It's time for another history lesson, but hopefully a brief one. Robb Flynn, the vocalist and rhythm guitarist in Machine Head, founded the band in 1991 and has been the only remaining member of the original line-up since 2013, but there haven't actually been many line-up changes over a three decade period. Well, until 2019 when literally half the bend left—drummer Dave McClain, who had twenty-three years with the band, and Flynn's former partner in Violence, Phil Demmel who had a fifteen year stint on lead guitar—all because Flynn had unilaterally shifted the band's sound back towards nu metal for their ninth album, Catharsis, in 2018.
Now, I haven't heard Catharsis, but what I read about it suggests that I'd hate it. Certainly a huge amount of Machine Head fans hated it. The average rating from reviewers on Metal Archives is an embarrassing 18%, notably lower even than earlier nu metal-centric albums like Supercharger and The Burning Red, which at least make it into the thirtieth percentile. This return to a more groove and thrash metal approach currently sits at a much healthier, if not particularly desirable, 57%. It plays decently to me, but I'm far more of a thrash fan than I am a fan of groove or metalcore. This isn't a highly anticipated release for me, so it's actually better than I thought it would be.
As if to make a statement, the opener is an epic. It's Slaughter the Martyr and it opens with a long intro that's very much rock rather than metal, utterly unlike the Machine Head style. Eventually, it kicks in hard with swirling guitars and groove vocals, that raucous bellow that's half death growl and half metalcore shout. It's not my favourite style, but Flynn does it well and highlights just how versatile he is on this one. There's a point where he spits bars like he's almost rapping, the chorus shifts into power metal and the intro is all rock clean. He honest to goodness sings on this album, a choice that pays off in my book. The song is too long but, conversely, the longer it went, the less it seemed too long.
A strong opener leads into a couple more strong songs. Choke on the Ashes of Your Hate sounds as vehement as its title suggests, a powerful groove metal song. The guitars squeal, the vocals roar and the band are clearly very tight, even though half of them joined in 2019 and are appearing on a Machine Head album for the first time. Become the Firestorm follows suit, but with prominence given to the drums, which are fast and fond of fills. The bass rumbles too and the whole band is on fire. Halfway, it gets slow and djenty and Flynn almost tries for a Cronos-esque voice in a different genre. There's some neat melodic guitarwork from Wacław Kiełtyka and I loved the pace later as he delivers a more overt solo.
So far so good, but then we drift into a minute long dramatic scene, because this is supposed to be a concept album based around the Attack on Titan anime. Frankly, I hadn't noticed, because I was far more engrossed by Kiełtyka's lead guitar and, on that prior track, Matt Alston's drumming. It should be said that this album will succeed or fail on merits other than the concept. Maybe you'll gain something if you pay attention to the lyrics, but the album doesn't suffer if you don't do that. Well, beyond having to sit through three minute long dramatic scenes that feel out of place.
The real catch is that the album got away from me at this point. My Hands are Empty focuses much too strongly on a woah woah anthemic cheer which may work somewhat as a contrast to the song as a whole but it gets old quickly and feels artificial. The anger here is trendy metalcore anger, not the real thing which does, at least, return later. In the meantime, there are a bunch of songs that are just there. They're not bad songs per se but they're just more songs. In isolation—and I checked—they're loud and emphatic but, in the context of the album, they just fade into the background.
Things kicked back in for me late with the more overt thrash metal songs on the album. Maybe it's because Machine Head are only my third favourite Robb Flynn band after Forbidden and Violence, but Bloodshot feels more believably dangerous than anything else here. Rotten feels more thrash too but isn't up to the same standard. It seems that Machine Head fans aren't too fond of it, but I would call it out as my favourite song here, ahead of Choke on the Ashes of Your Hate, even if it's a long way from old school.
Arrows in Words from the Sky is an interesting closer with some heavy grinding sections and some soft clean singing sections too, but I think it's too little too late to prod me into upping my rating to a 7/10. I liked this more than I expected to, but it's still not really my thing. If it's yours, maybe it'll be a 7/10 for you. The bottom line is that it's far from Machine Head at their worst—even if I don't know Catharsis—but it's also far from Machine Head at their best.