Machine Head – Catharsis – Album Review

Machine Head - Catharsis - ArtworkArtist: Machine Head

Album Title: Catharsis

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date Of Release: 26 January 2018

I’ve not reviewed a Machine Head album on before, so context might be helpful before I delve into the full review for ‘Catharsis’.

I have been with the San Francisco giants since the very beginning when I happened upon their debut in a backstreet record store in a picturesque tourist town on the English south coast as a young teenager. ‘Burn My Eyes’ made an immediate impact and before long, I had the t-shirt and posters adorned the walls of my bedroom. I made my mum drop me into my local town centre on the day of release for ‘The More Things Change…’ just so I could get my hands on a first day cover – which I still cherish – and not long after, I watched Robb Flynn and co. tear up the UEA in Norwich. It was one of my first and best-ever gigs and it still lives large in my memory.

I’ve got to be honest however, and say that ‘The Burning Red’ and ‘Supercharger’ albums really tested my resolve. I don’t hate those records, because hate is too strong a word. But they are not the albums that I wanted to hear from Machine Head, partly because of their more ‘nu-metal’ flavour, but also because personally-speaking, I didn’t think the songs themselves were as strong, on either record. So I reluctantly moved away from the band at that point but I gladly returned to the fold upon the release of the fabulous ‘Through The Ashes of Empires’. And I’ve been here ever since.

Wherever possible, I try to avoid noise on the Internet about albums because I don’t want to be swayed by anyone else’s opinion. But with an album of this magnitude, it is very difficult. But I persevered and aside from the odd murmuring, I came to the lead single, ‘Catharsis’ unencumbered by preconceptions. Upon hearing it, I wasn’t overly enamoured. As a result, when I pressed play for the first time, I did so with a touch of trepidation. And indeed, on a first spin, I will be entirely honest and say that I loved some songs and downright disliked others. But overall, I was also mightily disappointed with the direction that Machine Head had apparently taken with album number nine, ‘Catharsis’.

To be honest, that’s the biggest overriding issue I have with ‘Catharsis’ – there’s too little focus and apparent direction, meaning that I come away from the record thinking that it’s a bit of a mess. It’s like Flynn and Co. were so angry, so frustrated and so upset with the world around them that they lost their heads a little bit when making this album. The music flits from one thing to the other with a lack of cohesion, leaving me ultimately confused about what Robb Flynn, alongside Dave McClain (drums), Phil Demmell (guitars) and Jared MacEachern (bass) were trying to achieve.

It has been referred to in press releases and the like as the ‘most hard hitting Machine Head record to date’, but I just don’t hear that, I’m sorry. Both the first two records and ‘Unto The Locust’ were more hard-hitting from where I am sitting. But I guess, like everything, this is a matter of taste and perspective.

MHead Catharsisvid Oct17 Photo Albert Tatlock
Credit: Albert Tatlock

Despite what some might think reading this, I am generally a positive chap so I want to move away from the negatives and raise some positives at this juncture.

I always have been and always will be a fan of Robb Flynn’s guitar tone and delivery – it is simply monstrous and immediately recognisable as Machine Head. The heavy riffs, the groove, the grunt to the six-strings, the pinched harmonics and lead flourishes; they all contribute to an intoxicating listening experience. Even if the songs around them are lacking, generally the guitar playing never is.

The same is true of Dave McClain’s drumming which, like all albums before it, sound enormous, commanding and relentless, with a sharpness to the delivery that makes you believe that every hit is meant and delivered with 100% conviction. And the guy can seriously play too – some of the fills are insanely good on this record.

Then there are the first four songs. Each of them is actually rather great in their own individual way and, after a sticky start, they have each grown on me to create a very commendable opening sequence of material.

Opener ‘Volatile’ is aptly-named, being a huge slab of barely-contained fury that aside from an early misstep, rarely puts a foot wrong. It rips along at a fair pace, a ball of crackling energy, full of power, precise riffs and some delicious stomping grooves as it develops, not to mention an insidious hook within the chorus.

At the outset, the title track momentarily fools me into thinking I’m listening to something by Anathema rather than Machine Head, thanks to the atmosphere and rich and simple piano notes. But then, the early serenity is replaced by a frenetic riff as the song threatens to explode. There will be some who point to the ‘nu-metal’ nuances what with the clean vocals and melodic chorus that juxtapose the heaviness and rage. And they’d be right. But regardless of genre tags, there’s no denying the strength of the melodies which make it my undoubted favourite track on ‘Catharsis’. As I explained earlier, this wasn’t always the case, but it certainly is now and I’m glad I took my time.

By contrast, ‘Beyond The Pale’ is a grower with a Pantera-like churning groove, whilst I have a love/hate thing going on with ‘California Bleeding’, eventually succumbing to the riffing of Flynn and Demmell, and rhythm work from McClain and MacEachern.

I’m also a fan of the longest track on the record, the near-nine-minute ‘Heavy Lies The Crown’. It starts off very quietly with a touch of the theatrical about it as the classical instruments build from the darkness, to be joined by the whispered voice of Flynn. The riffs are cool and the overall atmosphere of the song wins me over as it meanders from idea to idea with a dexterity that proves what accomplished songwriters these guys really are.

So it’s not all bad, far from it. And if I could cease the review here, I’d be much happier. But I can’t. You see, there are some significant negatives with ‘Catharsis’, the kind of negatives that don’t disappear however many times I listen.

One of the biggest issues I have with ‘Catharsis’ is the lyrical content. I earlier referenced a misstep with ‘Volatile’ and that’s the opening lyric, the first thing you hear on this record. ‘Fuck the world’. Really? Now, I know that this track was written and recorded on the same day as the Charlottesville murders and I get that Flynn is angry. But this kind of lyric just turns me right off. But it is not a one-off – there are plenty of times when I inwardly cringe at Flynn’s diatribes. Take the aforementioned ‘California Bleeding’ as an example. ‘Don’t give a fuck if I’m bad’, followed by yet more expletives about Disneyland, it is just not my thing at all. I’m not after Shakespeare, but I know Machine Head are capable of better.

Some might argue that the lyrics suit the looser, more dirty and unpolished output perfectly, dialling in to the rage and fury of the Machine Head collective on ‘Catharsis’, and they’d be fully entitled to that opinion. Indeed, there is a demonstrable attitude that runs like a meaty vein through the album that lends the music something of a punk or hardcore sheen at times.

In terms of the tracks themselves, even as a qualified weights and measures inspector, I had to consult the urban dictionary to understand the term ‘Triple Beam’. As it turns out, it is a reference to the scales used to weigh out street drugs and is used often in gangster rap. It stands to reason then that this song is more of a rap metal track, but as good as some of the guitars undoubtedly are, I can’t hear much here that I like, even after 15-plus spins. It’s just not what I want to hear from Machine Head at all, especially the spoken-word segment about a street altercation. It’s another moment where I simply shudder.

Then there’s the second single that has recently been released. ‘Bastards’ is, frankly, a weird mish-mash of acoustic ballad, folk song and Irish-like shanty. The premise of the song is laudable but again, this is just not what I want to hear on a Machine Head album. To be blunt, I don’t want to listen to this sort of thing at all, from anyone. Again, my thoughts have not changed in the week or so that I have let ‘Catharsis’ seep in to my psyche. The line in the song that goes: ‘no, no, no, no’, is the perfect way to sum up my thoughts on this track.

Interestingly, there is even room for a full-on acoustic ballad in the form of ‘Behind A Mask’. However, aside from a decent vocal performance, one of the best on the record, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it composition. And that’s part of the problem with ‘Catharsis’. As the album marches on into its second half, I must admit that my attention nearly always wanders. If you’re going to release a record of 75 minutes in length, you’d better make sure that the quality is maintained throughout. In this case, ‘Catharsis’ doesn’t. The music isn’t bad per se, but the likes of ‘Psychotic’ and ‘Grind You Down’ just doesn’t do enough to keep me fully engaged until the bitter end.

Even the dark and foreboding closing ‘Eulogy’, which neatly reprises the central melody of the title track is not enough to ultimately save the album.

Oh and I really don’t like the cover art. In fact I think it is awful. In light of everything else I’ve said, this might seem like a minor point but it is the final nail in the coffin for me.

I have to give Machine Head credit for going out on a limb and not being constrained artistically in any shape or form. It takes guts and bravery and they have my respect for trying. However, whilst ‘Catharsis’ contains some truly excellent material that I genuinely like, it equally delivers some music that I cannot stand. As I alluded to earlier, the problem with ‘Catharsis’ is that it lacks focus and direction. Sometimes it is positive to let your heart rule your head. At times though, a little coherent thought is required to temper things and keep everything on track. In my opinion, ‘Catharsis’ lacks that coherent thought and ends up being a little messy, a little schizophrenic and ultimately, a disappointment. I didn’t want ‘Burn My Eyes Part 2’ or ‘Unto The Locust Part 2’. But I didn’t really want ‘Catharsis’ either.

The Score Of Much Metal: 6

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:

2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse


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