Review Summary: At last Mechina start to realise their own potential.
There's no denying that Mechina are one of the most active and hardworking bands out there, putting out an album each year and constantly trying to improve their material. With Empyrean
it seemed the band had finally started to find their own niche, the music being a step up from the previous album but nowhere near the same difference between Tyrannical Resurrection
. That is until 'Cepheus' was released earlier this year. The song demonstrated a far greater overhaul in sound, relying less on the symphonic elements and far more on heavy guitar work as well as more cohesive and well thought out songwriting. Now in 2014 Xenon
is a full realisation that everything that 'Cepheus' promised.
From the moment the album starts one thing should become apparent; the mix on this album is spot on, there is a far greater emphasis on the crunch and heaviness of the guitars without losing the depth of the orchestra. The mixing of the album really emphasises the direction of the album's sound; the guitars. While there were hints on Empyrean
of other influences aside from Fear Factory, it's Xenon
where it feels Joe Tiberi is finally starting to open up in terms of guitar work. Empyrean
may have introduced the use of the nine string guitar to their sound but Xenon
feels like it was written for it. Huge melodic, semi-djent riffs open up songs like 'Terrea' and give them real heaviness and groove. On other occasions Tiberi successfully integrates the extra heaviness afforded by the ninth string into the more rhythmic Fear Factory-esque guitar work, particularly on 'Erebus'. While he brings nothing truly new to the table, it's credit to Tiberi as a guitarist that he manages to make all of these elements work so well without falling into many of the same pitfalls that other bands fall prey to.
As much credit can go to Tiberi, it's also in part to how much the songwriting has improved. While there are no ambitious, ten minute epics like 'Terminus' the songs feel far tighter in composition, the arrangements far more well thought out. The verse/chorus, clean/unclean clichés are mostly abandoned in favour of necessity rather than habit in terms of vocal choice with only a few exceptions that still work surprisingly well such as 'Phedra'. Not only that but the moments where the instrumental section wanders off into tremolo picking and aimless melodies are cut down significantly in exchange for quick tempo changes and a lack of repetition. Combined with Tiberi's increased range Mechina seem to finally move away from the relying on the vocals and orchestra to drive the songs. Where on previous albums where the heaviness of a song was determined simply by the style of vocals on Xenon
now the heavier songs have their own unique character. It's also a testament to the band's songwriting that while the heavier songs dominate this album it never leaves the album feeling half-baked and stale. When the softer side of the band does appear, it produces some of the best moments on the album such as 'Zoticus' and the instrumental 'Actaeon'. Indeed 'Actaeon' actually showcases a far more experimental side to the band with it hinting at an ambient direction.
For all of its positive qualities though Xenon
still possesses some major flaws. Some songs still suffer from the aimlessness and repetition that afflicted previous albums with the main casualties being 'Thales' and 'Amyntas,' while affecting few other songs in smaller doses (see the ending of 'Terrea') . Consequently the album feels too top heavy in nature. At other points the constant tinkering nature of Mechina's songwriting process can work against it as they sometimes add too much to the orchestral arrangements. While this is less of problem than it was on the last album, moments such as the violin on 'Actaeon' can clutter the music when it desperately needs to breath for the atmosphere to work. Perhaps the biggest flaw lies in the lack of originality in the sound itself. Mechina are inherently proud of their routes displaying influences like a peacock showing it's plume such as the little musical cues from films such as Tron Legacy and Prometheus that appear throughout. As well as they use these influences it still feels like Mechina are too rigidly adhering to a tried and tested formula and not thinking outside of the box enough, a step that's holding the band back from becoming truly original.
For all it's flaws though this album is still Mechina's most consistent and well-balanced affair showcasing some of the best material they've ever written. It's also a defining moment for the band as while this may not be the most original album ever, it's the first album where they've managed to give a full portrait of their sound along with a few hints at a lot of potential for the future. Of course this is all dependent on how far they wish to push the proverbial envelope but considering their level of ascent so far it wouldn't be surprising if they tore it to pieces next time.