Review Summary: A solid third outing from one of heavy metal's least recognized bands.
Bargain hunting is one of my favorite hobbies. When I’m perusing the shelves of a local second-hand shop, I feel a small jolt of excitement. The possibility of discovery is always around the corner, and just maybe, buried beneath twelve copies of Creed’s Human Clay, is some rare gem of an album. One of these rare gems is Machine Fish. I found it sitting quietly in a Goodwill collecting dust. The cover art and band name seemed to suggest that this was the work of another of the many funk-rock groups the 90s had in great supply. Upon noting the Metal Blade logo, I felt a twinge of intrigue. Heavy metal in a Goodwill! That was almost unheard of in my years as a bargain hunter. Of course, I had no choice but to take it home, and for two dollars it was indeed a steal.
The Galactic Cowboys were born in the same region and under the same management as King’s X. Both bands share a few sonic traits, specifically the harmonized lead vocals. The band’s first two albums, both released on Geffen, were musically evocative of classic Anthrax, with thrashy guitar leads and occasionally humorous songwriting. Unfortunately, the band was dropped from their label for lack of sales, and the group moved to the Metal Blade label.
The frustration caused by the band’s lack of success is one of this album’s focal points. From the opening “Feel the Rage” to the emotional closer “Arrow”, we see this manifest in the music and lyrics. Overall, this album is much more aggressive and heavy than their previous releases. There are fewer progressive elements, with songs generally falling around the five minute mark. The most obvious change here is a decrease in the use of Beatlesque harmonies, which were very prevalent on their previous albums. Many of the songs here display a more straightforward approach, such as the aforementioned “Feel the Rage” and the furious “Stress”.
Over half of the album is comprised of heavy, thrash-like rockers that display crunchy riffing and half-yelled, half-sung vocals. Some of these songs, such as the inspirational “Fear Not” and “Red Sun”, benefit from the band’s greater sense of focus. Whereas on previous records the Cowboys would often make room for extended instrumental sections and winding song structures, here the tracks are generally more concise, leaving the album with much less filler. At the same time however, trimming the fat also eliminates some of the unique characteristics that made the group’s music compelling in the first place. While the songs may be generally less meandering, the lack of progressive elements means that many of the album’s songs feel pedestrian. More importantly, the lack of diversity can easily tire a listener who’s intent on listening to the album, which is a bit lengthy, in its entirety. The band is solid as usual, but the lack of technical proficiency is made all the more noticeable by the stripped-back songs. Anyone looking for technical thrash from this release will be disappointed.
After the album’s first four tracks – all very solid rockers – the signature layered vocals triumphantly return for “Psychotic Companion”, a major highlight. Even with the return of the band’s classic sound, there is no shying away from heaviness. Another album highlight appears later in “The Lens”. This track starts with an almost airy guitar harmony, and the chorus is one of the album’s most memorable. Amongst the band’s many heavy numbers, a couple ballads appear to help break up the momentum. The first, “Easy to Love”, is a ditty so sweet it borders on diabetic. The Cowboys are most reminiscent of The Beatles on this song, which features jangly guitars and heartwarming lyrics about past love. With all of the heavy tracks on this album, this particular song feel refreshing. The other ballad appears at the album’s close, and is by far one of the best songs on display. “Arrow” is a haunting song that begins quietly with only piano, vocals, and a hint of guitar. The band absolutely shines on this song, with each member churning out a memorable performance. The lyrics and vocals are highly emotional and completely wrenching, a fitting closer for a great album.
With a mix of aggressive, heavy riffing, great vocals, and emotional songwriting, the Galactic Cowboys are a fine band, and Machine Fish is a fine album. Despite the musicians’ shortcomings, and the album’s length, the Cowboys provide an exceptional collection of heavy music. While the group was doomed to obscurity while they were active, their fantastic albums and eclectic style make them a must-hear attraction. Any metal fan looking for something a little unfamiliar would do themselves well to pick up a copy of Machine Fish, though they may have to dig through a ton of 80s film soundtracks to find it.