Catharsis (2018): A Machine Head experiment gone right

It’s finally here, the ninth studio album of one of Bay Area’s hottest metal bands: Machine Head’s Catharsis, produced by Robb Flynn and Zack Ohren, released on 26 January 2018 through Nuclear Blast and with 74 minutes and 17 seconds running time.

Catharsis: The album

The opener, Volatile, kicks us off with an uptempo beat and classic Machine Head guitar riff. The harmonised guitar lick and harmony vocals add width to the otherwise straight-forward metal thrasher. I must admit, I expected a smoother, more dramatic intro to the album, but I happily take this no-bullshit, here-we-go opener.

The title-track, Catharsis, gives this listener what he was expecting for the opener: a dramatic white-noise intro that is cut short by an even more dramatic string and piano intro, until 1:15 into the song the classic Machine Head harmonised double-guitar riff takes over. The song rides on a sonically dark wave in typical Machine Head manner, built on grooves which I stylistically used to attribute to Nu Metal in the 90s. However, the song searches for a way out of the darkness in to musical light, which it finds in select passages characterised by cut-time beats, harmony vocals, and heavy string carpets. This song is an instant classic for me.

Beyond The Pale starts with another dramatic harmony guitar intro until a dragging, head-nodding heavy riff kicks the drama to the curb. This can definitely be a live-crowd pleaser, because of its intensity and perfect head-banging groove. The perfect song after Catharsis.

California Bleeding picks up the pace and addresses social issues in the state. It does not sound like the usual Machine Head song to me. The melodies and arrangement could be considered cliché at times, but I do not care. The Machine Head trademark is still clearly audible and I like that mix. Very well done!

Triple Beam can be considered a more ‘standard’ Machine Head song with a dragging cut-time drum beat, the pitch-bending cut-throat guitar riff, and intense almost-rappin’ vocals. Triple Beam is the most dynamic track up to this point, going from quite Korn-esque spherical parts to thrashin’ heavy Nu Metal-like grooves. Another great track.

Kaleidoscope starts as a pure, fast thrash metal song unlike what I would expect from this band, but then mutates into a typical Machine Head song in the chorus. A good song, but not necessary the hottest song on here.

Bastards addresses the social and political mess the world is in right now. The song rides in on a folk-country-like chord progression played on an acoustic guitar, which is rather unusual for this band, not to say, friggin’ unbelievable. However, Bastards gives the listener wonderful vocals and expresses heart-breaking sentiments. Although the song might not follow the typical Machine Head style, I find it to be phenomenal. Kudos to Robb Flynn for having the balls to lean far out of the window and give this song a platform on Catharsis. I don’t care what the haters say, but is one is pure genius!

Hope Begets Hope breaks the wood and brings us back to what the hardcore fan might consider ‘true’ Machine Head. Perfect song after Bastards.

Screaming At The Sun is characterised by a cut-time drum beat, a Machine Head-typical groove guitar riff, intense Flynn-vocals, and clever arranged harmonies.

Behind A Mask is another musically atypical Machine Head song. The ballad addresses the issue of depression and other dark emotions and is sonically characterised by acoustic guitars and Flynn’s very melodic vocals.

Heavy Lies The Crown is the longest track on Catharsis with 8 minutes and 48 seconds. Spherical string arrangements and dark vocals introduce the listener to a story of intrigues and drama. A shuffle-groove leads the song into the next chapter until Machine Head-typical harmonies elevate the experience to new heights. Clever arrangements and dynamic breaks keep this listener’s attention at all times, even when the song morphs into a head-banging thrash track halfway through to cut the time into a head-nodding piece soon after to provide a dramatic closing. Wow! What a song. One of my favourites, if not my favourite song on Catharsis.

Psychotic comes in good ol’ Machine Head manner and could have been placed on the Catharsis predecessor Bloodstone & Diamonds (2014) due its style.

Grind You Down is characterised by a very cool two-guitar attack arrangement during the verse – make sure to listen to this one on your headphones – and dynamic tempo changes. It goes from head-nodding groove metal to double-time thrash metal and back. The song does not seem special at first, but it conveys a certain energy that is intriguing and positively haunts this listener.

Razorblade Smile is a fantastic double-bass uptempo thrash metal song just as it would be portrayed in the Heavy Metal Real Book. Where others may say this song sounds cliché, I say this song is pure and real. I love it’s relative simplicity.

Eulogy provides a dramatic, almost theatrical closing by referring to the song Bastards.

In closing

I’ve read various reviews rating Catharsis poor, because it does not follow the standard Machine Head blueprint. I accept that, but cannot agree with. I understand that the band tried out new things, but are artists not allowed to try new things? Personally, I don’t find the experiments to diverge a lot from what the band has been doing since the 90s. Still, I am not a connoisseur of Machine Head. And because of that, I objectively rate the album according to my taste. The Machine Head albums I usually listen to are Burn My Eyes (1994) and Bloodstone & Diamonds (2014). Although I own other albums of the band, none of them provide an immersive experience like the afore-mentioned albums. After listening to Catharsis a couple of times through, I know this album is going to be playing very often on my record player from now on. It provides everything on my Machine Head wishlist: dark riffs, head-banging beats, dynamic arrangements, intense vocals, and dramatic stories. Therefore, to me, Catharsis is a Machine Head experiment gone right.

Machine Head - Catharsis (2018)

Sebastiano Mereu

YouTuber + host of the #FHTZ online music show with co-producer @simonkurt + marketing & digital content producer + university lecturer