(DGR reviews the latest album by Chicago’s Mechina.)
My story with Mechina is one that is somewhat strange. If you’re in a band and people tell you that services like Last.fm are fucking useless, they’re lying to you. I am an old technology grognard and believe me, I have found tons of bands through Last.fm, and Mechina was one of the best surprises to ever come out of that service.
My discovery dates all the way back to when Andromeda came out at the end of 2011, and my review would prove to be one of the last things I wrote for my former site, an article that I titled, “I keep getting lost in Mechina’s Andromeda”. The song was a revelation. I am a complete sucker for symphonic elements in metal bands. Fleshgod Apocalypse, Dimmu Borgir, and Septic Flesh, for example, have been frequent go-to’s, yet they’ve all been in the black metal and more intense side of death metal realm. Mechina were different because they were more groove-oriented, with the industrial flair that made the band seem futuristic, not to mention that the concept behind each of the albums was slowly morphing into a science fiction epic.
Assuming this is all working correctly (after just a couple of paragraphs, I decide to throw in this disclaimer), you may very well be bearing witness to the first review I have ever typed from twenty-five thousand feet, plus, up in the air.
Chicago’s science-fiction-themed industrial death metal band Mechina seem determined to make sure that I spend the whole year agonizing over whatever inevitable top ten list I have to come up with at the end of said year. For the second time in a row in two years, the band have managed to release an album on January 1st. Last year’s Empyrean made my official top 15 of 2013 after I swore up and down that I would not forget about the album. It was one of those discs that truly felt like a band coming into its own, achieving what the group had promised heavily during the release of their single Andromeda – which came out soon after their 2011 disc Conqueror.
Each of Mechina’s releases has been part of an overall story, with Conqueror – Andromeda – Empyrean making up the first of their trilogies and the group’s newest release, 2014’s Xenon, being the beginning of a new one. Releasing an album a scant year after you’ve already released a monolithically awesome disc, and then added bonus tracks to it halfway through the year, is a tremendously ambitious goal to set for yourself, especially when three months prior you also manage to kick out a ten-minute bridge between your two stories. Not only do you run the risk of stretching yourself incredibly thin, you’re also risking overexposure and general burnout amongst your fanbase.
Yet, so far the band have not done so, and Xenon begins a new era for them, one that sees them taking the awesome Empyrean and the lessons learned from it and attempting — alongside two other potential albums in the next two years — to reach far beyond it and tell an insanely creative story, both musically and lyrically, that should be fascinating to any lover of Sci-Fi as well as Symphonic/Industrial Death Metal.
With Empyrean, Mechina made the symphonics in their sound seem natural and integral, not just a backing track to augment their music but an actual, vital part of the band. It cannot be understated just how much the symphonics have augmented the group’s sound, transforming them from a death metal group with a sense of groove into something really exciting to listen to. Each symphonic swell, each choral piece, makes a Mechina song exciting. The rush that you get from the song “Eleptheria”, for instance, is undeniable. You can’t help but get goosebumps during that opening blast section.
Mechina had their work cut out for them, then, when they announced that on January 1st,2014, they would release a whole new disc entitled Xenon. The gap between the group’s previous releases Conqueror and Empyrean was two years, and the latter album was all the better for the extra time. Chopping that interval in half was the sort of move that would understandably make listeners a little wary, yet Xenon is part pleasant surprise and part relief, because the disc is just as good as Empyrean. It contains many of the elements for which listeners might have initially came to Mechina before, while also seeing the band stretch their wings.
Xenon has a much sharper sense of groove, for example, as a good chunk of the songs on the album have some serious string-bending and fret work going on in them, with the result that a good portion of Xenon will cause you to headbang if you have even the slightest sense of rhythm. The group also aren’t pulling any punches. There is no easy intro on Xenon; instead, the band drop you right into the seven-minute-long title track.
That song makes a statement immediately, with its opening woodwind notes sounding like something out of an expedition into the rainforest, conjuring images of natives as they stalk through the bush. At the very least, you know right away that the band will be attempting to change up the symphonics some, although they had already been doing a really good job with them in previous releases.
“Xenon” is an intensely heavy track, but the album really picks up steam once you reach the third song on the album and the trilogy of songs that it kicks off, “Zoticus”, “Terrea”, and “Tartarus”. I honestly don’t think I can sing the praises of that third song enough. In its four minutes the band have a serious weapon in their hands. The symphonic works behind the crushing guitar part and singer David Holch’s soaring, robotic-effects-driven vocals combine into the sort of song that could get stuck in your head for days on end. He, in combination with vocalist Mel Rose (with whom the band has worked many times before, both on a cover as well as helping produce some of her own solo work) as the two pillars of vocals on this disc, shine bright enough to light up skies.
At this point, the band have found a way not only to make all of their orchestration and symphonic bits integral to the overall music, but they’ve also made it so that each piece of the Mechina puzzle, while impressive on its own, slots perfectly into a formula that makes them insanely hard to define. As if that weren’t enough, the band pull off an amazing trick by following it up with one of the most head-nodding tunes on the disc.
Actually, “Zoticus” feels like part of a larger three-track movement on Xenon as it is followed by the songs “Terrea” and “Tartarus”. The groove is “Terrea” is absolutely merciless. You cannot help but nod your head – especially when it first hits! – as that song bounces up and down and it accentuates the beauty and soaring highs of the previous song by just being this intense monster of a track. It is as close to a slow grinder of a song that is to be found on Xenon. The orchestral sting about three-fourths of the way through the song where everything just stops and you get that loud horn blast is absolutely punishing. It shows that Mechina can display a sense of brutality at the drop of a hat without fully eschewing much of the symphonics layer and going entirely for the palm-muted chugging and breakdowns that people construe as caveman heavy.
“Tartarus” serves as the bridge between the two songs (though it’s consecutive to them) and has a hefty helping of female vocals, a trick used on much of Empyrean and one of the signs that a trip through Xenon will have you reaching similar highs to those found on Empyrean. Basically, a lot of Xenon rides on the strength of those three tracks. Xenon is a great album as a whole, but holy shit, that trilogy of songs is just an outstanding stretch of fifteen minutes.
Outside of that incredibly strong trilogy, Xenon is also packed with longer tunes that are epic both in length and in ambition, sometimes both at the same time. These songs are also far more intense and heavy than the three that I mentioned above. A few of them stretch far beyond the six-minute mark, meaning Xenon reaches pretty far into the lengths of what this disc can consist of and what the Mechina project stands for – a few times displaying just how far they can push their music toward the breaking point in terms of grandeur without morphing into another band entirely.
The orchestration in these tracks is also very intricate, with multiple trills and hidden motifs throughout – something for which multi-instrumentalist and seeming project lead Joe Tiberi deserves a round of applause. The man is one of the few out there who can take synthesizers, samples, and computer programs and make them sound like he has a full-on symphony at his fingertips. There are moments on Xenon where if you were to strip out everything but the orchestration, you’d probably have something similar to a well-done film score, which fits in well with the group’s concepts for each disc.
The longer tracks throughout Xenon are also the ones where Mechina earn the “death metal” branding that exists as part of their nebulously named and mouthful-to-say “symphonic industrial death metal” label. “Thales”, for instance, is an insanely crushing track in the opening, taking the listener through space at the speed of a blast beat and remaining just as intense throughout. The title track and album-opener is a little bit more of a grinder in terms of pacing, but the chosen instruments are more exotic here than on previous discs, with an epic build-up that really does feel like the launching of a new trilogy of CDs.
(An aside: Prior to this disc, Mechina released a single that served as a bridge between Empyrean and Xenon called Cepheus. I highly suggest you listen to it and get it, because although Xenon is a great disc on its own, using Cepheus as a starting point really fits in with the album and makes it an even greater experience. They’re selling it for a dollar on Bandcamp, and at ten minutes long, you’re getting some serious bang for your buck. The song is one of the heaviest things they’ve done, aside from a few songs on Xenon. Give it a listen.)
Allow me to get extremely amateur astronomer on you. Supernovae are some of the biggest and brightest explosions visible in the night sky. They occur, at least in part, when an old, massive star finally is unable to fuse any more of the elements it has been using for fuel and begins to combine heavier and heavier elements until it can’t even do that anymore. Around the point at which the core creates Iron, which is a death knell for stars because it is at this element that the energy expended to fuse it becomes far more intense than what a star can handle, the star collapses and explodes.
In these moments the heaviest elements found in the universe are created in a matter of seconds. These explosions are often hailed as both destroyers of life and givers of life at the same time. They wipe out whole solar systems as the star’s shell expands outward, but at the same time the energy released and the shockwave from the blast can ignite any dust (igniting the interstellar medium, to use a more technical phrase) around it, triggering the formation of entirely new stars and eventually new solar systems.
If you were to view Empyrean as the closing of a door on one trilogy for the band, it would be comparable to such a beautiful stellar explosion. Empyrean was Mechina really coming into its own, surpassing everything that the project had done before. It was the end of one story, but the blast of music from that disc shone brightly enough that it gave a relatively unknown band from Chicago quite a bit of visibility. It made my 2013 year-end list despite the fact it was released on 1/1/2013, meaning I had to keep the album in mind for a whole year — yet the disc was great enough that the year-end inclusion of Empyrean was a forgone conclusion.
Xenon is the new spark. It is the shockwave and shell of everything the band have done before, giving new life to new music for the band. It is everything that Mechina have learned, as well as an iteration on their previous accomplishments. It is still built from the elements of the old band, but the new story and ambitious approach to music make Xenon feel young and scrappy, the shockwave that will kick off a new evolution of the band’s story.
It’s hard to believe that only a year has passed since Empyrean, and to be honest, I was hesitant as hell about Xenon, because good music needs gestation and often a year between albums just doesn’t seem to cut it. Yet Xenon is every bit as good as Empyrean. Mechina realized that you only feel new once and they really hunkered down to kick out an incredible batch of songs this time around. Once again, I find myself having to make a note that I absolutely must keep Xenon in mind for the end of the year.