quality for themselves and a host of ambitious metal bands that sprung up in the ensuing progressive ’90s.
In Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal, former Metal Maniacs editor Jeff Wager puts forward the idea of progressive metal existing in two forms, Progressive, or Prog metal with a capital “P” and progressive metal with a lowercase “p”. The capital “P” is reserved for bands that follow the blueprints laid by the big 3, especially bands that formed in the wake of Dream Theater’s moment in the sun, bands that traffic in epic, conceptual song structures with technical virtuosity often taking center stage. A good portion of these bands also tend not to veer very far from that comfort zone which can lead to some semantic arguments when it comes to the term “progressive”. Lowercase “p” progressive metal is more of an umbrella term for bands that push through the confines of genre, refuse easy classification, and deliberately step out of comfort zones. Citing progressive music distributor Ken Golden who in turn cites author Paul Stump, Wager writes:
“Opinions vary passionately when it comes to applying the “progressive” definition to the heavily populated and popular Big Three-derived scene. Ken Golden of The Laser’s Edge label references Paul Stump’s The Music’s All That Matters. “In that book”, Golden says, “Stump clearly delineated the difference between Progressive with a capital “P” and progressive with a little “p”. Progressive with a capital “P” meaning a style, a formula. Progressive with a little “p” being an adjective, describing music that’s trying to progress, trying to do something innovative and challenging, and break down barriers.”[ii]
Going by that criteria, Psychotic Waltz were always weird outliers from the beginning with one foot in both the capital and lowercase “P” progressive spheres. On one hand, the music on A Social Grace does share certain similarities with the now-familiar majestic Prog metal sound, offering its own peculiar brand of jaw-dropping instrumental mastery, tricky arrangements, clean, melodic vocals and of course the influence of classic progressive rock. At the same time, Psychotic Waltz is the very definition of a lowercase “p” progressive band as laid out by Wager. A chronological listen through their original four-album run from 1990 to 1996 reveals a band in a perpetual forward motion with zero lateral detours in their admittedly and fully endorsed bloodshot sights. Beginning with A Social Grace, each album up to and including Bleeding (1996) contained its own unique, individualistic sound while also retaining a signature, psychedelic class that made Psychotic Waltz such a special band in the first place on A Social Grace.
If the colorful, surreal horror show courtesy of artist Mike Clift (1967-2015) on the front cover, almost a cross between Delvaux and Trouille put through heavy lysergic filtering, wasn’t enough of a signifier that this was a very different band, Psychotic Waltz set themselves apart from their progressive contemporaries immediately on A Social Grace as songwriters. Always one of the more song-oriented progressive bands, Psychotic Waltz may have never favored epic suites (their longest song to date remains “The Dream”, a 10:26 instrumental from the 1999 compilation album Dark Millennium) but were nonetheless brilliantly forward-thinking as well as economic songwriters, coherently squeezing in enough ideas for a ten-minute song into five or six minutes. Opening track “And the Devil Cried” makes this songcraft apparent from the outset with thrashing tempo shifts that leave neither the band’s technical or metal credentials in doubt, various mood swings and vocalist Devon Graves’ (then going under the “Buddy Lackey” name) unorthodox cadence setting the tone. The rest of the album unfolds in a similarly unpredictable fashion, the sonic textures becoming richer and richer the deeper the album gets with the lush acoustic passages in “Halo of Thorns” and “Another Prophet Song”, the spacey, keyboard-driven “Sleeping Dogs” and a grand piano on “A Psychotic Waltz” providing additional ornamentation. The bands most prominent classic progressive rock influence, Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson being an idol to Graves, or “Teacher”, as Graves describes Anderson, a reference to the Jethro Tull song of the same name) arrives at the album’s mid-point by way of the fan-favorite ballad “I Remember” with Graves delivering a flute solo, the instrument going on to to be something of a calling card for Graves.
Although only their first album, the band had been writing and playing for nearly five years prior to recording A Social Grace and already display a remarkable sense of balance in their songwriting. The goal of Psychotic Waltz was never to reach Watchtower or Spiral Architect levels of mathematics, however, there are numerous instances on A Social Grace of utterly head-spinning instrumentation such as the jagged, nervous rhythms featured in songs like “Successor” and “Strange” and especially the warped whole of “In This Pace” which emphasizes the “psychotic” portion of the bands’ namesake. Even during the album’s trickier moments the band easily averts any and all accusations of pretension or coldness with guitar duo Dan Rock and Brian McAlpin, two of the most shamefully unheralded guitarists in the genre, playing with the same amount of feeling as skill. Rock and McAlpin’s cosmic solo tones and lead work on tracks such as “Halo of Thorns”, “Only in a Dream” and “Strange” take on a mesmeric quality and are a major contributing factor to the bands psychedelic sheen. Similarly, trance-like are Graves’ wildly idiosyncratic vocals with Graves performing a variety of vocal gymnastics throughout the album, his phrasing often as catchy as it is off-kilter. The band’s combined skill set of compositional mastery and emotional poignancy collide beautifully late in the album on the band’s namesake song “A Psychotic Waltz”. Eloquently described by Ula Gehret of Clandestine Music as “an architecture of genius, showing a deft touch for arrangements and orchestration…[iii], the song is one of the most stirring creations in all of metal regardless of the subgenre and stands alongside the title track to the band’s 1992 follow-up to A Social Grace, Into the Everflow, as the band’s towering songwriting achievement.”
A self-financed labor of love, A Social Grace was released on November 26, 1990. Although the band secured distribution in Europe through Germany’s Rising Sun Productions, in the US the album was released via the band’s own label, Sub-Sonic. Given their unique sound and aesthetic coupled with the lack of any real wide distribution network, it was almost predetermined that Psychotic Waltz would be an eternal cult entity in America. Europeans however, both fans and various metal press outfits, were quick to latch onto Psychotic Waltz and A Social Grace and it’s overseas where the band was truly appreciated, though mounting interpersonal conflicts and an eventual legal battle stemming from an accident on the set of the “Faded” music video resulting in an actress losing her sight would eventually do the band in. Guitarist Dan Rock would release two albums with his progressive instrumental inspired outfit Darkstar while Graves would focus on his Deadsoul Tribe project. As fate would have it, the Psychotic Waltz stock rose considerably during this period of dormancy with Metal Blade Records re-issuing all four albums in 2004 on their European imprint and eventually the seemingly unthinkable happened six years later. The band announced their comeback in 2010 and although yet another decade would pass, February 14, 2020, finally saw the release of the fifth Psychotic Waltz studio album, The God-Shaped Void. With a twenty-four year gap in between albums, there are moments on The God-Shaped Void that clearly harkens back to the band’s past but the album is absent of any self-plagiarism with the band more or less picking up from where they left off with Bleeding with yet a further evolution of their sound. The God-Shaped Void, ultimately another sterling addition to the Psychotic Waltz catalog also had the distinction of being released to a new generation of fans the band had acquired during their absence who had since discovered their legacy. The legacy which began 30 years ago with A Social Grace, a benchmark release in progressive music from a band that continues to define what a progressive band truly is.
[i]Ginn, Hunter. Let Me Out of My Prison Cell: The Liberated Omni-Metal of SOLEFALD’S Neonism. https://radicalresearch.org/solefalds-neonism/, 2020
[ii]Wagner, Jeff. Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal. Bazillion Points, 2010
[iii]Gehret, Ula. Metal Blade Records, 2004