Sound — 5
With the majority of niche metal bands opting for a medieval, "Dungeons & Dragons"-like aesthetic to their music, Machinae Supremacy instead set their sights on the video games they played while growing up. Being one of the first bands to create a hybrid sound of metal and chiptune (as they've dubbed "SID Metal"), the band would spend their unsigned beginning years putting out free music on their website and building up their fanbase through the internet, before signing with Music By Design Records and releasing their debut album "Deux Ex Machinae" in 2004. After the label went defunct in the midst of recording their next album, Machinae Supremacy would self-release the follow-up album "Redeemer," but would soon sign with Spinefarm Records and re-release the album to positive reception. Machinae Supremacy would also do video-game-oriented work, such as composing the original soundtrack for "Jets'n'Guns," making a cover of the theme song of the Nintendo game "Bionic Commando" for the 2009 sequel, and performing in the "Play! A Video Game Symphony" show with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Sticking to their schedule of a new album every two years, Machinae Supremacy have now released their sixth studio album, "Phantom Shadow."
After Machinae Supremacy's fourth album, "A View From the End of the World," arguably perfected the band's SID Metal style, Machinae Supremacy started to branch out into other hybrid metal styles, and in the following album, "Rise of a Digital Nation," they dabbled in more conventional synth usage in order to keep the chiptune aspect from not going stale - in "Phantom Shadow," Machinae Supremacy display a new side to them by incorporating more symphonic elements into their music. On paper, this usually is interpreted as ambitious, with knee-jerk comparisons to big symphonic metal practitioners like Epica and Septicflesh, but in the case of "Phantom Shadow," the outcome isn't as grand as one might expect. "Europa" is the band's most experimental track on the album, being a duet ballad driven by acoustic guitar and violins that crests with rich acoustic/electric guitar solos, making it a proper standout track. Aside from that, however, the only symphonic elements found in the album are in the short interlude tracks "I Wasn't Made for the World I Left Behind," "Meanwhile in the Hall of Shadows," "Captured (Sara's Theme)," "Redemption Was Never Really My Thing" and "Mortal Wound (Skye's Requiem)," where the majority of those tracks also serve as stark narrative voiceovers, akin to the narrative tracks on Eluveitie's most recent albums.
Though listeners may have hoped for some symphonic elements infused into their metal tracks, or some integration of symphonic melodies and chiptune melodies, Machinae Supremacy unfortunately don't offer that here. This results in the primary metal aspect of the album being business as usual for the most part. The folk-metal-esque jovialness in the riffage of "The Second One" makes it one of the more interesting tracks on the album, and the guitarwork is most admirable in "Throne of Games," "Phantom Battle," "Renegades" and "Versus," but the chiptune elements are severely lacking in these songs. Only half of the songs that contain chiptune sounds ("Perfect Dark," "Beyond Good and Evil" and "The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall") use them as actual integral melody ingredients whereas the other half ("The Villain of This Story," "Throne of Games" and "Renegades") come off as being shoehorned and disposable. Both of these issues with the chiptune and the symphonic elements highlight the main problem with "Phantom Shadow": its wishy-washy approach to the numerous sound elements it wants to entertain, resulting in a small-portioned sample tray rather than a sumptuous spread.
Lyrics — 7
Like the numerous power metal bands that strongly commit to medieval subject matter, Machinae Supremacy's lyrics have had a tendency for breaching into cheesy territory due to their deep investment in video-game-oriented subject matter ("Crouching Camper, Hidden Sniper" can easily be considered that apex). In tandem with the bigger aspirations that Machinae Supremacy display in the music side of the album, the lyrics in "Phantom Shadow" make up a full concept that span throughout the album; which, most likely intended, sounds very much like a plotline for a video game. With the unnamed protagonist freed from existential limbo by another unnamed character, the protagonist is clear to describe himself an anti-hero in "The Villain of This Story," and wondering why he deserves being brought back into the world. He soon realizes his battle skills are necessary in "Perfect Dark," and fights alongside his friend in "Throne of Games." Though the protagonist soon realizes this allegiance is a farce in "The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall," and the protagonist ends up bittersweetly defeating his former ally in "Versus," and welcoming his uncertain future in the final song "Hubnester Rising."
Overall Impression — 5
Though the leap from the harbinger album "A View From the End of the World" to the following "Rise of a Digital Nation" was a downtick, the electronica-metal style it contained was a comfortable change into something relatively different. "Phantom Shadow" attempts an even bigger change, but the inability to really commit to that style change leaves Machinae Supremacy uncomfortably stretched on the album. With only one foot in the new music elements being tried out, the meager commitment makes the experimentation come off as pedestrian, and with one foot in their classic style, the less-than-total investment makes the SID Metal compositions inferior to Machinae Supremacy's earlier works. "Phantom Shadow" isn't a total bust, but a lot more could have been done in order for the album's multi-faceted sound reach its full potential.