Literally the last thing you hear on Encephalon’s 2011 LP The Transhuman Condition are the words “You’re breaking it down/with every change you don’t make”. While obviously tied to that now seminal record’s grander themes of human-machine interaction and transcendence, it also serves as a useful bridge to their sophomore full-length Psychogenesis. The Ottawa-based electro-industrial trio are a consciously and aggressively different project than they were four years ago. That transfiguration is fundamental to the character of the band in 2015: a forced change in posture and ambition that blasts past natural ideas of creative evolution into much more alien territory. Encephalon are more grandiose, more complex and more outlandish on Psychogenesis than anyone could have anticipated.
That transformation isn’t without a cost, and those drawn to the group for their damnably catchy club songs may find themselves scratching their heads after the first listen. Psychogenesis is much more concerned with intricate unfolding arrangements and a complex narrative device concerning genetic experimentation to spend much time at the club. “Illuminate” and “Ultimate Breed” both function well as high-BPM stompers, but they’re not the focus or even all that representative of the record. For a much better example see “Desertropolis”, where a simple synthline forms the rhythmic backbone of the track, flipping between counterpoint and mirror of increasingly more urgent drums and a vocal from Matt Gifford that ranges from a deep, processed growl to melodic and back again. It’s a song of moving parts and serves as an accurate example of what Encephalon are getting at; nothing here stands still for any length of time and some new sonic wrinkle is always waiting in the wings.
An ever-shifting rubric can be dangerous, always at risk of expanding to the point where the songs at the core lose focus and dissolve from view. That’s actually the thrill of Psychogenesis‘ best songs: the wonder of how they can possibly hold themselves together through each new permutation. There’s no way “Only Biological” should function; it’s filled to the brim with drum fills, riffy synth lines that peel off in rapid succession, and a lurching stop-start tempo that always feels like it’s on the verge of a full on seizure. And yet work it does, holding itself together through careful interlocking of all of its key elements. That busyness adds to the general sense of grandeur and magnitude every track builds towards, a bearing abetted by the portentous use of piano, strings and orchestral sounds that wend their way through the record. There are few small moments here, and even they are constantly having their proportions revised to the colossal.
Friend of the site John G noted a kinship between the structures of a couple of songs on The Transhuman Condition and classic metal tunes. That point of reference has proven to be a valuable one moving forward through our listens of Psychogenesis. At the most immediate level, yeah, there are a lot more guitars on this record. “Outbreaker” doesn’t sit too far from Obsolete era Fear Factory in its use of overdriven chords to texture a narrative about the shape of things so come, and the slightly more muted guitar on “Malkuth” almost goes for a Birthday Massacre style swing. But more than that it’s in the aforementioned arrangements and break-neck turns in direction that metal comes to mind. The grand yet completely panicked and constantly accelerating intro of “Psychogenesis Zero” feels like straight-up Bal-Sagoth, despite using heavy-handed piano and synth brass rather than fretwork.
All of these changes, structural and instrumental, aren’t happening in a void. While The Transhuman Condition was certainly thematically interested in the evolutionary leaps certain technological advancements seem to dangle like carrots in front of our simian heads, Psychogenesis has a more fully-fleshed out concept and a rough narrative. From what we’ve been able to piece together, unchecked nanotech eventually results in the outward extrapolation of a single post-human consciousness to the point that it encompasses all matter across multiple worlds, attaining a sort of gnostic godhead even as it assimilates everything which once made it human. A more theosophical take on Transformers baddie Unicron with a healthy dollop of von Neumann anxiety? We’re up for that. Importantly though, the range of sounds Encephalon map out are sturdy enough to handle such grandiose aspirations, even as they’re flexible enough to adjust to more prosaic purposes. The staccato workout of the penultimate “The Descent” and the detuned club stroke of “Ultimate Breed” both carry the narrative forward in a way which seems completely commensurate with the moments or emotions they’re in service of.
It’s no mean feat to bang out a concept record on your first try which doesn’t beg the listener’s indulgence every now and again, but Psychogenesis is continually firing itself off in so many directions that listeners will have far more trouble keeping up with it than it will introducing itself. We’ll admit that it took us more than a few listens to get a birds-eye view of the course the band was charting here, but that was also the case with The Transhuman Condition and it ended up being our favourite record of 2011. With some distance we can begin to see Psychogenesis as the continuation of that record’s work: carrying the modern electro-industrial template into ever more challenging thematics and structures, while managing to keep at least one foot in the club. Encephalon yaw on Psychogenesis, but they don’t change course. Strongly recommended.