Machine Head - Catharsis - (8/10)
Published on January 31, 2018
Living it Up,
But Giving a Fuck
Catharsis has been getting a bad rap. The record has been widely cast as a return to Machine Head’s less than stellar experiments with nu-metal, which all but sunk the band around the turn of the century. However, while this ninth outing is certainly a departure from the complex thrash epics the band have staked their reputation on since 2007’s The Blackening established them as modern metal titans, it’s less a departure from that template than the furor surrounding it would have you believe.
To write off Catharsis as “a 74-minute rap metal album with a song that sounds like the Dropkick Murphys in the middle” is not only unfair, but entirely inaccurate. There is at most one “rap metal” song on the album. It’s called “Triple Beam” and it rules. Sure, it sounds like Limp Bizkit, but it’s the best Limp Bizkit song since the Chocolate Starfish days, and if the Jacksonville crew dropped a song like this in 2018 we’d all be talking about what a great throwback it was and we’d all be champing at the bit to get our hands on The March of the Disco Elephants. Obviously, everything’s relative and and the fact is that Machine Head are not Limp Bizket. The lyrics are definitely stupid, and I’m still not entirely sure whether there’s “no metaphor”, or if I’m meant to “read between the lines” but the track is still lot of big dumb fun along the way. And, again, it’s one song!
Rather than a throwback to the days of “From This Day” and “American High”, Catharsis can more accurately be described as a mix between the bouncy experimentation of The Burning Red (1999) and the eclectic aggression of The More Things Change, (1997), by way of The Blackening (2007) and everything after. The tellingly-named opener “Volatile” is a straight-up rager that’s the most traditional thrash metal song they’ve written since their sophomore record, while the following title-track is a six-minute epic that stands strong alongside anything from their modern era. Even the Strapping Young Lad-aping “Beyond The Pale” makes a lot more sense in context and later cuts like “Hope Begets Hope” and “Kaleidoscope” seem pretty in line with the band’s traditional approach. Rap metal this is not. What Catharsisis, in reality, is a 74-minute, melodically-driven, modern thrash metal record. …with a song that sounds like The Dropkick Murphys in the middle.
Let’s talk about “Bastards”. Leaving aside the terrible slam poetry version: at worst the song itself is perfectly serviceable for what it is – musically at least, which discussion seems beside the point anyway since what people seem to be taking issue with in this song is its lyrical content. The word that gets thrown around time and time again, whenever this song gets brought up is “cringy”. However, I’m personally struggling to see what’s so cringy about it.1 The song is exceedingly earnest, but that shouldn’t necessarily imply a lack of quality. It seems like people’s gut reaction though is that the moment anything is sincere to is to be derided, which is exactly the kind of apathetic outlook the song is rallying against. “Bastards” doesn’t preach a political platform, rather it is a song of personal resilience. It isn’t telling you how to live your life, it’s about staying strong in defeat and finding the strength to go on when things seem hopeless. Such things can often come off as heartless and contrived but that simply isn’t the here either. As Flynn explains:
That song is based off a conversation my wife and I had with my two boys, the day after the election in America. It was a really intense conversation, it was a really difficult conversation. I was really affected by it and I ended up writing this poem the next day. When I was done writing, I just picked up a guitar and I started playing those chords and singing the chorus… and at that time I thought that was it. … There was no plan to put it on the record.
Flash forward and it is on the record. Twice. But there’s no denying that it’s the genuine article. And if you don’t like it then there’s at least three other songs on the record about having oral sex in public to make up for it.
Catharsis almost comes off like the work of a split personality. For every heartfelt expression hopeful resilience and political unrest, there is seemingly a big cheesy party song to balance it out. Along with the aforementioned “triple beam”,2 “California Bleeding” is a feel-good party anthem complete with doo-wop backup vocals whose hard-living ethos is revived later in the game on “Razorblade Smile”, while “Screaming At The Sun” sounds like something bring Me The Horizon would have come up with a couple of albums back (think more “Alligator Blood” than “Blessed With A Curse”). Going into Catharsis Flynn promised a “very grooving” and “more melodic” album, and that’s exactly what he and the rest of Machine Head have delivered, and it’s often these catchier and more immediate sections which make for the album’s most enjoyable.
In fact, the record shares many of its more objective faults with its immediate predecessor. Much like Bloodstone & Diamonds before it, Catharsis is far too long and much of the material towards its back end proves superfluous and largely forgettable, before delivering one last hurrah towards its conclusion (“Game Over”/”Razorblade Smile”). “Behind A Mask” and “Heavy Lies The Crown” are cut from the same cloth as “Sail Into The Black”, “Damage Inside” and “In Comes The Flood” before them; and while, honestly they’re more fully realised takes on their sullen template, their tenancy to drag somewhat is accentuated by the odd decision to place them back to back. Still, there’s nothing on here that ever feels as forced and ill-fitting (nor as inherently weak) as “Beneath The Silt” and the reprise of “Bastards” in “Eulogy” makes the record feel more like a complete work rather than one tailing off into uneven excess like its predecessor.
Robb Flynn’s voice might be showing its age at this point (the dude turned 50 last year), otherwise the band sound entirely rejuvenated on Catharsis. The album’s marketing and roll-out strategy was certainly questionable, and its understandable why people would have reservations going into this record. However, the end result is hardly the disaster it’s been made out to be and, if anything, the band sound more relaxed and rejuvenated here than they have for some time. If Bloodstone & Diamonds was the sound of the band trying to recapture the magic of The Blackening and coming of as somewhat stilted and ingenuous in the process, then Catharsis is them rediscovering the joy of making music by, quite simply playing the songs they want to play rather than writing to a template they think their fans expect of them; and—if anything, its that sense of fun and sincerity that comes through strongest on this record.
1 There is of course the issue of Flynn dropping the N-word. It would be better if he hadn’t done it, and it seems unnecessary. But given that he has done it, then at least it’s in the best possible context for him to have done it in. Still, for all his irony and exclusivity, it probably would have been better if he’d just not done it really… (especially given that he already used it (in a similar context) in “Slanderous”, which is something no one seems to talk about…).
2 Also not a “gymnastics metaphor“. Google it.