So video games are cool. And heavy metal’s cool. What if… what if both of them combined and formed something awesome?
Well, it’s sort of happened, I guess, if you take the time to look at the myriad of virtuoso cover bands and guitarists making over the top metal versions of renowned and beloved video game music. Just look at all of the Pokemon ones. So many Pokemon ones. And that’s kind of it: there’s so many covers and remixes; it’s not bad, but it’s such a saturation and regurgitation of material combined with a novelty factor that it devalues the tenth rendition of Fire Emblem’s “Together We Ride”.
So here’s what’s so great about Machinae (pronounced just like “machine”) Supremacy’s Deus Ex Machinae: it’s a different approach to the blend, an album made up entirely of original material with a consistent backing video game touch in the form of a Commodore 64’s SID station (the component that makes the bleepy-bloopy sounds).
Right off the bat it bursts open with a bright sound—a mix of power metal and alternative rock—combined with a triumphant zest of computerized notes. The blend is something to behold, despite the occasional chug-chug riff that’s a direct product of the early 2000s alt rock catalogue. For the most part songs are very melodic, featuring memorable choruses that spark a sing-along instinct when they appear amidst the band’s intentional cyberspace tone—there’s just the right balance of melody and hardness in the music, and there’s never an overextension in either. It’s pretty cool, actually, how the meaner and/or faster songs (like the opener) feel like the hyperspace effect in Star Wars, the twisting tunnel of flashing blue.
If I have to say it more accurately: even without the SID station’s presence, the album manages to sound “video game”. Careening guitar lines—like the powerful, skipping hook right into the title track, which transforms into a pounding, grooving riff—are propped up against a strong, healthy bass that makes itself known in the mix, resulting in an intoxicating recreation of that old 16-bit style of chiptune composition, with the occasional, more traditional synth appearing for a cinematic element. Musically, the album introduces a band that’s ready to wrestle a rabid bear, including vocalist Robert “Gaz” Stjärnström, who swings, ducks, dives and madly weaves his way through songs like a thicker, bearded Dave Mustaine, putting on a very lean and mean show.
Actually, before moving on, Robert’s performance is of special note: echoing the aforementioned Mustaine (preferably in his prime) and an olden days Kai Hansen, his whiny, nasally intonation might take some getting used to. And, while his performance is solid, he sometimes lacks the range necessary to reach some of the music’s heights, like in “Return to Snake Mountain” and its assertive declarations of revenge, or the soaring ups of “Player One”, or the big “Toniiiiiiiiiight” in the title track, in which he replaces elevation with his signature whiiiiiiine. Still, he’s got enough pipes and skill to dial it up (or down) when he needs to (“Flag Carrier” and the upsettingly wonderful ending of “Player One” show him bearing down and soothing away), even if his inflection stays at the same general level throughout the album. And, as a fan of heartfelt and non-standard vocal work (God bless Mark “The Shark” Shelton), I ate it up with gusto.
As noted, the SID station is omnipresent (save for a couple of songs that do completely without it), and while it might take a while for it to appear in a song, it comes in and peppers it with the same effect as fairy dust—whenever it comes in, the song becomes sparkly, wonderful, special. It’s charming, and never feels overused, fitting in keenly with the band’s sound, never overtaking it, staying at just the right level to be a principle player while avoiding the ill-fated title of “gimmick”. It’s a treat when it’s there, an essential part of the band’s magic, one that also helps the music successfully blend its deeply embedded video game identity with the shining power of heavy metal—just take the break in “Return to Snake Mountain”, right before the rapid fire shred that takes the song back into its speedy storm, or the explosion of sound that starts “Killer Instinct”.
Here’s the deal breaker: the lyrics are dumb. Sometimes they’re decent, but all too often they fall flat on their face with goofy angst. I’d like to commend this album for avoiding any unnecessary “hey guys we’re totally gamer dudes” references. The closest line they stray is “Player One”, which is written to be a cathartic, encouraging ode to video game escapism and personal struggles, using the setup of an ambiguous arcade-style adventure game as its primary vehicle. It’s great: they manage to avoid a predictable (and annoying) element of game-centric music; they embrace games, sure, but they aren’t name-dropping consoles or famous titles and their key gameplay aspects. But, otherwise… the lyrics are dumb. Take a look at the opening lines of the album:
I feel all black inside like coal
I wonder if you know
An evil thrives inside my soul
The darkest place I know
I rage at everyone I see
Nocturnal fiends and all that be
Just keep away from me
Jesus. And that’s not counting the stuff in “Blind Dog Pride” and the title track, which are about rising up and showing all the old timers the real way to do things, all the while edging in on a family-friendly level of non-denominational anti-religion. It’s just enough to worry your mom about your attitude towards society, but not enough to really scare her.
This falls right into place with the next real flaw: some songs are filler that extend the album’s length past an hour. Specifically, the slower numbers that live on the thrill of the chorus, but offer nothing else; tracks like “Super Steve”, “Ninja”, and “Tempus Fugit” are calm segues into more enjoyable offerings, walking briskly to get to their particular “cool part”. They help to even out the pace of the album, separating the faster songs from each other, but that’s kind of it: they’re door-stoppers, shelf dividers. The band is at their best when they’re storming with menace, so it doesn’t sound all that natural when they try and shift gears to something more relaxed.
But really, those are the few flaws that mar the album’s overall prowess. For a debut, the band shows a lot of experience, due in no small part to the band’s prolific online discography, despite the occasional amateurish turn they might take in songwriting (which is generally adventurous and, at its best, thrilling). At its core, the album is a success—solid in most ways, and populated by memorable moments. But that’s just as an album; as a fusion between two cool things, it goes beyond “cool experiment” into something greater. Maybe not something as grand as a “triumph”, but definitely an undeniably enjoyable achievement, one that shows that the fusion between video games and heavy metal can be both possible and mature. Except for the lyrics, which are dumb. If you can look past the flaws and want something interesting, why not take a look? It’s free on the band’s site, after all.