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Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: Machine Head (Mega Review By Paul)

Machine Head: Catharsis (Nuclear Blast Records)

Much has already been written about this album. Few bands stir such polarised opinions as Oakland’s Machine Head. Three years since Bloodstone and Diamonds, an album that received mixed reviews but actually holds some significantly impressive tracks, the drip feed for album number 9 was probably a bad idea in retrospect, with the social media s**t storm fuelled by Robb Flynn’s indignation at the poor reviews that were flying in.

So what do we actually get? Well, things start off on the right tone with Volatile, Flynn’s snarling “F*** the world” in the first bars leading into a stomping track, albeit with more than an echo of Des Moines’ very own Slipknot. The duelling guitar work of Flynn and Phil Demmel rescue it, Jared MacEachern’s harmonies on the choruses providing a useful foil to Flynn’s trademark roar and continue to do so throughout the release. Halfway through the track slows in typical MFH style, the breakdown to shrieking solo inevitable.

My huge problem with this track is the tinny production, with minimal bass sound; we are at And Justice For All territory for a few minutes. We’ve already heard the title track as part of the pre-release tracks, but it’s worth dwelling on it again. Catharsis contains a slow, atmospheric build up, Dave McLain’s drumming steady as Flynn moves from clean to grizzly vocals. There are massive traces of the MFH circa 2003 here, crashing riffs and Flynn moving to a rap style (question: didn’t he always sound like this?) combined with melody and the hook which is going to have halls up and down the country head banging ‘muthaf**rs’. I can cope with Catharsis.

Beyond The Pale was subjected to huge criticism for its similarities to Strapping Young Lad’s Love. Indeed, there is huge correlation between the two tracks, and yes, the riffs are virtually identical. But then, most metal is recycled isn’t it? There’s not a lot wrong with this one, Flynn’s aggressive vocals spitting resistance and a welcome bit of clean singing allows him to demonstrate that he can actually sing, not just shout or drawl. The bass remains hidden in the mix but at least we get some classic MFH guitar harmonies. It’s not the monster groove bastard you are screaming for by now but it does pull some weight. The angst of California Bleeding is, for me, where the cracks begin to show for the first time. A throw away social commentary, it is routine, unremarkable and instead of pounding the skull it merely tickles.

However, things hit a new low with Triple Beam. A return to the rap nu-metal days of The Burning Red, this is a truly awful song. I’ve listened to it over and over again but I can’t find anything decent here. And then we roll into the car crash that is Kaleidoscope. The clapping, skipping intro is strange enough, Flynn’s roar all over the place, but all of a sudden Machine Head are roaring again. For a couple of minutes the band engages the gears of past glories, before introducing synthesiser lines and some orchestral elements. However, the lyrics are gibberish, with Flynn falling back on the tired and unnecessary “middle finger in the air”. Now, I’m all in favour of experimenting and this is a band that has earnt the right to say “f**k you” to the world; it’s just disjointed and unremarkable and not particularly exciting. For a man of 50, raging is just a little bit of a caricature. And we aren’t even at halfway yet.

If you thought the vitriol was bad for the earlier released tracks, that was nothing compared to the internet reaction that sped forth for the folk Celtic punk effort of B*s. Taking the track in isolation, it actually has grown on me but oh dear, that doesn’t mean it’s a screamer. As it develops it gets more and more cringe worthy, Flynn using provocative lyrics to make his point. I’ve always hated his drawling style on the quieter this tracks and this hits that nerve again. This may have seemed a brave move at the time but if there is one track on here that is divisive, then it is this track.

By now I’m beginning to flag, seven songs down and nothing has really grabbed me by the balls. And at last, here is a song that gets the pits moving and the head banging. Hope Begets Hope, a stomping tub thumper with Demmel at last allowed loose. Traditional metal drumming, Flynn on fire, both lyrically and vocally. 4 minutes 30 seconds. That’s all it takes. Screaming At The Sun is mediocre, a slower paced tune that doesn’t appear to know where it is going so inevitably goes nowhere. I quite like the echoing backing vocals though.

If you’ve managed to stay with it you suddenly realise that you’ve nearly made it through. An acoustic guitar provides the intro to Behind The Mask, which has grown on me despite its echoes of Corey Taylor and Stone Sour. The welcome addition of haunting female backing vocals is another departure from the norm on a song which is emotionally powerful and for me one of the better tracks. Hell, Flynn evens does a Mikael Akerfeldt turn halfway through. The flamenco style guitar enhances rather than hinders and the clean singing is superb. Heavy Lies The Crown is the jewel in amongst too much mediocrity. At just under nine minutes it is the central piece to the album; it builds dramatically, string sections add atmosphere, McLain’s percussion work moves the track along before it explodes into a massive track.

Not especially heavy, but with a repetitive riff which gets all parts moving; for once a MFH track that doesn’t need to go at 100mph to be effective. Reassuringly that doesn’t last and we are soon rampaging in familiar territory, a chunky thrash groove kicks in as Flynn’s take on Louis XI, the Spider King of France. The nu-metal edge of Psychotic is saved to some extent by a huge underlying groove whilst Grind You Down’s lacerating guitar intro leads to another schizophrenic track. The penultimate track, Razorblade Smile, is allegedly a tribute to Lemmy.

Well, the riff from Overkill is certainly visible, but the lyrics are yet more tripe; “All this debauched sh** came out” said Flynn about the writing. Well, I don’t recall the great Motörhead man ever writing about ‘eating p***’. Shame, really as the music does kick hard. And then we get to the album’s final track, the dark and haunting Eulogy. Unfortunately this sounds like a continuation of B*s with repeated lyrics and chords surfacing and it really doesn’t do much at all despite the apparent ‘epic’ status it is clearly attempting to obtain.

As I listened to Catharsis I pondered on a number of things:

Has the constant adulation heaped on the band since The Blackening contributed to the deterioration in quality of writing?

Was it ever right to expect another mammoth album? Who knows?

What did the rest of the band think when recording these tracks? Are they fully on board?

And what really fuels Robb Flynn? Consider his angry ripostes to negative reviews, his bizarre social media ramblings, his attacks on Phil Anselmo etc.

Machine Head were once rightly touted the great hope for metal. They still have the capacity to do it and I hope that their live shows in May will rip a hole in the venues they’ve chosen. It remains to be seen. What is clear is that Catharsis is not a great album. Solid, with some decent tracks but too long and with a change in direction that has polarised opinions once more. Maybe that’s the real beauty of the band. I intend to write a retrospective piece on this album later in the year, once the dust has settled and the album is a more comfortable companion. At this moment in time, there’s sufficient here only to give the album a solid 6/10

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