Throughout their 24 year career, the modern metal colossus that is Machine Head have seen their fair amount of love, hate and skepticism. A band who change with the times, not necessarily with the trends, they have shown especially interesting senses of progression most recently through adding string sections, choral chants and a bigger sense of scope to their crushing brand of metal. Fans have been kept on their toes in other words and the Machine Head brand is not easily painted into a corner. So when the band’s new record, ‘Catharsis’, was unveiled and its mission statement was to be a major statement for rock & metal music in 2018, one can’t help but let curiosity take over and see what the Cali boys have concocted this time. ‘Catharsis’ was recorded with Zack Ohren (Fallujah, All Shall Perish) at Sharkbite Studios in Oakland, California and will be released via Nuclear Blast on January 26th, 2018.
Summing ‘Catharsis’ up in one word is quite the task. A 15 track self-proclaimed opus of sorts, it shows Machine Head’s unwillingness to leave no creative stone left unturned but also a stubbornness with editing. “Diverse” is the word that comes to mind. And with that said, let it be known that there really is so much to take in with this record. Despite a mission statement to make a more accessible record, the entire record is unmistakably Machine Head, albeit with varying degrees of success and several head-turning decisions that will leave the listener bewildered and wondering if the same album is still playing. From the churning violence of “Volatile” all the way through to the shoegaze depths of “Eulogy”, ‘Catharsis’ doesn’t repeat its successes nor its failures. Thankfully, the positives largely outweigh the negatives. The technical and masterful guitar solos that fans have come to know and love pop up frequently and are still a joy to behold. The rhythms are still huge and beefy enough to headbang to. Robb Flynn still sears his throat down to its last breath. Sounds like business as usual, right? Let’s talk about why this isn’t just another Machine Head record.
An especially distinguishing factor about this band is their outspoken frontman, Robb Flynn. He pulls no punches and lets his mind pour whatever it’s thinking and does so on every Machine Head record. This one being titled ‘Catharsis’, it is the most open and varied in its messages yet. It defines Robb’s bleeding heart. Be it through struggle (the title track, “Beyond The Pale”, “Hope Begets Hope”), his love of storytelling (“Screaming At The Sun”, “Heavy Lies The Crown”) or human empathy (“Behind A Mask”, “Eulogy”), Robb is a man with a lot to say. He exposes his past in the streets (“Triple Beam”) and boldly addresses politics (“Volatile”, “Bastards”) while somehow finding the time to sum up the state of California (“California Bleeding”). Did you really think that last song was about Minnesota though?
The constant here is Machine Head’s groove-oriented sound. The way these songs were built is off a constant groove and it works well, showcasing how proficient guitarists Phil Demmel and Robb Flynn are at locking in with drummer Dave McClain and bassist Jared McEahrin. Regardless of whether lyrical content is something you pay attention to, at the very least, you’ll be rocking along with the instrumentation. It’s all produced and mixed well too, Phil and Robb still possessing the best and fullest guitar tones in the metal world currently. There’s also a brilliant chemistry between Robb and Jared on vocals, especially emphasized in “Catharsis” and “Screaming At The Sun”.
Experimentation is rampant on ‘Catharsis’. A slight pause in the destruction “Volatile” creates gives way to the most ripping solo Phil Demmel has done in quite sometime. Contemporary atmosphere and a string section provide a huge sense of scope to the title track. “California Bleeding” is an upbeat punk song with a breakdown straight from the band’s heaviest moments. “Triple Beam” fits more with Body Count and Papa Roach’s rap metal than it does with Machine Head. “Kaleidoscope” features a constant electronic passage throughout. “Behind A Mask” takes cues from contemporary R&B with its high-pitched backing vocal hook and slow beat. Perhaps most interesting of all is the folk punk acoustic power ballad blend heard in “Bastards” political commentary. This isn’t quite the Machine Head you remember. But oddly enough, most of this works and the level of experimenting causes this entry to feel like something new for the Machine Head name, albeit extremely scattered.
The off-kilter flow of the album is its real puzzling moment. The full frontal approach and energy of “Volatile” is brought to a halt with the drawn-out intro and somber mood of the title track which would have fit so much better later on in the record, potentially even as the album closer. The halfway point of this album is especially confusing, throwing punk, rap, folk and alternative one right after the other and causing a lapse of identity with the listener and the record. It begs the question that aside from experimental, who do Machine Head want to be, really? A bit more consistency and thought into the ordering of such a lengthy record could have worked wonders. It’s the second half that Machine Head’s long-time fans will gravitate towards and that is when the record begins to hit its groove. Unfortunately, those same fans may not get that far if they are especially challenged by sitting through the schizophrenic first half, a compilation of songs that could be an album on their own. There is a sense of pay-off later on in the record. It’s just an exhausting listen overall.
Looking back on the initial goal of this record, it’s believable that Machine Head could achieve their lofty goal of gaining large amounts of attention from the music world. For better or for worse, Machine Head stand out from the crowd through their knowledge of multiple genres of music. However, I spent most of this record wanting the band to stay in a consistent rhythm and play loud and heavy as they’re known for. Even still, I love when the band dial it down and always will. “Eulogy” and the well-constructed title track are prime examples of how this band can pen heartfelt pieces. The Machine Head sound has always been inclusive of emotion and in this way, the record didn’t let me down whatsoever. The Machine Head I know and love does not stick to one sound on their records and that goes all the way back to 1994. Not only do I see the rock and metal community as well as radio getting behind at least a few songs on this album, I see this expanding an already big fanbase. Whether this is a record for every fan is debatable, but these songs were made to be heard live and they will live or die because of the live set. Here’s hoping Machine Head become open to playing festival slots again because they have a hell of a lot more to offer than any metal band out there right now and they need to flaunt that.