(I think DGR has reviewed every release by Chicago’s Mechina. They released a new album this month, and like the sun rising in the East and setting in the West, DGR now reviews it.)
Mechina are a band whose growth has been one of the most interesting to watch over the past few years. Few bands have been quite as ambitious as they have been with their music. Few have completely ignored whether or not they were going to be successful, and just went big anyway, but that is exactly what Mechina have done during their time as artists.
Starting out as a full band before eventually becoming the studio project of a couple of producers in the Chicago area, Mechina have already banged out a whole arc of albums — a conceptual trilogy told over three full discs and a smattering of singles — that have archived a whole universe constantly at war, ending with planets left barren and whole populations destroyed, played out over the soundtrack of an industrial/symphonic death band with a taste for eight-and-up-string poly-rhythmic guitar playing.
Over time, the band’s production has grown leaps and bounds, and as they’ve adopted characters into their story and adapted a new vocalist into the fold, they’ve created enough lore in their universe that someone actually took the time out of their day to try and establish a wiki site to keep track of all of it, one that I’ve already used liberally. While we haven’t quite hit Bal-Sagoth levels of craziness, I imagine Mechina could be reaching that point soon enough with their sci-fi, planet-destroying antics.
Mechina have kept up an ambitious release schedule, too, attempting to bring a disc out on the first of each year for the past three years, and this year was no different, as the band saw fit to release Acheron, the lead-off in a new story trilogy for Mechina and probably the most different-sounding disc for the band so far.
One of the first things you’ll note upon starting Acheron is that this disc spends a lot of time on ambience and universe-building. It’s an interesting choice, as the opening ten minutes or so of Acheron are an instrumental journey, building a foundation that the group will expand upon over the course of the album’s spin, with the intro track being the genesis of the new trilogy as well as the second song being the first full guitar, drums, and symphony formula.
Remaining mostly instrumental is actually a pretty good portent of what a lot of Acheron is like. The track listing on Acheron appears to be a full gathering of songs, but a lot of time is dedicated to huge and sweeping orchestral segments, quiet and ambient moments of reflection, and long journeys through crushing, heavy, up-and-down rhythms that are constantly being distorted, twisted, and filled with electronics, as guitarist and one of the main musicians behind Mechina, Joe Tiberi, sees fit.
Considering that the group’s prior three albums, Conqueror, Empyrean, and Xenon, all start with pretty heavy songs from the get-go, having the eight-and-a-half minute journey of “Earth-Born Axiom” be mostly instrumental, save for the occasional female vocal melody and a couple of narrative transmissions, means that it’s (a) a pretty good-sized barrier to entry, and (b) a bit of a tough sell.
You can see how someone might see this description of the first ten minutes of this album and almost immediately lose interest, but Mechina manage to save themselves by virtue of creating songs that are huge, multi-layered behemoths of music with multiple moments of full symphony, choir, and a combo of standard heavy metal guitars/bass/drums all going at once — and I mean that “Earth-Born Axiom” is a huge song and as dynamic as can be for an instrumental song.
It’s still got a heavy, stuttering, staccato main rhythm for much of its guitar playing, but Mechina expand upon the industrial grindings of the main course by including so much to focus on in the background — so much that the song, again, feels more like the building of a whole world and the laying of a foundation for the entire disc. The group do still manage to level most of a planet (literally, I can’t imagine something that’s referred to as “The Extermination Sequence” being a happy-funtime sort of affair) over the course of a song, so the subject matter on Acheron still isn’t light by an stretch of the word.
Long-running vocalist Dave Holch makes his appearance known on track three, “Vanquisher”. The song is one of the more standard-Mechina-fare tracks, a groove-heavy, head-nodding trip through a destroyed landscape. He plays the primary protagonist for much of Acheron, and “Vanquisher” sees him reprising his role as a forthcoming destroyer of worlds.
Lyrically, he trades off vocal duties with new co-conspirator and solo artist Mel Rose, who has been popping up from time to time in much of Mechina’s music. On Acheron, he actually does very little clean singing — so fans of his performance on songs such as “Zoticus” from Xenon could be a tad disappointed, but it all feels in service of the characters he portrays across this disc. He’s still yelling his lungs out and barks his way through “Vanquisher” as well as its fraternal twin “The Halcyon Purge”. Both are symphonic and groove-heavy tracks, played with militaristic precision and running about five minutes in length with very little breathing room. “The Halcyon Purge” has more singing in it toward the end, but that song spills over into a long and ambient mid-section, likely where the disc has earned its somewhat out-of-character, pretty artwork that is heavy on the pink and purple hues.
Sandwiched between these two songs, though, is one of Acheron’s highlights and one of those songs that feels like it can make a whole album worth it on its own. Honestly, the fast-paced release schedule for this band has always had me a little worried — even though every time they’ve impressed me and shown that year after year they can put out a really good disc, I’ve always wondered just how they’re going to approach each disc with the timeframe between them being such as it is. Yet again though, they surprise me with a song like “The Wings Of Nefeli”.
It’s a richly textured track with multiple movements and female accompaniment in the form of a choir that could land the song on our “most infectious tracks” list next year. I love when the band get adventurous with their formula, and “The Wings Of Nefeli” is one of those surprises that I did not see coming. The song is truly where Acheron differentiates itself from the previous Mechina albums — as well as being one of the songs that absolutely ruins a full-disc run because it is so hard not to just keep repeating that song. For the first week or so after Acheron’s release in the beginning of January, I truly had no idea how the back half of this disc sounded because I would reach the end of “The Halcyon Purge”, turn right back around and return to “Wings” again, and then go back and forth just letting the twelve-minute combo of those two songs fill whatever room I was in while listening to them.
The back half of Acheron is where the truly epic songs lie. Mechina have long found their groove with ten-plus minute songs, especially the one that got me into them, “Andromeda”, which hit a few years ago. However, they really came into their own with “To Coexist Is To Surrender”, which was one of the first times where it felt like every single thing in the song gelled, everything serving its own purpose. The quiet moments of reflection on Acheron, mentioned above as starting to happen after “The Halcyon Purge”, are broken up by the second true phase of music led off by an entirely clean-sung ballad, “Ode To The Forgotten Few”.
The song is one of the more heart-wrenching, especially if you’ve been able to follow the characters on this disc. So a line like “Have we forgotten what it means to be human?”, as sci-fi-trope-heavy as it is, actually has some meaning in the context of this song. It’s a beautiful track that is then quickly burned to cinders by the two truly heavy, symphonic death pieces of Acheron. The first is “The Hyperion Threnody”, which features some amazing symphonic work, especially the melody that dominates the back half of the song. It takes it from being an up-front, super-fast symponic death track to a more groove-heavy one with a melody that will bob around your head for days. The second, six-minute track, “Invictus Daedalus”, basically spells out how another planet is going to be burned to ash by the time Mechina are done with the next run of CDs.
The production across Acheron is as tight as the band have ever gotten, which has become better and better as this project has matured. Acheron is one of the most balanced so far, in terms of things not being drowned out; everything comes through clear as a bell here, and Mechina come off sounding absolutely huge. It has helped a ton that the band have the ways and means to be as ambitious as they are. Everything contributes to the grandiose feeling of the sci-fi epic that this project has been building. The symphonic work, a long-time trademark of this band and one of the main draws, is absolutely lush this time around. The quieter songs, for being filled with long notes and sweeping key passages, are gorgeous and contribute so much to the album. Album closer “The Future Must Be Met” feels absolutely mournful, and considering the amount of destruction that has happened in this group’s music, one can see why.
Acheron is a far different beast than its brethren before it, and the band have given it an individual identity that stands out in Mechina’s discography. While there aren’t as many heavy crushers on this disc, with about half of its songs bouncing between slower ballads, instrumental tracks, and long orchestral pieces for building atmosphere, everything on Acheron serves its purpose and has a good reason for existing. It isn’t as up-front heavy as Xenon before it, but the songwriting on Acheron is just as strong. It is, for sure, the most “conceptual” the band have ever gotten and the most “full-feeling” disc. It feels as packed to the gills as ever, and while I miss Dave’s clean singing a bit and considered it a good addition to the group’s overall arsenal, I get the sense that it isn’t gone forever, and Mel has fit into the band just as well for the time she spends contributing to the music.
As a whole, Acheron is still a crusher of a disc and one that is starkly different from Mechina’s previous work. It has laid a strong foundation for an upcoming series of albums and does its job perfectly as the precursor to get you excited for what is coming up. Let’s hope the band are able to keep their hot streak going if they truly intend to put out another album at the top of next year as well, and once again cross our fingers for a couple of really adventurous, surprise songs like they included on Acheron.