Live at Death By Audio

The Psychic Paramount - Live at Death By Audio March 5, 2011 in Brooklyn, New York. Video footage by Bryan Zimmerman. Photos by Gisel Florez.

"The Dark Light"
appearing in The Daily
- March 16, 2011

The Psychic Paramount pushes the sound beyond songs

At some point in the late ’60s, a certain brand of loud guitar music began to form. Black Sabbath’s doomy plod was the rough base for this new sound, though it also drew from the work of obscure ’60s bands labeled “psychedelic” (mostly because nobody else knew what to call guitar music that buried the vocals and refused to play nice). Over the past 40 years, much of this music has been called “heavy metal,” even though this particular music has little investment in charging forward or telling stories, and metal often does. Eventually, “heavy music” became the going term for this sound; local promoter Adam Shore has created a concert series called Blackened that specializes in booking “heavy” acts. This appellation works slightly better than most genre names because it is so loose — and there is no single way to describe heavy bands. All are loud, some painfully so; most are centered around a traditional rock-band setup, though some aren’t; and all of them make some part of the experience unusually intense.
New York’s the Psychic Paramount is as heavy as it gets. The guitar, bass and drums trio uses no singing, and stretches most of its songs past the five-minute mark. Last week at Death By Audio in Brooklyn, The Daily watched the band play to a small, passionate crowd (made up mostly of men in their late 30s with beards). The room filled with smoke, and the band was backlit with strong lights that made the members’ faces impossible to see. When the music was over, it felt like we’d all been driven around the block in a van full of bowling balls, blindfolded, and then placed back where we had started. (In a good way.) Not ones to play shows or record often, the band answered a few questions from The Daily.

You have been together a fairly long time but haven’t released many recordings. What’s the story?

Drew St. Ivany, guitarist: [Bassist] Ben Armstrong and I were in Laddio Bolocko until that band broke up in 2000. We formed the Psychic Paramount in November 2002 and did a tour in France and Italy with drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. The band lasted only two or three weeks. The decision was made to reignite the band in 2004, and we began rehearsing in New York. [Drummer] Jeff Conaway, who played in Sabers, was introduced to us by mutual friends. We went into the studio shortly after and recorded Gamelan Into the Mink Supernatural.
We decided to start work on a new album in 2007. In 2008, we went into a studio and recorded basic tracks for the album, which were ditched. Another two or three years went by in a flash. Finally, we went in to another studio and rerecorded everything in 2009, and finished mixing it in 2010.
During all that time, we toured sporadically in Europe and the United States. To say we spent an excessive amount of time experimenting and exploring new ideas in our studio is an understatement. There are heaps of abandoned material.

The combination of backlighting, smoke and music is fairly assaultive. How do you navigate the line between music and pure overload?

Drew: We tend to navigate recklessly, and sometimes exciting things happen. It’s not fail-safe. We want the show to be action-packed, sonically, but we’re not trying to be aggressive. People have different thresholds.

Jeff: It can be jarring. Our friend Aran Tharp was in charge of the lighting and smoke at Death by Audio. During certain shows, he is shooting film and has a hand-held spotlight.

Someone called out Big Black’s “Jordan, Minnesota” at the beginning of the show. That song is over 20 years old — what does a reference like that mean to you guys?

Jeff: I thought they were saying “Jojo Monshtafo.”

Drew: I guess the atmosphere reminded them of Big Black. We should have brought firecrackers.

Are there other bands you feel a kinship with now?

Drew: Aluk Todolo.

Jeff: I always had a great time at Coptic Light shows, but they are defunct now. I thought we fit well together.

Music like the Psychic Paramount’s is probably not hugely commercial. In light of that, what do you see as the mission of the band?

Drew: There is no good way to justify an addiction.

Jeff: I always think of it as making what you would want to hear yourself. Not only are we heavy, but there is no singing. I love the challenge of making instrumental music, and so many times singers and/or lyrics are the downfall of otherwise good music.

The New York Times
“Rhythmic Riffs of Explosive, Manic Instrumental Energy”

The Psychic Paramount doesn’t use words. It’s a rock trio without a singer, just guitar-bass-drums, and it lives entirely in the brawny lead-up, the big gestures of riff, rhythm and echo that generally point toward the real composed beginning of a song, the part that we end up whistling.

But there is no such song forthcoming. So the group’s show at Death by Audio, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, late Saturday sounded like the instrumental way stations within a bloodthirsty performance by a band with songs (like, say, the Who’s in “Live at Leeds”) stretched across more than an hour. Or like free jazz with rock syncopation and dynamics. There’s some pacing, some narrative, lots of purpose, but the basic idea is to be always exploding in your face.

It makes lots of sense. The idea is right, the scale is right, the time is right. (Repetition is mother’s milk to all of us, and who needs another rock band with lyrics?) Sure, this music can grow tiresome. It was also very loud on Saturday. But the tired feeling you might have gotten was not solo fatigue. The guitarist Drew St. Ivany, the center of the band, didn’t play traditional solos in any sense. With Jeff Conaway’s syncopated drum groove and a blown-out repeated bass line (by Ben Armstrong) that contains an octave jump, suddenly this felt like progressive rock from 30 years ago except that the songs didn’t become fancy with chord changes. Instead, Mr. St. Ivany just repeated an extended-harmony chord for minutes at a time. He strummed fast, his guitar running through a couple of digital filters to make the sound ringing and rubbery. Or he took his hands off the fretboard and manipulated loops and feedback, making whining and roaring and percussive sounds — amazing sounds really.

Saturday’s show wasn’t improvisational, either. It drew directly from the shape of the pieces on the band’s new record, “II,” and the previous one, from 2005, “Gamelan Into the Mink Supernatural,” rather than expand and contract and move forward in free improvisation, as the band did back at the beginning, nine years ago.

In all that time the Psychic Paramount has moved pretty slowly up the ladder of local sound systems, and Death by Audio’s didn’t quite cut it; the show could not replicate anything like the pressurized feeling of “II.” You should see the group at a festival that will put the band in the right place with the right sound. Or you should hear “II.” Or you should just experience someone raving about what the Psychic Paramount amounts to at its idealized best: a manic ongoing present.

A version of this review appeared in print on March 7, 2011, on page C5 of the New York edition.