Catharsis is an odd title for an album. Especially one from Machine Head. An album title is supposed to signify what sets it apart, what makes it unique. Catharsis hasn’t just been an emotional cornerstone of every Machine Head album to date, but a defining trait for heavy metal in general. What makes this the most cathartic album to ever be grooved onto lacquer? Honestly, I don’t even think it’s the most cathartic Machine Head album ever released. Even Robb Flynn stressed before it hit streams that the band had never intended to create their heaviest or fastest work and nor have they. Doesn’t stop it from being a blisteringly fast and heavy record, though.
Instead of the album being named after the emotion it brings forth, perhaps it was named for the times it was released in, the times in which the world needs catharsis the most. This is, after all, one of the most divisive periods in modern history, a topic Machine Head are not shy about butting their heads against. The first words on the album are a typically abrasive and antagonistic cry of rebellion from Flynn. “Fuck the world!” Robb yells before he starts bashing privileged elites and marching Nazis. These lyrics do no hide their targets behind cyphers or bury their subjects in subtext. Flynn wants you to know that he’s pissed off and what he’s pissed off about.
It’s as plain and as straightforward as you can get from an album that still manages to weave in surreal and medieval references like a Spider King, or a Symphony of Sadness. It’s also the most rap and spoken word that’s been on a Machine Head record since their turn of the century nu-metal phase. It’s as if the band hadn’t totally given up on the concepts that provoked so much derision for Supercharger and decided to do a second draft. Triple Beam chronicles the life of a drug dealer, California Bleeding takes a tour through the gentrified vice of Flynn’s home state and the title track encourages the reader to burn their sacred idols because the world is so rotten, not even the sacred remains uninfected.
The hip-hop influence see the album attempt a street-level authenticity. If it sounds like Flynn hasn’t been listening to much metal recently, that’s because he hasn’t. Along with hip-hop, he’s also been checking out that movement’s pastier counterpart, Punk. It’s no wonder then that the centrepiece of the album has its roots in the progenitor of those two socially-conscious genres, folk. Bastards is an Irish sounding ditty with the lyrical bounce of Dylan, if Dylan was an edgelord Gen-Xer. Still, no other folk song I’ve ever heard has this level of instrumental ferocity or could encourage such tenacious headbanging. But most of all, it encourages a shout-a-long that rivals the sounds made by Russian workers as they burned down the Zsar’s autocracy, for a sheer, enraged demand for social upheaval. Perhaps this is the most cathartic Machine Head album, but not for the thrashing riffs or charging drums, but for lyrics that allow millions of disillusioned citizens to find the words they needed to scream at the top of their lungs in the middle of a crowded room filled with like-minded people.
It’s not all grand chanting and riffing that marches to the beat of recent protests. The album loses steam just after midway and proves to be top-heavy when it comes to truly memorable tunes; the back half could have been trimmed significantly to de-bloat the fatiguing one-and-a-quarter-hour runtime. And for all the lyrical directness, there is at least one instance where Flynn should have pulled his punches as he seeks to take back the derogatory terms levelled at minorities. This moment – found in Bastards – slams the breaks on your good time with the otherwise exemplary song, smashing the front end of your bonnet against a brick wall as it careers into it at 90mph. There’s also another lyrical misstep in the single Kaleidoscope as one of the lines is distractingly reminiscent of Green Day’s American Idiot dirge Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
While the diversity of genre and the variety of directions haven’t made Catharsis Machine Head’s strongest album to date, they have made it one of their most interesting. And that is not a polite code word for disaster, either. This album continues the streak of incredible records that should surely put Machine Head in the same conversation as Anthrax or Megadeth for legacy.