Album Title: Naturalis
Label: Inside Out Music
Date Of Release: 18 November 2016
Regular readers of the Blog of Much Metal wil be familiar with my posts where I look into my crystal ball and comment on the albums that I most look forward to in the coming year. Regular readers will also be acutely aware that Maschine have featured within these posts for the past couple of years but, until now, have not delivered. I need to get the crystal ball booked in for a service, I reckon.
Maschine first came to my attention back in 2013 when I was still writing for Powerplay. I was asked if, at the 11th hour, I could fit in one more review and turn it around in a little under 48 hours. The album in question was the debut from a previously unknown band called Maschine, a young UK-based prog rock band with a penchant for jazz and fusion amongst other influences.
I never like reviewing albums under such a tight timescale because I like to allow records the chance to get under my skin. This wasn’t an option but in the short space of time I had, I listened to ‘Rubidium’ almost non-stop. Not just because I had to, but because I wanted to. Frankly, it blew me away and I still play it regularly. It had a few rough edges and areas of improvement naturally. However, as debuts go, it was highly impressive to say the least.
Since then, I’ve been patiently waiting for the follow-up. In the intervening years, there were long periods of silence and apparent inactivity from the Brighton-based quintet, at least from my outsider perspective. There was also an important line-up change. Original female vocalist and keyboardist Georgia Lewis left the band, to be replaced by Marie-Eve de Gaultier.
Now in 2016, consisting of guitarist/vocalist Luke Machin, bassist/vocalist Daniel Mashal, vocalist/keyboardist Marie-Eve de Gaultier, guitarist Elliott Fuller and drummer James Stewart, Maschine are back with their eagerly anticipated sophomore release, ‘Naturalis’. This time, I made sure I gave myself a lot longer to listen and to absorb the music on this record, so that I could make the most of the experience.
After a few weeks, I have several adjectives running through my mind, many of which have become stronger and more defined the more familiar I get with the album. Words like ‘smooth’, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘refined’ sit comfortably alongside ‘adept’, ‘confident’ and ‘assured’.
You can probably tell therefore, that I like ‘Naturalis’. But that’s not entirely accurate. I love this album. There is so much within it to enjoy and discover; it will take more than a cursory listen to fully appreciate it and that’s one of the beauties of this record.
‘Naturalis’ is comprised of a mere six tracks but together they amount to around 52 minutes of music that touches just about every genre and subgenre of music possible. From prog rock to metal, from jazz to funk, from ambient to pop, it is all pretty much catered for. It is an album book-ended by two eleven-plus-minute epics between which sit four that average around seven minutes. This is another master stroke that Maschine play – this is not an album that outstays its welcome in any shape or form but which contains plenty of room for the music to take the listener on an engrossing journey, full of technicality, complexity and beauty.
I’m feeling all conventional, so let’s begin a deeper look at this record with the opening track, ‘Resistance’.
It begins with moody, futuristic electronic sounds and textures from de Gaultier that are carefully built on, first by a simple yet bold drum beat, then further layers of synths to deepen the atmosphere. Finally, in come the guitars with a deceptively simple riff, further layered until the song opens up into a truly epic and majestic soundscape where the keys soar and the senses are assaulted from all directions within the band.
This most grandiose of beginnings then drops away starkly to reveal some gorgeous bass work from Mashal as well as subtle vocals, both from Luke Machin and de Gaultier. The song rebuilds towards a reintroduction of that powerful and seductive melody, only to give way this time to something more spiky, led by a guitar riff that has one toe in the realm of black metal of all things.
This is only a momentary flourish as the composition ebbs and flows, moving back and forth between moody atmospherics and all-out abandon via some funky interludes and jazzy flourishes to create palpable tension and an intelligent sense of storytelling through music.
If the first half of the track is full of darker atmosphere, the second half is very different. Like the parting of the clouds, a brighter and breezier melody replaces the aural gloom to glorious effect. The vocals from Machin and de Gaultier are much more pronounced and the introduction of acoustic guitars adds to the more positive vibes and creates a slightly more pastoral feel. There’s still a moody undercurrent but it only reveals itself at certain points as the narrative demands.
‘Resistance’ is an extremely bold and ambitious opener but it is delivered with consummate skill. And, despite the shifts in tempo, atmosphere, textures and mood, all of which culminate in a final act that throws instrumental caution to the wind in an abrasive and dramatic conclusion, it is held together by some superb musicianship. Somehow, it ends up sounding very smooth and sophisticated when by all accounts, it had no right to do so.
The following track is very aptly named. ‘Night And Day’ is indeed the ‘day’ to the ‘night’ of ‘Resistance’. There’s no protracted intro for a start. Instead, a guitar riff from Machin and his equally talented six string partner Elliott Fuller introduces what happens to be the shortest, punchiest track on ‘Naturalis’. However, it is the utterly addictive and ludicrously catchy lead melody that grabs my attention from the off. Vaguely reminiscent to the song ‘Visions’ by Haken and injecting electronic and pop hints into the whole, it is another example of the quality that exudes from every pore of this young band.
I heard mutterings around the release of the debut that some didn’t like Machin’s vocals. He has a distinct style for sure but I really like his delivery. It is quite unique and crucially it acts as a superb partner to the utterly beguiling voice of de Gaultier. If her superb keyboard playing wasn’t enough on its own, this young lady has the voice of an angel; so refined, so full of emotion and almost seductive in tone.
There’s no better example of her beautiful voice than on the equally stunning ‘Make Believe’, a contender for my song of the year. The track opens with a simple piano and de Gaultier’s breathy, almost ethereal voice. It sends shivers down my spine every time I listen.
In some ways, this is the most simple song on ‘Naturalis’ in terms of the construction but so strong are the melodies and the collective performance of the band that, to me, it packs the biggest punch of all. The ‘chorus’ melody is a work of genius and the effect that it has on me when some beefier guitars join to act as a muscular counterpoint to the angelic vocals is pure magic. To cap things off, Machin indulges in a scintillating lead guitar solo and then communicates such poignancy and feel as the song draws to a conclusion with some wonderfully subtle guitar notes, executed with a sympathy and deftness that is remarkable.
In my opinion, the first three songs are so undeniably great that it would take a gargantuan effort, something approaching an all-time masterpiece for the remaining three to match the same level. To Maschine’s credit, they pretty much achieve the feat as nothing on ‘Naturalis’ is anything other than magnificent. If I’m being 100% honest, my preferences veer more towards the opening half but it is my a miniscule margin.
‘Hidden In Plain Sight’ is a breath of fresh air in terms of its more upbeat and laid-back vibe. There’s a demonstrably greater jazz and fusion vibe to the song which I have really grown to appreciate initially and then more latterly, to embrace and enjoy. It helps that there are some hugely likeable melodies to underpin everything, turning it into a song as opposed to anything else. Again, the individual performances are spot on and impressive in their assuredness whilst a doff of the cap has to go to the rhythmic team of drummer James Stewart and bassist Daniel Mashal, as they drive forward an extended instrumental section with the kind of touch, feel and ability that most of us can only dream of.
By contrast, ‘A New Reality’ has a much more whimsical feel to it, not to mention the sophisticated and compelling feel of a romantic movie score thanks to the rich strings, warm textures and layers of dreamy synths that dominate large parts of the composition.
‘Naturalis’ then closes with ‘Megacyma’, which begins with darker, dystopian overtones complete with ominous sampled sounds of sirens and fires. The track builds, aided by another gloriously emotive lead guitar segment. The song then explodes into some of the heaviest material on the album, led by the bruising drumming of Stewart. In fact, ‘Megacyma’ is arguably the angriest sounding composition of Maschine’s career to date, bounding along in places at a fair lick.
However, in true Maschine style, the heavy riffs, pounding rhythms and the moments of individual instrumental prowess are kept in check within an overall framework that has been finely honed and wonderfully crafted. Just when you think Maschine might jump off the metaphorical cliff, the track is pulled from the brink with a well-placed moment of calm or elegance. For a song that clocks in at over eleven minutes and for all its ambitious endeavours, it is frightening just how quickly it seems to reach its impressive conclusion.
I return to one of the opening paragraphs by reiterating the fact that on ‘Naturalis’, Maschine just have a knack of making the most complex and challenging music sound so gorgeous, effortless and smooth. Add to the mix a strong production and lyrics that don’t shy away from the big topics of the day and ‘Naturalis’ begins to add up to a very commanding release indeed. I’m thoroughly smitten and can only conclude that if you’re a fan of intelligent and ambitious progressive music, Maschine are an essential addition to your collection.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others via my reviews pages or by clicking the links right here:
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