Guys, Machine Head are about to be polarizing again. I couldn’t be more excited.
Since the much-maligned Nu Metal detours that nearly destroyed this band’s career in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Machine Head’s last fifteen years have been nothing but smooth sailing, both critically and commercially – 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires was the ferocious comeback record that brought them back from the dead, 2007’s The Blackening was labeled a modern Thrash “masterpiece” by well, several pretty important people (e.g. James fucking Hetfield), and 2011’s Unto the Locust and 2014’s Bloodstone & Diamonds were also pretty much unilaterally well received. Well, the buck stops here. Enter the Bay Area titans’ ninth LP, Catharsis.
It’s not even out yet and everyone’s already up in arms. For God’s sake, Blabbermouth reviewed the record and gave it a 5.5/10. I haven’t read the actual review (because I prefer to read, you know, WRITING…not whatever those hacks on that site try to pass off as music criticism), but on a site that gives everything a 9.5, a 5.5. is like a 0.
So far, the general public has only been made privy to four of the album’s fifteen tracks, and personally, I think the debate is just getting started. Based on what I’m hearing, I still think Catharsis has a chance to be good. I really do. Machine Head are clearly taking some risks, but that’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s too early to tell whether all of this vitriol is justified.
I’m just excited as hell to review this album – I can tell that it’s gonna create a big fissure in the group’s fanbase, and that whole process of watching everybody fight it out and figuring out what side you fall on…well, it doesn’t get any more fun than that. Look out for the full review coming soon to my YouTube channel!
In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the four pre-album singles, in the order they were released:
Beyond the Pale
Released back in mid-November, “Beyond the Pale” was the public’s first taste of Catharsis, and it was immediately greeted with a tidal wave of negativity, particularly regarding the main riff’s striking similarity to the Strapping Young Lad classic, “Love?”. Personally, the whole plagiarism thing actually didn’t phase me – what did bother me was how quickly the riff gets watered down by such incessant repetition (after all, it’s used for the verses AND the chorus). And sadly, that riff is the only memorable aspect of this otherwise underwhelming single. The pre-chorus is sluggish, the dual harmonic guitar solo could’ve been recycled from any of the band’s last four records, and lyrics like “I found my heroes/the freaks and zeroes” are a turn-off as well. Though far from a disaster, “Beyond the Pale” was not a good first look.
Despite feeling like the Internet is constantly looking over my shoulder and shaming me for it, I have been enjoying the fuck out of the title track. Not only is it far and away the best of these four singles, it’s an excellent Machine Head song period. With an inspired vocal performance from Robb Flynn (who seesaws between the heavy and melodic like the seasoned veteran he is), an infectious verse riff, a rousing breakdown, and a future staple for live sing-a-longs (“can you feel my Catharsis?”), this one is a home run. And to be quite frank, for all the talk about Machine Head changing their sound, “Catharsis” does very little to tamper with the band’s formula. This is classic Machine Head. Everyone who says otherwise is buggin’.
So “Bastards”, which I recently used to make a larger point about music and politics, might be the most “different” track of Machine Head’s entire career. The divisive anti-Trump lyrics aside, the way this song begins by layering spoken-word vocals, folky acoustic guitars and finger-tapped electric guitars is undeniably unique. And to complicate things further, the tune is based around one of the poppiest chord progressions in all of music – so if it occasionally feels like a Pop song, that’s because it was written like one.
I had no idea how to feel about this little ditty for a solid week, but after about 25 fucking listens, I’ve finally decided that I like it. Sure, I could definitely do without the “no no no no” bridge, and I could do without the good guy/bad guy liberalisms, but the messages that this track ultimately sends – messages of love, inclusivity and optimism in the face of this nation’s uncertain future – are something I can get behind 100 percent. And, let’s be honest, when Flynn sings “don’t let the bastards grind ya down”, I can’t help smile as I think of Lemmy from Motorhead grunting that same refrain on the band’s classic Iron Fist album.
Is the cringe-inducing “get your middle fingers in the air refrain” a tough pill to swallow? Sure. Is the hand clapping that goes along with it even worse? Definitely. But in between the cracks, “Kaleidoscope” does manage to squeeze in some trademark Machine Head riffing – the rhythm guitars bring a walloping Thrash/Groove Metal mixture and even throw in some of their signature “alarm clock” harmonics in the bridge for good measure. I also enjoy how Flynn and Co. are not afraid to add a little grandeur to the song in the form of some tastefully placed key and string parts. Though it’s not without its low points, overall “Kaleidoscope” comes out on top for me.