Album: A Wonderful Life
Label: Napalm Records
Once more, Musicalypse have found ourselves trying out new music during these not-quite-so-quarantined days. It may astound many of you that Cleveland-based Mushroomhead had never before been picked up by my radar, so with their eighth studio release, A Wonderful Life, soon approaching release date on June 19th, 2020, via a new collaboration with Napalm Records, this seemed like the right time to give it a listen.
When you pick up a band called Mushroomhead for the first time with no prior knowledge, you might think that you are about to listen to some stoner/psychedelic rock. What you might not expect is an American Lordi-like band of monsters with epic costumes doing rather straightforward heavy metal music. Needless to say, what we heard was nothing like what we had expected, especially after learning that it was structured around Mozart’s 12-movement piece, Requiem.
The album begins startlingly with “A Requiem for Tomorrow.” It’s maybe my least favorite song on the album as it begins with a church choir -style intro that doesn’t last long before it takes a sharp 180 into some sort of grungy heavy metal. I’d go so far as to argue that the intro should’ve been a separate song as it’s so far removed from the rest of the song. The grungy, basement vocals felt a bit like Mr. Lordi on a bad day on their own but fortunately mellow out in the pleasant chorus where they blend with cleaner vocals. The drums by Steve “Skinny” Felton are the best part of the song, as the rest of the instruments don’t push it as far as they could, even if the overall melody is quite nice. The song drags on a bit long as well, trying to shake itself up with a disco interlude to moderate success.
Some 90s industrial influences are subtle but ever-present in the album, clearly seen in “Madness Within,” some Rob Zombie-like sounds dispersed throughout and clean vocals reminiscent of Avenged Sevenfold in the chorus. “Seen it All” opens with whispered vocals and squeaking sounds as it quickly builds up. For a band with two to three people credited for working on the keyboards/synths/extra percussion, the industrial/electronic sounds are really simple and basic. If they were even pushed up to the energy of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula,” these songs might come to life a fair bit more.
“The Heresy” has a much darker tone, with long droning guitar parts and an emphasis on new vocalist Jackie “Ms. Jackie” LaPonza, who was brought on as a full member after being a touring vocalist with the band since 2014. The mellow tempo works really well with the slow and simple instrument sound, making this the easy peak highlight of the album for us. “What a Shame” has a creeping feel and a great blend of a variety of vocals, from gritty cleans by Mr. (Steve) Rauckhorst to grunts by Jason “Jmann” Popson, as well as Ms. Jackie‘s mild influence. There are moments that feel a bit like being led to a haunted carousel, as well as some thrashy parts.
Pianos take the lead, soon joined by Ms. Jackie in a much gentler voice as “Pulse” begins. This eerie slower track has a nice balance between melodic and atmospheric parts. “Carry On,” in turn, has soft hip-hop vocals before the vocalists come together to ask if there is a soul who can save them. Ms. Jackie reminded us a bit of Cristina Scabbia [Lacuna Coil] circa early 2000, which is always a good thing.
“The Time has Come” returns to the slow and creeping sound and feels very storied, at least as it begins. It has a surprising pick-up in its speed after a while, without hitting very much bombast as it climaxes. The consistent mid-tempo sound doesn’t allow the album a great deal of diversity of sound, continuing this pace with “11th Hour.” The song has interesting vocal lines and drums but not much else phone home about. Grungy and groovy “I am the One” packs a bit more of a punch while “The Flood” is mysterious in sound with a touch of drama, especially later on in the pianos, but also flirts with slow dance tempos early on.
The phantom complained of the lack of anything new to say regarding the album’s concept lyrically, saying that there was a lack of emotion or feeling to be gained. The penultimate “Where the End Begins” starts very slowly with a focus on the male vocals questioning the world. The song honestly drags on, repeating far too long before changing up, and the change itself is a bit too minimal. For the grand finale before the outro, the song could have used more oomph and drama, a bigger climax, to drive its point home. The main album then closes full circle with “Confustatis,” another choral song that likely relates to its Mozart influence but is perhaps trying a bit too hard to be artsy, as again, the classical style is very jarring against the grungy heavy sound that encompasses the entire rest of the album.
Already clocking in at thirteen tracks, the album then continues with a whopping four bonus tracks. Admittedly, the bonus material bothered me a bit because it distracted from the album and its concept. Having concluded so finally with “Confutatis,” having the album continue was a bit disjointing. However, more is more, so listeners have plenty to look forward to, from the intriguing deep piano notes and strong industrial soundscape in the instrumental “To the Front,” the hip-hop influences and thrashy fist-pumping touches of “Sound of Destruction,” the creeping yet punchy “Another Ghost,” and the further classic outro-sounding “Lacrimosa.” I would personally go so far as to say that the first three bonus tracks had much more diversity of sound and punch to them than nearly anything on the album itself.
We left this album with somewhat conflicted feelings. On one hand, when listening to it casually a few times before our proper review session, the album felt good, strong, and interesting. However, on closer listening, it became harder to differentiate many of the songs from one another, leaving us feeling like we were saying the same thing about nearly every song (the main exception being “The Heresy”). The concept and execution feel like they may have been a bit over-ambitious and combining monsters with art may have been a bit much as the album is long and keeps too slow a tempo to ever really jump out. The vocalists and drums are definitely the stars of the album, with pianos showing off a bit here and there, but the bass and guitars are strongly lacking throughout. Had the band stuck with a simpler concept and put a bit more oomph into the industrial sounds and main instruments, we may have had a masterpiece. Overall, a very nice album to put on in the background but nothing to phone home about after a focused listening session.
Rating: 7/10, 4 stars
1. A Requiem for Tomorrow
2. Madness Within
3. Seen it All
4. The Heresy
5. What a Shame
7. Carry On
8. The Time Has Come
9. 11th Hour
10. I am the One
11. The Flood
12. Where the End Begins
14. To the Front (bonus track)
15. Sound of Destruction (bonus track)
16. Another Ghost (bonus track)
17. Lacrimosa (bonus track)