It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m not a fan of Robb Flynn’s politics but there are few artists who share the same politics that I do and if I based whether or not I liked a record because of politics I’d be listening to nearly nothing in any genre. Moreover, it’s not necessarily fair to evaluate one’s music merely because of their politics and reviewers should be able to separate the music from the artist when warranted. Robb Flynn can write, say, sing and think what he wants and we all have the right to disagree. And I’ll admit, I’ve seen Machine Head live and I’ve bought Machine Head records. With this in mind, I really have no objection to Robb Flynn penning any type of record he wants with any message he wants. I’m certainly willing to give it a spin and if I can pay good money to see Bono perform on nearly twenty different occasions I can certainly be willing to shell out $10 for a Machine Head CD if the music is good.
Unfortunately, Machine Head’s latest record Catharsis simply isn’t good. In fact, it doesn’t even reach mediocre. It barely reaches bad. The early single, “Kaleidescope” has its moments with the signature Machine Head guitar sound but the lyrics are just plain silly and it’s difficult to take the song at all seriously. This early taste the band gave us was all-too-representative of things to come on this LP.
“Bastards” is a song I just don’t understand. It’s like Flynn tried to do a mashup of Smashing Pumpkin’s “Disarm” with a heavy dose of Mark Lanegan and a dash of Hot Water Music and early 2000’s post punk. Now Smashing Pumpkins, Mark Lanegan and Hot Water Music are great artists that produce and write great songs. The problem with “Bastards” is that the song sounds like it comes right out of the soundtrack from the pre-teen tv show Degrassi: The Next Generation. Lyrically, Flynn tries to develop something as there is some knee-jerk mentioning of the importance of accepting different types of people. But it’s written in a way that seems even below the intellect of a 5th grade social studies class. There was more depth in the casino scene in The Last Jedi.
“Volatile” starts off with an angry “Whoaaa Fuck the World!” line (welcome to 1998 everyone!) and moves into some rather generic riffing over some short quick leads. Yawn. We’ve heard this so many times before – but we’ve heard it much better – and much better from Machine Head. What really makes the song even more problematic is Flynn’s vocal cadence, extremely awkward phrasing, and strained voice. Adding to the mess is that the video for the song simply tries too hard. Sometimes a little bit of subtlety goes a long way especially when it comes to political messages. Think for example, the classic video for Ministry’s “N.W.O.” (Don’t think about the video for Ministry’s “Antifa.” Oh… Uncle Al…)
The track “Beyond the Pale” is painfully formulaic in terms of both the music and the lyrics. Now there are some nice aspects to the song, for example, the dueling solos and the classic Machine Head sounding pre-chorus, however, the chorus itself is perfunctory at best. Adding to the problems of the track is the bridge, which comes out of FYE’s used bin circa 2007.
Other tracks on the record, such as “Hope Begets Hope” are riddled with a tired vocal performance from Flynn and dull, unimaginative song construction that is mere repetition to fill a requisite four minutes. At this record’s worst, with songs like “Behind a Mask,” the listener is subjected to something that is supposed to come off as overly sincere and heartfelt yet is executed with such impotence that even the most dedicated listener of the band’s body of work is merely left scratching their head and wondering what happened.
Some tracks like “Razorblade Smile” will remind listeners why the late 90’s were so terrible for the world of metal and why it took so long for the global scene to recover. “Razorblade Smile” is another political track with the lyrical depth of a Mentos commercial. It features a drum track that sounds like it was developed in the course of five minutes after listening to Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” and some random, recycled guitar harmonics and quick leads from an old 4-track Flynn might have found laying around in his basement from two decades ago.
“Eulogy,” the record’s closer, begins with a minute of nothing that leads into a dull, lifeless, orchestral sounding dirge that features whiny Flynn vocals over some layered choral pieces. The song eventually leads into somewhat of an angry (yet subdued) crescendo of… something. This track, like the record, fails for a number of reasons but mostly because the lyrics are not entirely discernible in the mix. This is likely the result of an effort to create a particular melancholy mood but the track is crafted without enough care or sound design. That, of course, is the underlying theme of Catharsis – lack of care and craft.
My reaction to Catharsis is that Flynn felt something about the political problems in America, felt compelled to write about it, and then quickly release it while the iron was still hot in the fire. This necessity to get to market quickly, however, came at the expense of quality – really in all aspects of this LP – from the writing to the mixing to the engineering. Instead of a deep, introspective and original work of music, art and profound thoughts and feelings, Machine Head fans are given a hackneyed, slapdashed polyvinyl platter of 15 dull and lifeless tracks that will, at times, make Lulu seem Grammy worthy. After a listen, your vinyl copy of Catharsis will be saying to you “I am the table” because that’s probably a more worthy use for this physical record.
Certainly people can evolve politically and have their social values evolve as well. It happens and might happen more than many are led to believe. Unfortunately, for Flynn, while his social justice oriented awakening has occurred and his views about society have apparently evolved, his music writing and lyrical content are still stuck two decades in the past. There’s little here to offer fans of the The Blackening. And it’s difficult to understand how these new songs, with their staid, unimaginative and tired composition are going to affect the newer, younger crop of metal fans. Even those with an eye towards social justice are going to easily and more aptly find music that fits the social justice narrative with a much higher level of insight, intelligence and criticality – and with much better song phrasing and musical originality.