It feels like with Catharsis, people have their knives out for MACHINE HEAD before they’ve even heard it. When you’re one of the most iconic and celebrated metal bands of the last 25 years that might seem weird, but while part of this comes from the small but ever-present group who like to decry any big metal band who achieve any level of mainstream success and are now jumping on their opportunity, Catharsis seems to have rubbed even MACHINE HEAD fans up the wrong way right from its announcement. Talk of a return to their controversial late ’90s nu metal period has been bandied around, and the general rumblings seem to be that the album is a bit of a befuddled mess.
So it’s both a relief and a source of bemusement that Catharsis isn’t really that. Sure, Catharsis is definitely a different record for MACHINE HEAD and a departure from their previous few albums, but this is much less of a leap than SUICIDE SILENCE for example took on their divisive last record. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a MACHINE HEAD fan not enjoying the vast majority of this record. The first notable change is the very first thing that comes through the speakers as instead of entering with a long and dramatic intro as every album since MACHINE HEAD’s mid 2000s career renaissance has done, opening track Volatile chooses to just slap you instantaneously, but that’s something of a refreshing change and the song itself is pure MACHINE HEAD through and through. That grandiose entrance instead comes second with the following title track, a grower that initially feels weirdly washed out behind its strings but snaps into place as soon as the gears are taken up a notch.
It takes a full twenty minutes for the first thing approaching rapping to appear, and even then, it’s not just pure Burning Red vibes. Triple Beam’s chorus riff is undeniable bounce, but its verses deteriorate into the kind of eerie guitars that populated Burn My Eyes, with Robb Flynn’s vocals approaching the gruff near-spoken word that KING 810 specialise in. Flynn has spent a lot of time recently laying out that he is not the same man who made Burn My Eyes anymore, so it’s odd that he’d choose to write a song directly revisiting that time lyrically focusing on his experiences with LA’s crime and gang culture, but it’s mostly a success. The rap parts on Catharsis aren’t as good as The Burning Red’s most enduring moments, but they’re a damn sight better than Supercharger, and really there aren’t all that many of them.
Instead, what Catharsis mostly deals in throughout its runtime is taking the chrome MACHINE HEAD sound of the 21st century and condensing it into four-minute bangers rather than the long winding epics that they perfected on The Blackening over a decade ago. Only five of Catharsis’ fifteen tracks breach five minutes in length. The facet of their sound that is hacked away the most in order to achieve this are the elaborate Flynn–Demmel dual lead sections. They make their most notable appearances on Beyond the Pale, a song that feels arguably a little too close to STRAPPING YOUNG LAD’s Love? in its main riff but is an absolute barnstormer nonetheless, and Heavy Lies the Crown, the one song approaching that MACHINE HEAD epic template but has a moodier atmosphere and darker approach closer to Sail Into the Black from Bloodstone & Diamonds, especially when paired with the delicate ballad Behind the Mask that immediately precedes it. Otherwise, Catharsis is MACHINE HEAD in their most instantaneous form, from Grind You Down’s guttural backing vocals which feels like SLIPKNOT’s Snap being played by MESHUGGAH to California Bleeding, a straight-ahead Disney-baiting rager with a chorus that just feels good to bellow at the top of your lungs.
There is one another notable exception to the formula, and one that serves as the centrepiece of the whole record. Bastards is truly unlike anything MACHINE HEAD have done before, a metallic take on Celtic folk punk that amazingly proves to be an inspired move. A song written as a message to Flynn’s sons after the election of Trump in America, it’s a stirring call to arms against oppression and a powerful message of inclusivity, even if Flynn’s attempts to re-appropriate a handful of slurs in the lyrics aren’t going to go over well with all listeners. What’s undeniable though is the impassioned performance with which it is delivered, and the beating emotive heart that runs through it. Its core idea to “stand your ground, don’t let the bastards grind you down” pops up in a number of songs throughout Catharsis and serves as one of two unifying themes over the record (the other being the cathartic power of music, which is, y’know, the title), to the point that closing track Eulogy should essentially be called Bastards (Reprise).
Instead, rather than any embarrassing attempts at rapping or dodgy failed experiments, Catharsis’ biggest flaw is simply a lesson that MACHINE HEAD seem not to have learned from their last record: the value of editing. At 75 minutes, Catharsis is a long listen, and one that’s a little uneven in its running order. It seems to reach a natural conclusion after Heavy Lies the Crown – and then just keeps on going. There are the odd smatterings of filler throughout the record, primarily Psychotic and Screaming at the Sun, the latter of which goes for some ALICE IN CHAINS-esque vocal harmonies but fails to have a proper chorus as a result. With the cutting of some of the flab and a reshuffling of the track order, Catharsis feels more cohesive, but at the end of the day, at least an hour of this is great and the exact kind of thing you’d want from MACHINE HEAD. It’s the sound of a veteran band still caring about what they do and just making whatever music they want to make, and what is never up for debate is MACHINE HEAD’s passion in what they’re doing. While they’ve made better records in the past, that belief and that passion makes Catharsis an impactful and powerful record all the same that could only come from this one-of-a-kind band.
Catharsis is out 26th January via Nuclear Blast Records.
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