I’ve been sat on this review since the end of last year, which is a good thing. When I got Machine Head’s last album, Bloodstone & Diamonds, it took me a while to get into. Since then it’s grown to be one of my favourites by them but it did take a few listens, especially with the likes of “Beneath The Silt” on there which is quite a slow, sludgy change from their usual fare.
Catharsis also has one or two unusual tracks, but I’ll get to those later. Thing is, that’s something I like about Machine Head. They do throw the occasional curveball into the mix, being prepared to take a risk while further enhancing their core sound. As for liking Machine Head, the really do seem to be a chalk/cheese factory – I don’t know too many people who “kind of like” the band. They’re either very much into them, or they hate them. So full admission, I’m very much into them, so bear in mind this review will be from that perspective!
There’s no messing around at the start of the album. Within ten seconds of “Volatile”‘s crushing rhythm blasting away any cobwebs you may have in your earhole, Flynn yells “Fuck the world!” and we’re away. Typical pounding MH tones get us going before a more melodic pre-chorus, simple chorus and return of the “Fuck the world” battlecry. Add this to the huge mountain of chaos-causing moshpit-inducers that the band have created over the years.
Title track “Catharsis” has already been released to the public and generated a load of comments on the YouTube video, including one which showed someone listening very closely to their music in the past. Yes, there’s no natural harmonic note in the song’s main riff… and yes, the band do use these a lot elsewhere! What we do have is something that wouldn’t have been out of place on either of the last two albums. A brilliant quiet start, some nicely measured heavier sections and some surprisingly gently, airy segments linking them. Then, the build to the chorus with its post-hardcore very low bass note kicks in. Those with an axe to grind may decry the “proper” singing through those lighter sections, but that’s always been a draw for me – the way that Machine Head can throw in so many styles within a single track without it seeming stitched together like a budget Frankenstein’s monster.
“Beyond The Pale” has also been let loose, and is the track that stands out for me based on Flynn’s recent quotes about the album harking back to the Burning Red era. There is a definite nod in that direction, but also a huge amount of more modern Machine Head. It’s probably got the simplest drumbeat of any song on the album, which allows it to bury deep into your skull rather quickly, and then stay there. I’ve seen several comments online stating that one of the riffs is a little too close to “Love” by Strapping Young Lad (quoting Flynn, “And while I would proudly admit that I stole a Riff from you… Was just a happy accident”), and I confess they’re a band I’ve really only heard of – I couldn’t name any of their songs, despite them being fronted by Devin Townsend who is one hell of a guitarist. Credit to Townsend, though, for putting in his two cents’ worth by pointing out that sometimes similarity can be unconscious and flattering (“Art is a collage of your experiences, you taking clippings and reassemble.”)… and that he himself ripped off the riff for that song from “City of Love” by Yes!
Anyway… on with the album. Next up is “California Bleeding” with a name which is an obvious riff on “…Dreaming” by The Beach Boys, but definitely doesn’t steal any of their riffs! Those natural harmonics are back in force with another song with harks back to the older days a bit. Musically it seems to pinch more from the band’s own back-catalogue than anywhere else and though it’s not bad by any means, it’s definitely not one of my favourites on here. Catchy enough, but perhaps a little too formulaic.
“Triple Beam”, though. Wow. This is a monster of a song. Loaded with bass and drop-tuned distorted twang (and those harmonics!), this is the track that Flynn was talking about in the interviews when he said there was some rapping on the album. Now, it’s not exactly Eminem or Ice_T, more spoken word in between sung sections and very rhythmical. Most importantly, it works and in all honesty I’d barely even class it as rap. Most of these sections are amongst the heaviest on the album musically, absolutely begging to be slammed and headbanged to. In terms of subject matter, we have a story of a drug-deal gone wrong, the associated violence and back street lifestyle lived by many dealers. On so many scales (pun intended), this is a top Machine Head track.
“Kaledioscope” is designed to be played live, if only for the handclap opening which I can already picture in my mind’s eye on the run-up to the tour later this year: clapclapclap singing intro clap clap… chaos ensues as guitars kick in. The chorus is actually the most melodic part of the song with the verses being circle-pit-inducingly fast.
And now “Bastards”, a song which is going to divide so many people – partly due to style, partly due to lyrical content. Again, this one’s been released on YouTube already, though as a stripped down acoustic version featuring only Flynn. Comments varied from very negative (divided between musical issues and those who don’t agree with his political stance) to very positive, and I can understand the polarised viewpoint. On that sample alone, this is a very different kind of song for Machine Head… and the album version is very close to this video, only far, far, far better with the addition of the rest of the band. I’ve listened to it a couple of dozen times now and it still gives me goosebumps. And yes, I did get a whiff of Dropkick Murphys before I read that review! In my mind, no bad thing.
The first two minutes are fairly laid back, but rhythmical and oh-so-catchy. Then the drums and tempo really kick in, and Flynn’s vocals really start to sound pissed off. The chorus is simply fantastic. I absolutely cannot wait to hear a couple of thousand people chanting them back at Flynn and his bandmates in a live setting. Say what you want about the politics in the lyrics, the key message is one of defiance and “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” which could be applied in so many places these days. The best songs are written from the heart and Flynn wears his very much on his sleeve with this utter gem.
In comparison, “Hope Begets Hope” feels like filler. A good song, but like “California Bleeding”, pulling too much from the MH “how to” guide. The band only have themselves to blame when a song as good as this gets relegated to the “Meh, it’s OK” pile compared to others on the album. “Screaming At The Sun” joins it. Despite listening to both many times, I just can’t imaging getting into them if they were played live, which is how I tend to judge my MH songs. Again, not a bad song, it just didn’t get my adrenaline (or neck) pumping.
Strangely, “Behind A Mask” does work for me despite being incredibly light. This is probably the most laid back song Machine Head have ever done. Large amounts of acoustic guitar, no build to a huge crushing finalé… just a song that could be played live with lighters waving in the air. The high-pitched background vocals are probably a step too far, but a decent song. Very out of place, though, and I have a feeling that many will be hitting “skip” when they hear it, which is a shame.
“Heavy Lies The Crown” really puts it back on track as Machine Head do what they’ve been doing best for a good handful of albums now: taking almost nine minutes of music and making it pass in what seems like half that. With a lengthy opening sequence utilising strings and whispered vocals, it goes for creepy and haunting until almost 2 1/2 minutes in when we’re hit with a NWOBHM style barrage of electrics. Heavy and thumping without being too fast or abrasive. No, wait for the 5 1/2-minute part before the wall of death comes in… And if the crowd aren’t pogoing at the 6-minute point, then there’s something wrong with the sound system.
Another of the also-rans is “Psychotic” which starts well, but every time I listen I find I’ve squirrelled off elsewhere by the end. “Grind You Down” (which is in no way connected to “Bastards” other than by sharing some core lyrics in its title) is a little better, but a very “back to basics” song. This is the kind of thing that takes you back to the very old days, for better or for worse. I quite like it, but I’m more impressed with other tracks on here and it doesn’t really offer anything new that those with the band’s back-catalogue already have.
“Razorblade Smile”, though, makes sure the album (almost) ends on a high. A blend of their best groove alongside some of the fast-paced lyrics from Supercharger (hey, I liked it) make for a great mix with plenty of tempo changes to keep things interesting.
The album wraps with “Eulogy” which is an unusual way to end things – grabbing scraps from other tracks, most notably the divisive “Bastards” – it uses a ton of effects and sounds more like an experiment than an actual song. Again, one I fear that many will skip over… and yet that for some reason I can’t quite explain I rather like.
I’ve checked the handful of other reviews that are online after I wrote this and I have to say that to some extent I agree with some of the negative ones. The overall opinion of those who are being negative about the album is that it’s too “bitsy”, the band are trying to put too much in, there’s no structure and so on… and that’s not wrong. However, for my money I think that the good tracks on here are so good that they make up for those that really don’t work. You’ve got fifteen songs (including “Eulogy”) running for 75 minutes. Even if you lose 4-5 songs that don’t work for you, you’ve still for an album’s worth of material in the traditional 45-ish minutes sense.
As I mentioned earlier, I tend to judge MH output on what it’s going to sound like live and – barring the shit sound, especially bass-heavy stuff, that we suffer at the O2 Academy in Glasgow – there are 4-5 songs on Catharsis that I am really hoping they play on tour.
Not Machine Head’s finest hour (that was Locust IMHO), but definitely not the shit-show that some are making it out to be.
Catharsis is out on January 26th and available for pre-order now.