Review by Jeff Maki
I’m going to assume you know Machine Head, you know its history, you know its albums, and above all else, you know Robb Flynn. Good, because we don’t need another origin story.
Since hitting its thrash metal peak on the masterpiece “The Blackening” (2007), Machine Head has been introducing choirs, strings, catchier choruses and more on its past two albums, “Unto the Locust” (2011) and “Bloodstone & Diamonds” (2014). Then in 2016, “Is There Anybody Out There?” was released as a single and made a decent impact on rock radio. I thought the catchy hard rock tune could’ve been a strong indication of where the band was heading.
I was right. Building up to the release, Flynn warned fans that “Catharsis” isn’t the “heaviest Machine Head album” and that the band was looking to find mainstream success. To say this worried fans would be an understatement. Would “Catharsis” be “The Burning Red” part two? I was kind of hoping so. I know I’m in the minority, but I liked that album and still do.
“I feel like metal could really infiltrate the mainstream with this album. And it needs to … now more than ever. A lot of consideration went into making these songs more identifiable to a wider audience.” — Robb Flynn
After listening to “Catharsis” twice all the way through (I’m listening again as I type this), an attempt certainly as made to reach a wider audience, but I’m not entirely sure what I heard.
“Volatile,” the title track and “Beyond the Pale” represent a newer, if not that unfamiliar direction here. As simplified as these songs may be, it’s cool to hear some singing and melodies out of Robb, while the band plays more of a SiriusXM Octane brand of hard rock.
In what is sure to be one of the biggest controversies of the album, Flynn does his best “King 810” impression on “Triple Beam.” Yes, it’s a semi-return to the brief but all too memorable rapping days of “The Burning Red.” As much as I enjoy Robb frantically spitting lyrics to “Aesthetics of Hate,” this is a nice callback and one of my favorites here. Things are slowed down again with breathing room for more of this style on “Grind You Down” and “Psychotic.”
Then there are songs like the acoustic “Behind the Mask” (which belongs in the Slipknot/Stone Sour realm), the skateboarder-sounding “Bastards” and album closer “Eulogy.” They are interesting experiments, but ones I’m not likely to revisit—at least not without the context of the full album.
The Slipknot comparison can be heard again on “Hope Begets Hope.” The song has a D-beat and stomping rhythm with double bass courtesy of Dave McClain filling the gaps. Besides handling bass duties, Jared MacEachern is noticeable due to his background vocals on select tracks.
Flynn and guitarist Phil Demmel litter their signature solos throughout the album, but this isn’t a guitar hero’s dream like “The Blackening.” When trying to cater to the mainstream, hooks, melodies and lyrics are the emphasis. Lyrically, this is the most “street” Machine Head has been since “The Burning Red.” Taking inspiration from hip-hop, a lot of these lines have a good flow, some are even funny and others cringe-worthy. And of course, there’s the classic Machine Head lyrics, like the opening line of “Volatile,” which was written and recorded the day of the Charlottesville, Va., protests.
Here’s another quote from Robb about the lyrics of “Catharsis”:
“(The lyrics) are really straight ahead, completely non- metaphorical, coarse, vulgar language. The language of hip hop, the language of how people speak in the streets, how we speak now.”
“Screaming at the Sun” is another one of my favorites. The layered, haunting vocal melody reminds me of Alice in Chains. Another standout, “Heavy Lies the Crown,” is reminiscent of “Unto the Locust” material.
This review and those song descriptions are all over the place, much like “Catharsis” as a whole. The album is 15 songs and 75 minutes long. As much as the listening experience is supposed to be a journey, it goes back to what I initially said—after multiple listens, you’re still not sure of what you just heard. A journey should have a beginning, middle and end, but “Catharsis” feels opened-ended.
None of this I’ve said is necessarily bad. Save for a few songs, none of this is that far off the beaten path of what the band has done on past albums. This is just a more streamlined version of its sound. “Catharsis” is an interesting listen, especially for longtime Machine Head fans, particularly if you like the albums “The Burning Red,” “Supercharger” and “Unto the Locust.”
January 19, 2018, Nuclear Blast Records