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Forward-thinking, aggressive, emotional - 81%

gasmask_colostomy, August 19th, 2015

Have you ever noticed how all Machine Head albums are stereotypes? Everyone knows what they think of each before they even listen to it: it seems pointless even to consider what the band have done on individual songs, because some stylistic shift or choice of bandmembers has occurred since the previous release. This means that 'Through the Ashes of Empires' is the "comeback" album, as in the album that changed the style back to the groove/heavy/thrash weight of the first two MH full-lengths. Now, for pure quality, I don't think MH have ever quite topped their debut (not if we're talking about consistent quality anyway), though they have had parts of albums or specific songs that rise above that level, especially on 'The Blackening'. This "comeback" album doesn't come awfully close to 'Burn My Eyes', but it does strive to be more ambitious and creative, which would reach its ultimate conclusion on 'The Blackening', with its longer songs and detailed themes. Thus, we end up with a nice effort that won't be to everyone's taste.

The best thing about this album from the point of view of a MH fan, or any fan of modern metal for that matter, is that the band didn't dick about when it came to riffs, they brought plenty of solos back in, and they didn't merely make a regressionist album, but took their formula forwards a good few years. For an album that was released during the first throes of metalcore and the NWOAHM, this packs a modern punch - just listen to the breakdown in 'Imperium' for evidence that this was more groundbreaking than retreading ground. However, this certainly doesn't choose to sit alongside Killswitch Engage or Shadows Fall. The guitars, while still downtuned, have a much heavier tone than 'Supercharger' and sound grittily alive and earthy; the bass rumbles and chokes just as brutally, all of which muffles the drums just a little, even though the performance is pretty accurate and skilfull. Some of those riffs now hit very hard and fast, with added complexity in some parts. The best songs for this element are probably 'Imperium', 'Vim', and 'All Falls Down', which are mostly quick, though also sound massive. 'Bite the Bullet' also has some monster riffs, though the technique of slowing down for the vocal lines makes it a little difficult to adapt to the constant changes, even if the heavy parts hit even harder as a result.

The disappointing thing when listening to 'Through the Ashes of Empires' is that the quality is inconsistent. If the band can come up with a song like 'Imperium' - which has generally been judged the standout on this album and one of the band's best - surely they could have spent a little more time on 'Elegy' or 'Left Unfinished', which just sort of happen and then end, without any particular end result. I'm not being mean, but 'Elegy' is the kind of song that a band might write in their first few rehearsals and either discard or significantly alter it later, taking the worthwhile parts and moving on with them. One groove riff and a forgettable chorus won't cut it, fellas. 'Left Unfinished' has had more thought and time, although this one ends up sounding ugly, with jarring riffs and a vocal harmony that matches horribly (i.e. does not match). Maybe it's supposed to sound like that because of the difficult subject matter, but I still don't like it and I don't imagine many others will either.

Something that the band did gain from their flirtation with nu metal was the ability to alter their tempo more and give Robb Flynn some time to sing clean. He's not an amazing singer, but he has a lot of variation in a song like 'Days Turn Blue to Grey', which can be tender one moment, furious the next, and strangely contemplative a moment later. His harsh vocals are still rather ragged and unfinished, though I can imagine that this aspect appeals for some people who can hear emotion or struggle in his voice: it doesn't do it for me, so the variety is welcome, as well as the moments when the band move at speed beneath him, which make his rough voice better. Again, I’m left to wonder - should Machine Head employ a singer? But whatever. Sometimes the effort that he puts in sounds majestic, such as on the closing ‘Descend the Shades of Night’, when his passion rises above his drawbacks and crafts a truly memorable and inspiring chorus. He writes surprisingly touching and eloquent lyrics too, which also deserve a better outlet.

‘Through the Ashes of Empires’ remains an important MH album because of the way it stuck the band right into the midst of the contemporary development of the genre. This is purer than metalcore in a lot of ways and updates a lot of the classic features to create something that is truly significant to the 21st century. I’d put Machine Head ahead of popular bands like Killswitch Engage and Slipknot, who - despite being popular - haven’t managed to unite the tribes so much as these guys. A good album, all told.