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Superb Concept Album - 90%

Peyp, October 5th, 2015

Machinae Supremacy is a very interesting band, combining great heavy metal with retro video game-like sounds from a Commodore 64 SID chip, creating what is known as their infamous genre "SID metal". Truly it's a unique concept for a metal band, and when I first heard about it I thought I'd give it a shot. And finding their Origin compilation on the Internet and listening to it truly showed the potential the band had and made it one of my favorite metal bands of all time.

Then this came along. It was very recent that I learned about this band, and truly I hadn't actually heard a full album of theirs without skipping any songs, except for Origin, but according to this website that's a compilation. And even if it was considered an album, it isn't a concept album, with a whole story revolving around the songs. So I thought to myself: "Let's listen to it and see how it goes." I went on iTunes and paid $10 for it and listened to it.

And what I have to say is wow.

This album is really good. It starts off with an ominous beginning with I Wasn't Made for the World I Left Behind and gives us a good example of how beautifully composed the album is. Slowly transitioning into The Villain of This Story, we get the great metal we all came for and then you realize more of the craftsmanship they put into this. The steady upbeat rhythm, the great lyrics, the nice and easy but still powerful guitar solo; all of that adds up to a great song. And it doesn't stop there. The great metal leaks into Perfect Dark while adding some SID sounds into it, and then the metal carries over to other songs like Throne of Games, Renegades and Versus.

Some that really stood out for me are The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall and Hubnester Rising. The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall is essentially just a battle scene, the climax to a giant action movie, if you will, but truly being more than just background music. Once again, the SID chip and the metal blend together perfectly, and then says a few words (which I won't mention because that would probably spoil a little bit of the concept for those of you that haven't heard it) and from there continues into Versus. And Hubnester Rising is just before the resolution, where supposedly the protagonist of the story has to make a big decision on what to do and sort of ends on a cliffhanger. But of course it never bothered me. The composition of the song and the story altogether blew me away.

But another thing this album shows us is that they can do more than metal. They calm it down with Europa, a beautiful song that brings you right out of the metal, as if you have returned from a subsiding battle that took something away from you. And once again, taking in that this is a concept album, that's probably what happened, with the lyrics seeming to match the educated synopsis. And again they put in the SID chip with the most popular and arguably best song of the album: Beyond Good and Evil. This song is practically a staple to Machinae Supremacy, all of it being pretty much who they are and what makes them different from so many other bands.

Another set of songs we are forgetting are the transitions/instrumentals. They really do a successful job at telling the story and take us out of the action for a moment, because when stories unfold, it isn't all just battles and annihilating the foe (unless of course you are Michael Bay). The stunning orchestral interludes are perfect for an album like this.

But it's been 4 paragraphs talking about this album and I have done nothing but gush over it. We should really talk about some of the things that I hate. Specifically: Gaz's voice.

Gaz is the singer to this album and every other Machinae Supremacy album. His signature voice makes any Machinae Supremacy song easily recognizable and without him, there would probably be no Machinae Supremacy. Besides the SID metal, he is the only other thing that makes Machinae Supremacy stand out from the others.

And that's not always a good thing.

Gaz doesn't have the normal rock/pop/unclean metal/whatever voice you hear on the radio or in your iTunes playlist or whatever. His voice is much much different from that, and sometimes that seems to weigh the band down. It works well in the rock/metal songs, but when you put him in Beyond Good and Evil and Europa, he sort of feels...out of place. Especially when in Europa he's singing alongside a woman with a beautiful singing voice and his voice just sort of croaks along. Then you start to feel like his voice isn't good enough to be in the band.

But it's sort of justified. Like I said, Gaz's signature voice is so different from anything else that I've heard I think it has helped the band quite a bit. But then I guess that means the band in general shouldn't be trying to make beautiful calming songs so often. The songs are really great and well-orchestrated, but I guess it's just not really their thing.

So I will conclude with this:

Machinae Supremacy's Phantom Shadow is a brilliant album in my opinion. The story told throughout it is so brilliant and can only be rivaled by the ton of work the band put into playing the music. And the SID chip puts it into a nice theme when used properly (and it is pretty much all of the time) and Gaz's voice is great when put into a fast paced/upbeat metal song.

But this band is NOT for everyone. Hard rockers that like Metallica and Mayhem might not like this. With the pace of the songs and the SID chip, Power Metal fans that like video games will certainly get a kick out of this, though Gaz's voice might not always work for them. As for me, this is one of my favorite concept albums.

An Epic Display - 100%

Contrapasso, May 1st, 2015
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Spinefarm Records

Machinae Supremacy are a band I have a lot of respect for. On paper, they have one defining characteristic (the use of the SID chip in their music) and one would expect that that would be used as just a gimmick eventually. But MaSu actually seem to go out of their way to avoid abusing it, instead relying on incredibly good songwriting and melodies to drive the music, which ironically enough has resulted in a few albums in which the SID chip is used so sparingly that it became a point of complaint in and of itself. But in Phantom Shadow, they seem to have decided to go crazy with it, and what became of that decision is amazing enough that I actually felt compelled to write a review to expound on its brilliance.

Every MaSu album is a masterpiece in and of itself, but while the atmosphere and tone of A View From The End Of The World has solidified it as my favorite of theirs, Phantom Shadow is a close runner-up. As I said, the use of the SID chip has been ramped up considerably, or at least it’s become more noticeable, particularly in tracks like “Beyond Good and Evil,” which contains an ear-catching SID solo toward the end, and of course “The Bigger They Are The Harder They Fall,” in which the entire first half of the track is a fun SID/guitar jam session.

Speaking of the guitar, the solos are far more intense than they have been on previous albums. Whether that’s due to Gibli showcasing his skills a bit more than usual or the addition of Tomi Luoma, or possibly both, the solos on this record are masterful. They fit each song very well, and are great fun to listen to.

Rob’s vocals are fantastic, as usual. Whether you like his voice or not, no one could ever accuse him of phoning in his performance. He sings with plenty of energy and inflection, and his tone perfectly fits each part of every song. He switches from an energetic, almost punkish style in the verses of “Renegades” to a smoother, melodic one for the chorus, and takes on a more melancholic tone for “Hubnester Rising.” Both Rob’s and the female vocals (I’m not sure of her name) in “Europa” are brilliantly done, and sound wonderfully mournful.

The rhythm players also do their jobs admirably. The bass is audible, and while it does have a tendency to follow the guitar, it doesn’t take away from the music and it still serves to give a sense of fullness to each track. There are also a few moments where the bass does get a chance to stand out, such as in the intro to “The Second One” and during the verses of “Perfect Dark.” Likewise, the drums add to the overall energy of the album, playing a variety of catchy, bouncy beats throughout.

Overall, there is so much to love about this album. I have always loved MaSu’s lyrics, which range from politics and religion, to video games and the Internet, and into more introspective territory like depression and self-confidence, and which are always written with a sort of poetic, youthful attitude. This album seems to be more of a concept, telling a cyberpunk story that could have sprung from the plot synopsis of any number of retro RPGs, and I think it’s an interesting topic and one that fits them like a glove. I love how they give some of their songs names based on popular culture, like “Throne of Games,” and retro video games in particular, like “Perfect Dark” and “Beyond Good and Evil.” I love that the driving melody of “The Second One” is a throwback to the A View From The End Of The World track “Indiscriminate Murder is Counter-Productive.” I love the variety of the tracks on this album - there’s “Europa,” a moving acoustic guitar/violin ballad reminiscent of the amazing “Flagcarrier” from their debut, there’s “Renegades,” a hard-hitting, rhythm-heavy track with a surprisingly melodic chorus, there’s “Hubnester Rising,” the hauntingly beautiful track that ends the album; every song is memorable and stands out on its own. Even the frequent brief interludes, which some may find a bit annoying, contribute to the experience. They help give the impression that you’re listening to an epic story unfold, and often have some beautiful instrumentation. I love “Captured (Sara’s Theme) in particular for that reason.

So basically, this is one of the few albums I would call flawless, or at least as close to flawless as an album can be. I’ve listened to it more or less constantly in the several months that I’ve had it, and it still refuses to get old or boring. I would recommend this to anyone, especially if you have an interest in nerd culture or retro video games. Or just good music in general.

Highlights include literally every song that isn’t an interlude, but in particular: “The Villain Of This Story,” “Europa,” “Beyond Good and Evil,” “The Second One,” and “Hubnester Rising.”

Machinae-Manufactured - 80%

imcominforyou, November 11th, 2014

With all the obsession over keyboards in power metal, it’s a wonder that so few bands have attempted crossovers with electronic music. It’s an even bigger wonder that even fewer bands have thrown in chiptune, or video game music, elements into their power metal. The biggest and most infamous name to include video game elements in their music is DragonForce, and the amount of ridicule they’ve received as a result has been absolutely incredible. Machinae Supremacy has relatively flown under the radar though. They make no secret of their chiptune elements, and they have built themselves a very decent-sized niche of metalheads and gamers alike. Now with their 2014 release, Phantom Shadow, the band has returned to their story-driven approach that wowed fans in the past, and the video game influences are stronger than ever.

One of the most common polarizing aspects of Machinae Supremacy has not been the chiptune sounds, but the vocalist, Gaz. In a genre where soaring tenors and operatic wails are the norm, Gaz sure does stand out with his more poppy approach. Some usually refer to it as “whiny”, but Phantom Shadow feels devoid of any singing missteps. The album opener, “The Villain of this Story”, and the ballad, “Europa”, prove to me that his voice can work comfortably with the up-tempo and energetic music that Machinae Supremacy put out. You shouldn’t go into this expecting an Italian operatic master, but you should expect a deviation from the tried and tired formula that most European power metal singers employ.

But obviously, the main attraction here is the chiptune music and its melodies. The music is generally slower here than what Machinae Supremacy have delivered in the past, but I can’t help but feel it gives it an air of maturity. “Renegades” and “Perfect Dark”, both mid-tempo rockers, are probably some of the catchiest stuff the band has recorded. While the album is not narrative-driven, there is indeed a concept going on behind all of the music, and it’s a concept that I’m not entirely sure I follow. It’s a similar problem that I felt Nightfall in Middle-Earth had. The story tracks of the album, the ones that last only several seconds and consist only of speech, really feel like a break in the flow of the album. Phantom Shadow is chocked full of solid and memorable tracks from end to end, but the dialogue really feels awkwardly shoehorned in.

If you know what Machinae Supremacy sound like, Phantom Shadow won’t be a huge surprise for you, but the new subdued and progressive sound will definitely be something to hear. For those new to the chiptune-metal style, this is a great starting point. The cheesiness factor isn’t overbearing, and the dystopian and futuristic storyline is definitely one that will contrast well against the D&D themes most bands like to recycle. Maybe with a more concise and comprehensive story outline one could appreciate Phantom Shadow more, but as it stands, it’s definitely no slouch from the Swedish video game metallers.

Written for The Metal Observer

This is your brain on skooma. - 30%

Diamhea, October 30th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Spinefarm Records

I know I skipped over Rise of a Digital Nation, but this decision was predominantly based around the fact that there isn't a whole lot for me to say regarding it. Suffice to say, if you enjoyed A View from the End of the World you will feel relatively at home there. The biggest plus as far as I interpreted it was Stjärnström's vocals, which finally yielded their long-standing tenure as a liability. Alternatively, a void was certainly felt through the absence of the more clinical, SID-centered mid-paced numbers like "Oki Kuma's Adventure," "Edge and Pearl" and "Dark City" that have always come off as exceptionally fresh and helped center much of the band's earlier appeal. That all said, "All of My Angels" and "Republic of Gamers" were scintillating exercises in melodic excess that retained just enough of the (sadly deteriorating) metal element to regulate Machinae Supremacy's aural homeostasis, which honestly comes close to being a fucking mess when one steps back and actually scrutinizes its internals.

Well, that fucking mess just so happens to be Phantom Shadow, during which Machinae Supremacy consciously shit the bed and take more than just a few steps back, for what ends I fail to fully comprehend. One of the most crucial complaints I observed concerning its predecessor was a marked lacking concerning the electronic elements, which is a valid critique as far as I see it. So it only serves to confound that the band disposed of their most defining attribute even more here, and scaled back nearly every other cornerstone appeal. What we are left with is a bloated, incoherent mess of alternative rock punctuated with some ludicrous narrative that reads like some sort of Deviantart lurker's wet dream. Is it ambitious? I suppose, but only insofar that is precariously stretches an already winded formula past the point of transparency.

Perhaps even worse, Stjärnström is back to bleating nasal diatribes instead of playing up the wider range he earned between A View from the End of the World and Rise of a Digital Nation. This on its own isn't a breaking point, but when he is reaching back to past shadows lyrically on elementary wordplay outings like "Perfect Dark" and "Throne of Games" (seriously?) it just serves to accentuate his flaws even further. In my frustration, I turn the the riffs and electronics to deliver, but there is little of value behind these doors either. Leads are rangy, but the note progressions utilized sound frankly made up on the spot half of the time, really failing to bask in the consistent radiance evident on earlier outings like "Force Feedback" and "Cybergenesis." I was really hoping that Tomi Luoma would carry some of that stereotypical Finnish melodicism over the border, but it appears that his input has more or less diffused into the band's already existing framework, to little effect as well mind you.

Citing standouts is a precarious venture indeed, as Phantom Shadow is haphazardly littered with needless spoken word bits and the like. Thankfully, the band has mercifully separated most of them into standalone tracks for easy skipping, but the damage caused by the vapid pretense of the entire ordeal stretches further than this alone. Much of this is accounted for by a number of gut-wrenchingly uneventful longer numbers like "Hubnester Rising" and "Versus," during which the band tries to account for the story by tacking a number of movements together, but most of these songs just fail to reach any logical conclusion. There is no variance in gradation or atmosphere - just the burnt-toast equivalent of Machinae Supremacy's basic template. Okay, the one exception to all of this is "The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall," which features very few lyrics and rides a great SID line into the ground. This wouldn't sound out of place on the band's best work and gets two big thumbs up from me. Others sort of straddle the line, like "Phantom Battle," which is a standard Machinae Supremacy tune and is much shorter and easy to take in on the fly. "Renegades" sounds pretty good opening up, but suffers from most of the pitfalls that dog the rest of the album, insofar that these Swedes were simply not meant to craft six-plus minute anthems without enough assistance from the SID chip.

There is just enough of a trace remaining for me to call this a Machinae Supremacy record, but Phantom Shadow comes damn close to atom-bombing nearly everything the band has built up to this point. Will their rabid fanbase have the presence of mind to remove the blinders and see this as the bloated deviation that it is? Probably not, but all of the band's earlier albums were easy to pick apart and appreciate song-by-song, something that this record wholly fails to do. "The Bigger They Are the Harder They Fall" saves it from being a total waste, and the crowd that this caters to will probably enjoy it, but these guys shouldn't quit their day jobs after this misstep.