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Album review: Machine Head – Catharsis

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Consider this review an open letter. An open letter to the thousands of Machine Head fans that – upon listening to the singles ‘Beyond the Pale’, ‘Catharsis’ and ‘Bastards’ – are currently apoplectic at their favourite artist’s upcoming ninth album, despite having not heard the entire thing yet.

Machine Head - Catharsis

This open letter reads thusly: calm the hell down.

Catharsis is not heavy music’s Armageddon. Nor is it the treacherous, anti-metal dud that many expect it to be. In many respects, Catharsis is actually an amazing thing to experience in its entirety, perhaps best described as The Burning Red (1999) meets Through the Ashes of Empires (2003). What results is probably the most diverse and important 75 minutes of Machine Head’s career so far.

Mathematically, Catharsis is far simpler than the continually acclaimed and progressive juggernauts The Blackening (2007) and Bloodstone & Diamonds (2014). However, simultaneously, it’s a solid, meaty slab of grooving, rock-inspired heaviness that takes its fair share of chances while also keeping Machine Head’s violent DNA intact. Any doubts about that are quickly obliterated as opening track ‘Volatile’ brings the heavy metal thunder, kick-starting Catharsis with Robb Flynn’s incendiary roar of “Fuck the world!” Quickly joining the fray are primal blasts from drummer Dave McClain, rumbling beneath repeated, undeniably groove metal riffs. Frontman Flynn rants as violently and incessantly as ever in ‘Volatile’’s crunching verses, soon leading into melodic guitar leads that just as quickly give way to a vicious, primal refrain. So far, Catharsis is classic, angry Machine Head.

Ironically, the title track changes that, possessing a middling and stop-start opening half before being anchored by a brilliant neck-snapper of a breakdown. The sheer… well… catharsis of ‘Catharsis’’s destructive midpoint is one of the album’s true highlights. “Can you feel my catharsis?!” Flynn bellows at full strength as the song enters its heaviest portion – by this point, Robb, everybody definitely can.

The verses of ‘Beyond the Pale’ (Strapping Young Lad-infringing riff ‘n’ all) keep the raw energy flowing, then descending into the more on-the-nose melodies of ‘California Bleeding’. The swanky yet harmonic lead guitars in its opening seconds make that abundantly clear, setting up a chorus that has the abrasive catchiness of a rowdy Motörhead tune. ‘Triple Beam’ has the same fun simplicity in its chorus and bridge, but the subdued bass- and vocal-led verses don’t quite carry the excitement of everything else leading up to this point.

The clapping that starts ‘Kaleidoscope’ was clearly genetically engineered for a live show, coming across as a bit pandering in the process, but, luckily, the heavy, symphonic main body that follows this introduction is undying, state-of-the-art aggression.

Catharsis’s acoustic-driven ode, ‘Bastards’, is an understandably controversial track, channelling Dropkick Murphys and Dead Kennedys more than anything else. It’s a weird detour, but one that still enchants with its acidic lyrics and climactic gang vocals. ‘Hope Begets Hope’ and ‘Screaming at the Sun’ subsequently claw back the momentum and bring the more taut, riff-powered and eerily melodic metal that fuels Catharsis’s majority.

‘Behind a Mask’ is a full-blown ballad, downtrodden yet far more traditionally rock ‘n’ roll than ‘Bastards’. Its gentle tone segues into the lengthy ‘Heavy Lies the Crown’, which begins with a sombre orchestra à la 2014’s ‘Sail into the Black’. As the song builds and builds, it soon becomes a grandiose, emotive hammer of a ride, before concluding on classic Machine Head vitriol. For die-hard fans of this group’s more pummelling and complex work, ‘Heavy Lies the Crown’ is an undisputed must-listen.

‘Psychotic’ and ‘Grind You Down’ are dissonant chunks of Burn My Eyes (1994) weightiness, packing percussion and lead guitars that hinder on thrash proportions, giving ‘Razorblade Smile’ the framework to expand into textbook speed metal territory.

Finally, ‘Eulogy’ closes out this 75-minute extravaganza of Machine Head madness, but feels like a bizarre selection for a grand finale. The lengthy piece has the ominous softness of prior entries like ‘Bastards’ and ‘Catharsis’, but not the same guttural hardness that has permeated much of this record’s running time. It’s a one-sided final note that, although deeply enjoyable in isolation, functions better as a build-up than a wind-down. Having this epilogue swap places with ‘Heavy Lies the Crown’ in the track listing would definitely help Machine Head’s most bold and tonally adventurous album to date close in a much more complete and satisfying manner.

However, when all is said and done, Catharsis is a very satisfying, ballsy and joyously active journey. It’s a significant disc that shows that this band is able to break away from the Blackening-inspired formula that has haunted them for the past ten years, and do it pretty damn well, too. The problems that it faces are predominantly nit-picks, like the deflating verses of ‘Triple Beam’ or the overly arena-rock beginning of ‘Kaleidoscope’: certainly not enough for one to look up and say “Don’t listen to this!” The major draws of Catharsis are the immense and exciting grooves that come packaged within and the aural diversions it can take while still staying true to what Machine Head stand for.

And what Machine Head stand for is the same here as it is on every other one of their albums: pure, undiluted, fucking metal.

Catharsis will be available via Nuclear Blast Records on 26th January.

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