Sound — 7
When a band comes to a certain age, they usually slow down, run dry and let that appalling anti-idea of "musical evolution" come into its own as their sound isn't quite as popular as it was 5 minutes ago. This can be seen in many bands with a career of more than 10 years, where things they tried didn't go down well, hence they go down as well as a brick from an aeroplane or they settle for being not quite as good as they were before. Machine Head are not one of those bands. Despite being around for a good 15+ years, Machine Head have not slowed down, given up or shown any signs of stopping at all. But where they show determination, they also show a will to change with the times, even if the outcome seems risky. In the early 90's, southern groove was all the rage, in the early 2000's, it was nu-metal and hockey jerseys and post 2003, its all Americanized metalcore. What Machine Head do is take influence from the biggest but most respectable musicians in these trends and then adopt it into their own sound, but never quite becoming a part of any scene (although they're universally recognized as "groove metal", a term which means f--k all, as groove in metal can be applied to practically every band) albeit about 2 years behind everyone else. But anyway, 2007's "The Blackening" showed a distinct shift from groovy groove metal to thrashy, melodic and intense, sometimes proggy, er, groove metal. I guess it surprised everyone that they won several "Album of the year" awards and toured their bums off for 4 years after. Judging by the ''''single'''' they released (Simply named "Locust"), they kept the sound mostly intact with a little revisit to their roots. Okay, so its lacking any real urgency from the "Blackening", but the groove, the signature chorus-dubbed soft bridge and distinctive sound of Rob Flynn's raspy vocals are all there. No, a good chunk of the album is quite gear change up. The opening track, "I Am Hell (Sonata In C#)", starts in a similar manner to "Clenching The Fists Of Dissent", starting with a "choir" of sorts of Rob Flynn's layered vocals, which is perhaps one of most deceiving moments in written music. It continues to a slow triplet groove which at first doesn't seem that heavy, but then WOOSH, and all this sound comes out of nowhere, with Rob Flynn screaming "I am DEATH" and similar phrases before the entire band start righteously pounding your face in with riff after riff and riff. "Be Still And Know" has a vibe carried over from "The Blackening" (think "Now I Lay Thee Down") with a lot of the lead guitar being beautifully harmonized tapping leads mixed with a stonking great big 6/4 groove flowing throughout the song. I think a description of the song with just typed words doesn't quite work, but it shows a bigger connection between Machine Head's "genre-flow". But at song 4, you can tell they've taken these newer influences, turned them into sew-on patches and then very obviously put them on extra long sleeves for everyone to see. "This Is The End" is perhaps the least Machine Head-like song ever. Starting off with a very simplistic acoustic passage isn't exactly the headturner I'm pointing out, but its everything else to do with the song. What Machine Head have actually done is clone an entire track from any given Killswitch Engage album and just overdubbed Robb Flynn's vocals. I'm being serious. It may be one of the better songs from a KSE album, but its NOT a Machine Head song, and if they're trying to "progress" with their sound, they're 4 years too late (Don't take this out of context as a plagiarism thing, its just how the song sounds). Now I wont be all down-playish and say the album falls off the cliff but its balancing so finely on the edge between "new direction" and "everyone else's same old same old" that you'd be forgiven for thinking its a different band. "The Darkness Within" starts off like bloody Foo Fighters, for instance, but really tries hard to bring it all back again, if only just succeeding with a well placed solo. So you've probably noticed this is closer to a "track-by-track" thing. Well, the album is only 7 songs long, no song under 5 and a half minutes and Machine Head write songs to stand out individually (well, only recently, but you get the idea). Overall, of those 7 songs, 2 of them are fairly dodgy ("This Is The End", "Locust") in that they just let the album down so badly when you think about it, not because they're dodgy (Both have some excellent moments in them), but because it totally destroys Machine Head's direction with "The Blackening": It was all about thrash epics crossed with ballads and undoubtedly colossal moments of emotion ("Now I Lay Thee Down", the almighty "Halo" etc.) with a new energy found from the after-burn of "Ashes Of Empires". But now their "Blackening" tour energy is being used on all the ideas they've gained from a scene they only just woke up to, and so it just fails to get to the level of the "Blackening" by shunning a chunk of their "Machine Head-ness".
Lyrics — 8
Robb Flynn is a good example of how a musician progresses. The stuff all the way back from "Burn My Eyes" is just incomparable to his vocal and instrumental abilities of today. On "UTL", he brings back his recognizable "raspy growly" thing mixed with the high end vocals that he finally got the grasp of on "The Blackening". But keeping in line with the "newer" influence of the songs, the growly things are more prominent than before and heavily layered (sometimes with an actual death growl added in) for sonic impact. The high cleans, well... They've had a bit of a back seat. Not only do they not feature as much on the album, but he sticks relatively close to the highest pitch his voice can reach, making them sound strained and with a loss of focus and clarity. That said, he keeps the flow of the album as fluid as it can be with the material they've written. Lyrically, I can only recall that the main focus of the album is the band themselves. Unlike on "The Blackening", where every song had 5 page essays dedicated to what the lyrical themes were, "UTL" doesn't have much to go by, with only "The Darkness Within" and "Who We Are" having clear, defining lyrics, which focus on the progression of the band until this point. As for delivery, there's not much to fault Robb Flynn for, aside from the sometimes strenuous high-end cleans and so that keeps it at a plus.
Overall Impression — 7
Well, looking over the stuff I've written, maybe I've missed the point. After an album like the almighty "Blackening", where can you go? But still, dropping some of their recognized traits off the album and adding in too much of a sound that's not their own hasn't quite worked, its not so much progression as it is, annoyingly so, "musical evolution". Songs to look out for: "I Am Hell", "Be Still And Know", "Locust" (only if y'all wanted a single and did NOT say f--k that), "Pearls For Swine", "Who We Are".