It’s an oft-repeated cliché that a band’s second album is doomed to underwhelm. Whilst there is some sense in the notion that a band has its whole career to prepare for its debut as opposed to maybe a year for the follow up, in some cases this can prove a blessing rather more than a curse. In Maschine’s case, their impressive debut was written over a period of four to five years and, whilst the tracks were undeniably interesting, there was not the same sense of cohesion and purpose that can be found in this six-track follow up. Written in a much shorter space of time and, it seems, with a much increased sense of confidence, Maschine benefited from the trust bestowed upon them by respected label InsideOut (home to the likes of Leprous, Fates Warning and Devin Townsend) and got to work in their own studio (with band leader Luke Machin on production duties) to craft this intelligent, nature-themed piece of work. There were setbacks along the way. The band lost both their drummer and their keyboardist whilst Luke suffered health issues, but rather than allow these issues to derail the band’s artistic momentum, Maschine recruited two excellent new musicians (keyboardist / singer Marie-Eve de Gaultier and drummer James Stewart), got healthy and poured themselves into crafting an album that will stand as one of the year’s most ambitious progressive releases.
Opening in a somnolent haze reminiscent of Porcupine Tree, ‘Resistance’ takes time to settle the listener with ambient electronics before slowly building in a stuttering electric riff that sees the song ascend to the heavens with its richly textured layers of swooning backing vocals, jazz-infused interludes and suitably cryptic, progressive lyrics. Scattered reference points include the aforementioned Porcupine Tree as well as Dream Theater and even Nine Inch Nails, but they are so deftly woven into a fabric of Maschine’s own making that they serve as little more than a guide to isolated moments rather than a statement of overall content. What is clear from the off is that the musicianship is of an exceptionally high standard with Dan Mash’s subtle, detailed bass work winding itself majestically around Luke Machin’s ecstatic guitar work. It’s a complex and exciting opening song, and one that truly deserves the oft-overused progressive tag, and there’s a feeling that the band are reaching for the stars with their intricate-yet-dreamy music. Opening upon a chugging riff, ‘Night and day’ delves into a series of satisfying guitar runs before the vocals appear to tell the story of a soldier fighting for survival during the titanic struggle of World War II. The juxtaposition of male and female vocals works really well here with both given equal weight in the mix and Marie-Eve de Gaultier, who also handles keyboards, has a fantastic voice that perfectly complements Luke’s darker tones. Perhaps the most beautiful piece of work on the album, ‘Make believe’ is a gorgeous song that gently eases itself into our consciousness via swooning vocals and a sumptuous lead from Marie-Eve. As you might expect from Maschine by now, it’s far from straight forward, and as the song progresses, so the band keep adding layers to the piece with harmonised vocals sending shivers down the spine.
Despite the exceptional musicianship that surfaces throughout the track, ‘Hidden in plain sight’ has a much more stripped-back feel than the other work on ‘Naturalis’ with clean guitars and an insistent rhythm delving into indie territory, although a gorgeous, Gilmour-esque solo sweeps through the heart of the song like a warm, southern wind. Digging deep into the world of jazz and fusion, ‘a new reality’ is a bold step from the band and a sure sign of their ever-growing confidence. Referencing the guitar work of Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin and yet with a melody at its heart that belies such complex, technical playing, ‘A new reality’ is the perfect combination of the raw, spontaneity of jazz and the more measured lyricism of progressive rock. The final track, ‘Megacyma’, deals with the Japanese Tsunami and, fittingly, it opens to the haunting sounds of a siren before a gentle melody eases us into the song. A darker, more contemplative piece than the other numbers, there’s a depth of feeling in Luke’s sensitive lead work that underscores just how capable a guitarist he is. ‘Megacyma’, aptly, is also the album’s heaviest track and although there is darkness, there are also some meaty riffs in place which add to the air of drama and send adrenaline surging through the body. It’s a deeply impressive conclusion to a varied and fascinating album.
‘Naturalis’ is no easy ride. Although songs can be appreciated individually and there is a rich vein of melody running through the piece, as a work of art it is better absorbed in one sitting as there is an ebb and flow to the music that is seamless. Whilst the band’s exceptional musicianship was in full evidence on their debut, here the song-writing has taken a quantum leap forward and there is an unshakable sense of confidence that comes from a band having faith in their own intuition and ability to carry it through. Overall, ‘Naturalis’ is a moving tour-de-force that only gets better with each subsequent play-through. The songs are complex and yet both accessible and varied meaning that it feels like it lasts a fraction of its actual run time. Do yourself a favour and buy this album. 9