My first encounter with Machine Head was in late 1994 when they were supporting Slayer on their European tour. I was unfamiliar with the band; their sound was hazy, and their stage presence was not appealing (take a look at “Davidian” video if you don’t know what I mean). So, I didn’t pay too much attention to their set, but I do, remember being impressed by Chris Kontos’ drumming. Couple of months earlier the Californian band released their debut Burn My Eyes and eventually the debut has proven to be nothing short of a masterpiece and a textbook example of how to morph old school Thrash Metal with Groove Metal.
Since then the band has experienced numerous personnel changes, up’s and down’s and now Robb Flynn remains the only original member of the band. In 1997 Machine Head managed to follow up that debut with an album that is almost as impressive as the debut. Even their (somewhat) forced venture into the land of Nu-Metal resulted in couple of very good records, despite their somewhat uneven nature.
Oddly the much-awaited return to their roots resulted in an album that to this day stands as the weakest of their career, but fortunately, it was followed with another masterpiece, The Blackening. Their latest album Bloodstone & Diamonds saw them experimenting more, without compromising their heaviness and at the same the album displayed some good and diverse song-writing skills.
The new album, entitled Catharsis, sees the band take a step that reminds of the one they took with their third album, The Burning Red. No, they are not trying to bring Nu-Metal back, but rather making a turn towards more melodic and commercially friendly waters, and as you know, those waters run in many directions.
And that’s where the problem with Catharsis partially lies. I’ve generally always been positive about bands experimenting with their music, because only few can manage to keep being interesting and inspirational by playing same music throughout their career. Flynn is most certainly fan of many kinds of music and that has been clear throughout his career, but being fan, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should implement all those types of music into the music you are creating. Some can pull it off – just look at Bowie, Byrne or even Keenan. Flynn is not one of those and while I have nothing, but respect for artist who take brave steps and dare follow their heart, Flynn should be aware of his limitations.
Machine Head has without a doubt succeeded in some of its experimenting over the years. “Violate”, “Silver”, “Deafening Silence” and “Sail into the Black” are perfect examples of that. “Behind a Mask” from the new album, too, is very solid song. Unfortunately, from time to time Flynn goes over his head and while until now this was just an occasional case, new album is almost an ode to what Flynn shouldn’t do.
Despite his appreciation for rap, straight forward rock, spoken word, folk, and different vocals styles it’s basically not something he has mastered himself. And when he jumps into those untested waters it often it results in awkward moments. There are quite a few of those on Catharsis, with “Triple Beam” combining just about all these aspects. With it Machine Head might just have created the weakest song of their career.
Oddly, it’s always clear that Flynn’s heart is in the right place and you can only respect him for his balls, because he does do, what he feels he needs to do. The lyrics are often awkward and at times straight up embarrassing, nonetheless taking into the consideration that he’s a 50-year-old man. Most of the lyrics from the debut would suit him better than those from the new album
But all these things aside, the core of any album is song-writing and with good song-writing in place you can get away with plenty. It was good song-writing that made The Burning Red and Supercharger good and it was weak song-writing that made Through the Ashes of Empires so uninteresting.
Sadly, Catharsis, is filled with forgettable songs, cheesy hooks, vocal performance that’s over its head and production that’s unbalanced and sterile.
Few spins later the impression is the same, but fortunately there are few good songs among the fifteen. Title track is a great example of combining most of bands trademarks in an extremely solid piece of metal. “Kaleidoscope” is standout example of good simple rock song and “Behind a Mask” is atmospheric tune that for the most part keeps the listener involved. “Heavy Lies the Crown” is epic and bit too complex for its own good, but never the less a rock sold song.
What marks this album, however, are not the good songs or the weak ones, it’s not even the experimenting or the diversity – it’s the rest. It’s the majority that is simply indifferent. Majority of the songs do not trill or disenchant you, majority of the songs simply leave you indifferent.
Catharsis is Flynn’s catharsis and while it in many cases sees him way over his head, it’s the lack of song-writing quality that serves as the main let-down. Hopefully he got some things out of his system with this album, but most importantly hopefully the next album will besides clearer direction also include better songs. It’s as simple as that.