Drew St. Ivany, guitarist for Manhattan abstract noise trio the Psychic Paramount, told the Village Voice last week: “Our creative process is both lazy and ambitious, so it takes a long time.” That’s all you have to say after hiding in the void for five years following the pivotal release of your debut? What band kills the PR train like that and then apologizes by saying they’re lazy? I thought the Pyschic Paramount had evaporated into nothingness, went the route of Syd Barrett, or permanently exiled themselves to bang cymbals and guitars in French underground clubs where they could be best accepted.
The Psychic Paramount seizes a musical idea at its inception and mounts it on a crucifix, whipping it with examination until that once-simple idea becomes a complex bastard of an opus. They broke through with an early live album documenting their 2002 European tour, and that record still sounds radical today—a snapshot of untamed, reckless instrumental catharsis. Live 2002 succeeded by showcasing a group stumbling into ecstasy, unable to contain the wild rumpus exploding out of their drumkits and amplifiers, and, existing simply as a trio, the Psychic Paramount shouldn’t be able to let loose the complex squall of which they are capable. The size and strength of the sound the Psychic Paramount is able to generate as a standard guitar-bass-drums trio truly is stupefying, but here on their second studio album, a decade into their career, the Psychic Paramount’s ambitions have grown from simply cutting loose in a live setting to fundamentally retranslating the language of instrumental rock. Embracing the precepts of Albert Ayler-esque free jazz that locates a theme and variates on it until its atomic structure is split wide open, here the band has deliberately blurred the line between composition and improvisation. While Ayler made that sound revolutionary, the Psychic Paramount has bit off a bit more than they can chew.
In that same Village Voice interview, St. Ivany relates the story of a man who attended the Psychic Paramount’s shows for medical purposes, standing near the front of the stage and using the deep frequencies to counteract stomach pains. This is an appropriate story with which to frame II because the album is very cold and mechanical, the group measuring out their sound in precise doses. They’re not surrendering to the noise like they used to; instead, they’re caught up in their own machinery and fascinated with its intricacy. St. Ivany and bassist Ben Armstrong formulate the algorithms, navigating with angular chords and anxious basslines, but Jeff Conaway’s drumming is what retains the recklessness that made Live 2002 so great—ironic, since he wasn’t a member of the group at that point. His gleeful riffing borrowed from Ringo’s performance on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” on “Isolated” is one of II‘s best moments.
These guys sound best when they give themselves the freedom to cut loose rather than reinvent their own language, like in the opening of “Intro/SP,” which begins with a disorienting and visceral freak out. “N6” similarly comes alive when St. Ivany unleashes a harrowing growl from his guitar at the two-minute mark, but it lasts for all of 30 seconds before the group abandons it for a more indulgent arrangement.
The Psychic Paramount’s musicianship deserves to be celebrated. Ambitious, yes, and occasionally invigorating, but I have to call bullshit on II. It’s their densest and most detailed work to date, but without the cathartic spirit of their live shows (Gamelan was written largely in a live setting), II sounds stripped of the music’s previous rapture. This is art for art’s sake, in need of an injection of uninhibited joy.