It’s been nearly two decades years since seminal heavy metal band, Machine Head, released two highly divisive records in the form of ‘The Burning Red’ and ‘Supercharger’. Seemingly eschewing their groove/thrash metal roots and departing from the sonic territory they inhabited with debut ‘Burn My Eyes’ and ‘The More Things Change’, fans certainly remain in two different camps regarding these two records. Some love them, certainly - ‘The Burning Red’ selling in excess of 200,000 records worldwide is proof of that. Others derided the band for ‘selling out’ and putting out what are very obviously nu-metal records simply to fit in with what was popular at the time. Like them or not, the band definitely got a lot of fans back on board in 2004 with the release of ‘Through The Ashes Of Empires’ ('Imperium' still goes hard) and all was forgiven a few years after with the unassailably perfect metal record ‘The Blackening’. After two follow up records that followed this style that were arguably, a bit patchier in terms of overall quality (that being said, 'Now We Die', 'This Is The End', 'I Am Hell' and 'Darkness Within' are among my favourite Machine Head songs), the band has released their most controversial record to date, ‘Catharsis’.
Now, I would like to preface the rest of my review with this: I am a long time Machine Head fan, and have seen the band live a couple of times. They are without a doubt very good at what they do. But with the release of their ninth record, I am seeing a lot of parallels with another highly divisive heavy music release, which was Suicide Silence’s self-titled record (2017). Most of you are very aware that various members of that band did not handle the negative reaction to the album all that well, going as far as to insult fans online and, in the case of their frontman Eddie Hermida, started a feud with Thy Art Is Murder over basically nothing.
Now, while Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn hasn’t done these things yet (well, to my knowledge), he has shared a couple of ‘negative’ reviews on the Machine Head Facebook page in some semi-macho way to show that he doesn’t care what people think. And in my mind, that implies he doesn’t think the opinions of his own fans or his critics are relevant. Which is almost identical to the way Suicide Silence handled their last album release... and we all know how that went. While I applaud taking a risk musically in the name of artistic creativity, you can’t always expect your fans to enjoy it - that’s just selfish. As you may expect, I am all for people having their own opinions of music, these pieces I’ve been allowed to write for this site are merely my views and I don’t expect people to share them. With that said, settle in, because there’s a lot to say about ‘Catharsis’.
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Album opener ‘Volatile’ opens with all the instrumental power and aggression that you’d expect from a Machine Head song, but then that verse kicks in and you have to hear Robb Flynn sing about social issues in such a tired, bland way. Now, don’t get me wrong, a song that addresses injustice and racism and being “sick of” them (believe me, you’ll hear that phrase a lot on this piece) isn’t a bad thing, but it just feels so derivative and forced, and I shouldn’t have to say that about a song that’s written about the Charlottesville Massacre. The sad thing is that, instrumentally, this is a great song. The riffs are great, lead guitarist Phil Demmel’s solo is an absolute scorcher as per usual, and the mid-song breakdown would make a lot of metalcore bands jealous. Vocally it’s also not too shabby. But lyrically? Not so much. The title track follows, and it’s definitely got a really strong chorus to it but not really a lot else that makes it memorable aside from another breakdown mid-song. ‘Beyond The Pale’ absolutely screams ‘Supercharger’ during the verses and it just sort of plods along slowly for four and a half minutes. The less said about ‘California Bleeding’, the better. But hey, here’s a choice lyric for you: “Don't give a fuck if I'm banned, the rodents down at Disneyland/Highway 5 down to 99, I’m getting head near the Fresno sign”. And no, that’s not a joke either. ‘Triple Beam’, I admit, has some great nu-metal swagger to it, but the verses are ripped straight out of the Jonathan Davis playbook vocally, and I think that Davis is the only person who can pull that off convincingly.
Mercifully, 'Kaleidoscope' picks up the pace a bit, and the synth parts on the chorus are actually a nice addition to the bands sound too. ‘Bastards’ got a lot of attention as Robb Flynn’s ‘folk song’. It’s actually quite cool to hear him do something a little different because I genuinely enjoy his voice in this kind of son, even if his upward inflections are a little annoying at times. But then the second half of the song comes in with the rest of the band, and I honestly don’t think it works at all. It just feels like a rip-off Dropkick Murphy's tune and is so cheesy. This song definitely could’ve worked a lot better as an acoustic piece because it sounds far too happy to be a Machine Head song. This is addressed a bit better a few songs later with ‘Behind A Mask’, and it honestly feels like the stronger song of the two, and having the drum samples in the background in parts is a nice touch. Elsewhere, the second third of ‘Heavy Lies The Crown’ feels like what the entire first third of this song is building up to, and while it’s one of the few faster sections on the entire album, it dies off quickly and the pay off feels diluted outside of another pretty impressive guitar solo with a nice tapped harmony section to boot.
Now, there’s a serious issue with this album that isn’t it’s entirely subjective content. It consists of 15 songs and is about an hour and 15 minutes long. Now, Machine Head know how to write a long album and make it interesting from front to back, they did it with ‘The Blackening’. But I struggled to find myself wanting to listen to this record as a whole from beginning to end more than once. Though believe me, I did, I have to be thorough after all.
Also, let’s talk about lyrical content. I don’t disagree with a lot of what Robb Flynn has to say here and I’m far from a hardline right conservative, but the overriding theme of this record are political and social issues. That much is pretty clear, really. But I just don’t think the band have pulled it off to a degree where it doesn’t feel forced on ‘Catharsis’. The reason bands like Rage Against The Machine made a career of talking about these issues is because they did it with such conviction and over the course of several years and records. When Machine Head do it, these lyrics come across as derivative and half-arsed.
Look, what else do I really need to say about this record? I’m not let down by the intended purpose of 'Catharsis' or what it stands for, I’m just disappointed that one of my favourite metal bands could put out such a forgettable and bland set of songs. Is it the worst Machine Head release yet? Maybe but I’ll leave that one to you.
(P.S. Please don’t @me, Robb Flynn).
'Catharsis' is out now via Nuclear Blast Records.