(In this post, NCS guest contributor Booker reviews the new album by Chicago’s Mechina.)
Well, after a bit of a wait, Mechina’s Empyrean finally dropped on the 1st Jan – after being originally slated for release a year earlier on 1st Jan 2012 – which they announced was also their 9th anniversary as a band (9 year wedding anniversary = pottery, 9 year band anniversary = new album! Yes!!).
I admit the first I ever heard from Mechina was a note on a blog (probably The Number of the Blog, since I can’t find it again and that site’s now down) alerting all followers to the release of their single Andromeda, which the band released free on their mechinamusic.com website. So intrigued was I, I found myself immediately sourcing a copy of their previous album Conqueror, and boy was my inner Demanufacture/Obsolete-era Fear Factory fan in for a surprise. Machine gun riffage and double bass drumming, but with intricate orchestration and sound effect backing, all tied together in an album-length sci-fi concept album.
Andromeda continued the storyline, and Empyrean, their third full-length by my count, forms its finale….
The album opens with an ethereal female vocal line, carrying on the same Eastern-influenced themes found on Conqueror, combined with a sparse drum line, and in all honesty reminded me somewhat of the intro music to Halo or the Battlestar Galactica remake. The orchestration throughout the album continues the Eastern influence previously heard on Conqueror, but one thing that becomes clear as the album progresses is that it forms a more diverse beast than previous offerings, incorporating both more detailed orchestration and a wider spattering of musical influences – notably, choral segments feature on multiple occasions and bring something like a Carmina Burana feel (which I always thought was metal, but not metal, if you catch my drift), coming in on “Interregnum”, and featuring strongly on “Anathema” (they had this uploaded to YouTube, but now seem to have deleted it post-release).
While there seems to be no shortage of bands who can put some synth-string backing to a metal song, there aren’t many who can pull off really incorporating symphonic elements in a way that forms an integral part of a song – Septic Flesh is one that comes to mind who really took it to the next level with The Great Mass. Listening across the span of Mechina’s works, their skill at really forming a merge between the orchestration and metal elements seems to have matured, and there are truly moments when the orchestration and rest of the band really do come together to produce something special on Empyrean – “Anathema” and “Catechism” spring to mind in particular. They even incorporate an upbeat trance/dance-like keyboard line on “Eleptheria”, which fully works and adds extra momentum to the pummelling metal instruments over the top.
Also distinct from the earlier Conqueror is the incorporation of more of Dave Holch’s soaring vocals, particularly in the later tracks, which help reinforce the feeling of the album (and storyline) reaching a pinnacle. In fact, one aspect of a theme-based album that follows a storyline from start to finish (or across multiple albums in the case here) is the challenge of ensuring that the musical feel of the tracks and flow of the album match the content of storyline at each point. Off the top of my head I could name Fear Factory’s Obsolete, Uneven Structure’s Februus, and probably also Meshuggah’s Catch 33 as albums that formed a true listening experience and nail it in that respect .
Mechina had that feel right with Conqueror, and I think they’ve done it again with Empyrean: the upbeat “Eleptheria”, for example, follows a spoken word/sound effect interlude where the protagonist is brought back from cryopreservation, with the soaring vocals, upped tempo, and keyboards combining to create one of those great tracks that is both heavy and optimistic; another example is “Catechism”, possibly the heaviest track on the album, which occurs at a point where the protagonist has returned to a nuclear-war-ravaged Earth, and really captures a vision of bleakness and decay.
Speaking of the storyline, it continues the same central motif covered in Conqueror – of a nuclear war arising from religious conflict, with the lyrical themes returning to the idea of escaping from the belief in gods, and the weight of past errors.
The special edition features four bonus tracks, providing the orchestration tracks for “Asterion”, “Interregnum”, “Eleptheria”, and “Empyrean” (i.e., stripped of the metal instruments and vocals), as Mechina did previously with Andromeda. I find it quite interesting listening to these and picking up on details I hadn’t noticed while my mind was focused on the jack-hammer double-bass lines in the songs themselves.
My only gripe (hey someone has to be a curmudgeon, this is a review after all) is that the mixing doesn’t seem quite right. It took me a while to fiddle with an EQ setting that I was happy with to get what I felt was a reasonable sound that balanced all the various instruments – the problem seems to be balancing the orchestration with the metal sounds in a way that leaves all of them distinguishable and coherent. After some time I decided the treble off the cymbals was too high – the detail of the other instruments seemed washed out under the ‘sheen’ from the treble.
Judging from comments on their Facebook page, others have found the overall sound balance off as well. In many ways I think if a band puts out an album where you don’t love the mix but you can EQ your way around it, well… first world problems! It’s only if the sound is really fucked beyond redemption that it becomes a deal-breaker, but these things can annoy some people, so I’m curious as to what the wider reception is.
In reality I’m always putting EQ on everything anyway, and after some fiddling I was happy with the sound I got – but I’m running a Cowon J3 which has EQ on steroids, so I honestly hope it doesn’t irreparably detract from the listening experience for others – it would be a pity for such a work of art to come undone by the final mix. Listening back over Conqueror and Andromeda and contrasting them with Empyrean, the mixing does sound different on the latter.
That aside, listening to Conqueror, Andromeda, and Empyrean back-to-back, it’s really quite phenomenal the conceptual package they’ve put together here, and Empyrean is an album they can be proud of. It almost pains me to complain of the mixing when it forms such a detailed tapestry of sound. Overall, Empyrean was one of my most-anticipated releases for 2013, and it didn’t disappoint.
One thing I wondered is where to from here? Given that Mechina have carved out a real niche of… hmm… of what? Film score metal? Space metal? Sci-fi metal?… it’s hard to imagine them covering a different concept. Sound-wise, I’d love for them to go the way Septic Flesh did on their last two albums and incorporate a living orchestra (mainly because the sound on The Great Mass was so massive, I dream of Mechina given that treatment)… but obviously the sheer cost, and practical difficulties of reproducing that live, is a hindrance for most independent acts. So go on, get yourself a copy of Empyrean from their website, and fingers crossed my Mechina orchestra dreams come true (ha it’s all about me!!).
Actually, just while I’m sitting here wondering about their next move, I see they’ve posted a teaser for the next release already – Sentient scheduled for 2015. Fuck, no rest for the wicked!
Mechina – Empyrean teaser:
Mechina – Sentient:
Very interesting band! Unique and charming.
You mentioned that you had to change your EQ.
The EQ of your what? What kind of headphones and MP3 player are you using to review albums?
Just curious because I’m a sucker for headphones 😀
These days I listen to most of my music through a Cowon J3 and some Sennheiser headphones – HD202 I think is the model. (I basically fell in love with Cowon after getting an iAudio E2 a while back, the sound quality was just amazing and they support lossless files like FLAC – which I’ve got alot more of thanks to bandcamp for allowing FLAC downloads). But I also listened to Empyrean through my old Sony mini hi-fi stereo, and a Sansa Clip Mp3 player I’ve got and found the same.
I’ve gone through quite a few headphones over the years, seem to break them all the time! These Sennheisers are pretty decent – good bass but no so much it overpowers the rest of the sound, and not too pricey.
There are players that support FLAC files?! (O_O)
Indeed there is Senor Windbreaker, even my little Sansa Zip Clip does. Great for seamless playback of joining tracks.
Just thought I’d post a little update:
Mechina have remixed the entire album, an ‘Empyrean 2.0’ as it’s being called. Their new run of CDs (after selling out all the original pressing) is the new mix, and they mentioned in a Facebook post about updating the digital versions available on iTunes, etc, but I’m not sure if that’s happened already or not.
Also, anyone who bought the original version from them (and thus, for whom they had contact details) received a free download of the remastered version. Talk about treating fans well.
Funny thing is, after listening to version 1 so much, it sounds kinda wierd to hear it remastered! But the new version has some real interesting elements like extra vocal harmonies, instruments or samples which I didn’t even know were there on the original. Needless to say, I’m super impressed at the band’s reaction to this and putting in the extra effort.
Here’s the remastered version on Eleptheria they’ve posted on Facebook: