Psycrence - A Frail Deception album cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothPsycrence write song-oriented metal, with composition, fury, and melody. This is a young band with a personal sound, plenty of ability, and the ambition to write quality music in the voice they've found.

A Frail Deception
Artist: Psycrence
Label: Arkeyn Steel Records
Time: 10 tracks / 62:00 minutes

Every once in a while, you've got to listen to something you might not ordinarily put in your stereo. I'm a prog guy, so most of my music selection is on the progressive, ambient, or quirky end of the spectrum. In other words, music that lands squarely in one genre or another tends to be my exception, not my norm. However, I'm very glad that I happened to give A Frail Deception by Psycrence, a melodic heavy metal band based in Athens, a detailed listen.

The band's lineup consists of frontman Takis Nikolakakis (vocals), Thomas Kouris (bass), Michael Aggelos Kouropoulos (guitars), Kimon Zeliotis (guitars, synth arrangement and programming), and Timoleon Valsamakis (drums). Following the notable success of their first release (a self-produced EP entitled Distance, released in 2010), A Frail Deception is the band's debut full-length album, mastered by Jens Borgen (noted especially for his work with Opeth and Symphony X). Since the album hit the market late in April, it has been featured on and Spotify, and has already received encouraging reviews from metal and prog communities alike.

In that regard, I've seen a number of reviewers cite progressive elements in Psycrence' music. Before I dive into the album's content, I have to be frank that there isn't much prog to speak of on A Frail Deception. In fact, outside of some meter changes and the occasionally varied song structure, the band's material is essentially straightforward metal. Syncopation and counter-rhythm, though tools frequently used in prog, certainly aren't elements foreign to metal. The prog comparisons probably arise because Psycrence cite Dream Theater and Symphony X as influences, and while those acts have certainly left an imprint on the band's overall sound, only someone with a vague idea of what comprises progressive music would go so far as to label them "progressive" metal. Please understand, I don't say any of that to demean a quality band or their excellent music: I'm merely pointing out that what Psycrence writes falls almost squarely into the metal genre. Furthermore, they write in that guise well, combining the aggressiveness of the heavy metal mantra with strong melodic elements, as well as incorporating ambient, atmospheric breaks to add dynamic differentiation to their compositions. This is a band with a personal sound, plenty of ability, and the ambition to write quality music in the voice they've found.

The band members deny that A Frail Deception is a concept album in terms of being one continuous story, but each song represents an individual tale of loss – each involving some feeble element of self-deception. For example, "A Losing Game," the first track on the album, recalls the plight of Dr. Faustus: the protagonist has lost someone close to him and finds himself unable – or unwilling – to cope with the pain. Enter the Mephistopheles persona, in this case "a shadow... in human form [who] made false promises to entice," knowing that the mourner was too "blinded by the sorrow that filled [his] soul" to think rationally. Appropriately, the track begins with an eerie piano riff and grinding bass, building with plodding rhythm until the double-tracked electric guitars assume the piano riff and Nikolakakis' powerful vocals enter. A brief interlude features orchestral strings, interlaced with the introductory piano riff, before one final chorus.

The second track, "Convergence," is the first of four that were initially released on the Distance EP. The song fades in with a heavy guitar riff, split between Kouropoulos and Zeliotis into interweaving parts. Both guitarists trade solos and share finger-tapping parts as well as harmonizing licks that span the breadth of this track. Nikolakakis' lyrics recall Daniel Gildenlöw's "Mr. Money" persona from Pain of Salvation's BE. The speaker who "wander[s] through the unknown sunless days... watch[ing] mankind's fall" seems to be humanity's only survivor, albeit possessing far less personal culpability than does Mr. Money on BE. However, his sense of powerlessness to stop the technological destruction is certainly a form of self-imposed guilt, as the speaker's remorse suggests the outcome was foreseeable.

"Forced Evolution" begins in much more restrained fashion than the previous tracks, but quickly evolves from its loose introduction into a rapid first verse. Compositionally, this track features a unique double-chorus type of structure, or an elongated pre-chorus, written with a half-time feel to give the secondary chorus a burst of momentum. Kouropoulos and Zeliotis' solos bookend a final verse, and the song takes a long instrumental outro before the final unison chops that end the track.

Again utilizing post-apocalyptic and sci-fi elements, "Moral Decay" delves thematically into humanity's scientific quest for eternal life – an innocent if ill-fated dream of curing all disease and sickness through technological advancement. "What if we could cure all disease [and] extend our life on earth?" Nikolakakis ponders. "[What] if we could look death straight in his eyes and have a fighting chance?" However noble and selfless this ambition might have been, it inevitably led the researchers to the limitations of ethics, the place where basic principles of morality must be abandoned in order to achieve the final goal. This track is probably the closest to a power metal (Gamma Ray-esque) composition, featuring prominent double-bass and chugging guitars, overlaid with harmonic finger-tapping licks. The track also features four guitar solos, traded back and forth between Psycrence' pair of guitarists. It is difficult to make the distinction of whether it is Kouropoulos or Zeliotis who is leading, partly because their playing styles share technical similarities, and partly because even during solos they are complimenting each other via harmonic runs.

After the aggressive fury of "Moral Decay," "Subconscious Eyes" fades in with an ethereal mix of string pads and a gentle finger-tapped riff, before the drums and second guitar enter with strong support. Nikolakakis' vocals are superb, stacked in sweeping three-part harmonies on the choruses. His lyrics channel the ideologies of Surrealism and Dada – the sentiment of a world seen only through closed eyes, a "world within the dark," revealed only through dream, vision, and unconsciousness. The speaker questions what is real, because what he witnesses is too phantasmic to be reality, and yet he falls back on the principle of faith through sight and cannot deny what he has witnessed.

"Incised Path," another re-release from the Distance EP, is one of the strongest tracks on the album, and is probably the one I'd point to as an overall favorite. The introductory guitar riff moves with the drums and bass, all playing eighth notes in unison. I appreciate the varying textures of the heavy, open guitar chords against the restless guitar riff that maintains a presence throughout the entire track. One of Psycrence' great strengths is the ability to pitch two guitar parts in contrast, a versatile tool that provides them a whole lot of options and variability. More unison guitar riffs fill the spaces on "Incised Path" where Nikolakakis isn't singing. Syncopated hits punctuate the beginnings and endings of instrumental passages, and – aside from "Reflection" – this is the only track on the album to fade out instead of coming to a definitive conclusion.

An ambient guitar riff, playing whole and half notes against driving chords and undergirding drum support, introduces "Distance." As everything fades to string pads, Kouris establishes the syncopated rhythm that the rest of the band will momentarily adopt. The third verse presents a nice variation as the string pads return and bass takes the rhythmic helm, washed in chorus guitar and bolstered by Valsamakis' work on cymbals and toms. "We're on our own," Nikolakakis sings, "Distance grows between us / I disappear, embraced by fear in isolation." This track features a predominant amount of Kouris' bass and also variates orchestration nicely between verses and choruses – something the other tracks on the album don't particularly do, with the exception of additional instrumentation.

"Reflection," the longest track on the album (nearly 8:00 minutes in length), enters with a strong guitar riff against string pads. Secondary guitar, drums, and bass all enter together without preamble before the song breaks down into a double-timed guitar riff in a unique meter. The breakdown toward the song's halfway point features acoustic guitar, partnered with Nikolakakis' pensive vocals and Kouris' strong bass support. String pads give this momentary lull an atmospheric, almost orchestral feel, just before the electric guitars roar back into full body. Zeliotis' solo toward the conclusion demonstrates again his technical ability, as well as both guitarists' capability to share melodic and harmonic roles. Static and glitchy sound effects, as well as ambient string parts, accompany the guitar outro, which continues long after the other instruments have faded.

A quality metal ballad, "Hold the Flame" beautifully concludes A Frail Deception. The track begins with acoustic guitar and strings in free time, finally joined by drums and bass, stabbing in tight unison. "Don't run away from the fire," Nikolakakis begs, promising that the "pain and burn... will release you" – if only one can endure the scarring process. This song returns to the thematic overtones of "Subconscious Eyes," of needing to waken to reality, of needing to pass through the pain of a trial in order to reach a new plain of understanding. "The denial you feel slowly dissolves the line between dream and reality," he continues, just before Zeliotis takes an appropriately frenetic guitar solo, and then the band modulates a full step for the final chorus.

A Frail Deception also features a digital bonus track (available on iTunes) – a dark cover of Ellie Goulding's pop tune, "Lights." Ironically, the band's version takes the lighthearted concept of original tune – a self-soothing lullaby to overcome the fear of darkness – and adds an element of emotional agony that renders it thematically akin to Deception's overarching elements. A metal band covering a pop tune with anything but satirical intent is surprising, but the decision resulted in an excellent addition to the album's original material.

There are a number of things about Psycrence that I really appreciate. I've come to enjoy not only what the band does, but also what they don't – for example, the simple fact that pick squeals are scarce and used as a legitimate technical device (as opposed to a a clichéd trope of the metal genre), in addition to the band's decision to pursue a melodic sound instead of utilizing death growls. I also appreciate Zeliotis and Kouropoulos not only as quality guitarists, but also as the band's songwriters. Instead of orchestrating arbitrary verses around self-gratifying guitar solos, both musicians considered aesthetic, instrumentation, and composition during the writing of A Frail Deception. Throughout the album, they trade well-structured, harmonic lead riffs, demonstrating that they not only possess considerable technique as well as the strategic ability to compliment one another, but also an uncommon level of tastefulness. I also appreciate Kouris and Valsamakis as an impeccable rhythm section; bass and drums are perpetually in unison, providing non-distractive but inventive support to each song. Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention Nikolakakis' incredible vocal performance. His voice is reminiscent of M. Shadows' (Avenged Sevenfold) and Adam Gontier's (Three Days Grace), possessing an edge and a depth that together achieve the hard-yet-melodic sound that defines Psycrence.

A Frail Deception is a refined performance. The album itself boasts superb production quality: meaty guitars that fill the mix while not drowning out Nikolakakis' vocals, undergirded by rich bass and punchy drums. Psycrence write song-oriented metal, with composition, fury, and melody. This is a band with strong musicians and a whole lot of promise. If you appreciate Symphony X, Fates Warning, Darkwater, or Queensrÿche, then A Frail Deception will be an excellent addition to your collection.

Justin Carlton


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