MACHINE HEAD - Catharsis
February 16, 2018, a year ago
And so the saga twists, yet again, for Oakland’s Machine Head. After cementing its place as a major, influential force with 1994’s classic Burn My Eyes, the band then threw its hard-earned credibility into the types of sordid depths where statements like “we want to take this to the next level” are routinely found, embraced, and eventually regretted, when the promised new and massive fanbase doesn’t materialize. All that to say: The Burning Red and Supercharger, both nu-metal to their groove-bounce core, were shake-your-head-shocking (and then disappointing) at the time, and neither has aged well (try going back to either: it’s difficult to get even half-way through).
Which is why 2003’s Through The Ashes of Empires was an absolutely unexpected turning around of the ship. From a title that was emblematic of Robb Flynn’s very clear efforts to get Machine Head back on track, Through The Ashes of Empires put us on notice that Machine Head was back. But would it last? We’ve seen these kinds of one-off return to forms before. They don’t always bode well for the rest of the career (among so many others, we’re looking at you Come Clarity, In Flames’ lone post-Clayman statement of gravitas).
But then things got really intense and even a bit surreal as 2007 saw The Blackening, Machine Head’s full and complete return (with apology seemingly very much in hand), to the underground metal world that had embraced it with such ferocity back with Burn My Eyes. The Blackening drew major accolades and was voted record of the year by all sorts of pundits. Inevitably, it got Master of Puppets comparisons, which is always what happens when the metal world gets really excited about things. Puppets it wasn’t, but Machine Head’s true return to form it was. Robb Flynn had been redeemed, much like the metal world long ago re-embraced Max Cavalera as one of its own, despite all that jumping commanded by the first few Soulfly albums. Hell, even the non-metal world recognized that Machine Head had done something significant with The Blackening as one of its track was nominated for a Grammy.
2011’s Unto The Locust and 2013’s Bloodstone & Diamonds followed suit, both albums unable to match The Blackening's career-apex, but acting as solid entries to further the Machine Head legacy. And we all sort of assumed that’s the way Machine Head would ride things out. The band had impressed early with Burn My Eyes, then messed up completely, but eventually re-charged to critical and commercial acclaim: that sort of thing gets you through to the end of your career, right?
Machine Head’s latest album, Catharsis, answer that question with a (very) surprising “no”. Which immediately leads to many other questions: Did Robb Flynn get tired of being respected and being re-welcomed into the fold? Does being respected turn into lukewarm satisfaction that eventually starts to make things feel like they’re stagnating? Maybe the ultimate outsider mentality applies even within metal circles: if you are embraced, do you turn around, even if those embracing are your long-haired peers and those you admire? (Not to bring In Flames back into this, but Anders Friden did once eye-rollingly growl, “If you say this way, I will take that way”.) We have no definitive answers to these questions, but Catharsis does point to a need to switch things up. And not always for the better.
Look, I get it. Artists other than AC/DC (RIP Malcolm) don’t want to repeat themselves, and want to grow and expand and explore. Which is fine. And artistically noble, even. But that doesn’t guarantee good results. Far from it actually, as metal is flooded with records that probably seemed like revolutionary evolutions on paper, but in reality just weren’t very good: Cold Lake (Celtic Frost), The Dead Eye (The Haunted), Illud Divinum Insanus (Morbid Angel), to name just a few. That’s not to say that Catharsis will enter those, ahem, hallowed ranks. But this record, despite an expanded reach that impressively screams ambition, falls flat.
Firstly, at 15 songs this thing is way too long. 15 songs is a relic of the 78-minute CD age and, for better or for worse, in 2018 most people are streaming and not listening to solid rocks of music that hit close to the hour and a half mark. Second, yes, the rumors are true: Catharsis is a very varied album that takes on many styles (including for a couple of minutes, sigh, the nu-metal of The Burning Red). Records with many styles can be fantastic. Just ask Voivod. Or Dillinger Escape Plan. Both have mastered shape-shifting that still produces compelling art. But the variance here sometimes borders on the way-too-sentimental ballads, while the straight-ahead Machine Head tracks feel forced. Even on repeated listens, that sense of things being disingenuous doesn’t wear off. Machine Head has long proved itself to be full of strong musicians and riff-writers, but both previously impressive skills are lacking here.
None of this is said with any sort of glee, of course. Machine Head had so much momentum in this mid-to-late part of its career: Machine Head, literally, could tour with the underground up and comers as well as with the heritage acts. Why would anyone give that up? Is life more fun lived on a tightrope? Maybe Robb’s got another The Blackening up his sleeve and he just needed to set it up with a disappointment first?