I love music that takes chances. Those chances can be a myriad of elements: fusing disparate styles, unexpected arrangements (or non-arrangements), unique vocal delivery, you name it. Despite the fact that I love olde-school metal as much as the next Druhm, take a chance in your music and you’ll at least garner a close listen from the Huckster. While I hadn’t heard Hark’s debut LP, 2014’s Crystalline, the promo blurb for Machinations drew me in. I’ll paraphrase: “Progressive, muscular, sludge-infused hard rock.” I like all of the above, and I suspect that if done right, and coupled with singer/guitarist Jimbob Isaac’s “soaring and gritty” lead vocals, this album might be a bright light in an otherwise gloomy February.
Machinations charges out of the gate with “Fortune Favours the Insane,” a galloping number with a twin guitar riff, big, thunderous verses, and a few guttural “uhs” to let us know how heavy the band is. The thickness of the drums and riffs harkens back to Isaac’s first band, the sludgy Taint, but the songwriting and arrangements here are more varied. As the promo suggested, it is indeed some combination of prog and sludge. “Disintegrate” and “Premonitions” are similarly styled, up-tempo and complex, and the addition of lead guitarist Joe Harvatt is a boon. Harvatt’s got some fine chops, and compared to Isaac he’s also got some solid tone coming out of his amps.
“Speak in Tongues” is one of the standout tracks here, opening with a ponderous, complex riff that moves into relatively quieter verses. Hark know how to arrange their songs, keeping things interesting and varied at all times. “Son of Pythagoras” and album closer “The Purge” follow a similar suit, mid-paced numbers with some heavy riffing and compelling lead work, although the latter could have been cut down from its nine-minute length. Aside from the short instrumental “Comnixant 3-0” that leads into “The Purge,” there really isn’t much to dislike on Machinations, but that doesn’t mean the album isn’t without fault.
I have two problems with Machinations, and the first occurs two seconds in, when the guitar fires up for “Fortune Favours the Insane.” Massive clipping, which drives me batshit, is the order of the day, and exists throughout the album. While we don’t technically see a horrible DR score upon measurement, our ears tell a different and more important story. Everything is squashed together into a mush of sound. This is the opposite of a dynamic album. The mix has all the subtlety of a flying mallet [If you can dodge a flying mallet, you can dodge a ball. – Steel “Patches” Druhm]. The rhythm guitars sound like they are constantly clipping (maybe they aren’t: maybe Isaac just likes horrible tone), and the drums have no shape or character to them. Listen to the beginning of “Nine Fates:” the snare drum is so far back in the mix it sounds like it’s in a different room. Hark are going for sludgy production on Machinations, but the music calls for better.
My second beef with the record is more of a minor quibble compared to the production, and that is Jimbob Isaac’s one-dimensional singing. Sorry, promo blurb: his voice is NOT “soaring and gritty.” It’s grating and monotonous, and after 47 minutes of the guy shouting at me (coupled with the lousy overall aural experience) I’m ready to go to my quiet space for some alone time. It’s a shame, really, because if one peels back the stinky onionskin layers of poor production and spit-in-your-face vocals, Machinations is chock full of really strong songs. They’re just suffocating under the weight of these issues. Hark need to decide who they are: they ain’t Taint, so they shouldn’t try to sound like it. The songs deserve more.