I could spend all 700 words of this review talking about why Wolverine is a horrible name for this band. As most of us northerners are aware, wolverines are vicious beasts capable of bringing down prey far larger than themselves. They have a gluttonous reputation, and almost no other creatures want to mess with them. Wolverines certainly wouldn’t be in a band that featured keyboards, or harmony backing vocals, or heaven forbid a fretless bass solo. Figuring out why the band is named thusly is worth a quick Google.
Sweden’s Wolverine are not a well known band in North America – their first time on this side of the pond was in 2013. In fact, one has to sort through numerous links to American high school marching bands before finding Wolverine’s website. Turns out they began life as a death metal band (Death metal seems to be the logical evolutionary precursor to dreamy sadboy navel-gaze prog), but quickly realized they enjoyed the proggier side of things more than the extreme. Machina Viva is their fifth full-length release and not since their first recordings has the music’s ferocity matched their name.
But let’s grudgingly let go of the name and focus on the music. With the death growls far in the rear view mirror, and the metal tendencies pale compared to what they once were, Wolverine focuses on mood, texture, and atmosphere, all while maintaining a respectable modicum of past aggression. Epic opening track “The Bedlam Overture” is a great example of this focus, equal parts moody introspection and melodic passages, interrupted throughout with short bursts of more metallic prog (including Thomas Janssen’s aforementioned fretless bass solo). Like the band’s name (sorry, I guess I can’t let it go totally), bedlam is not wholly accurate, but overture is. By far the longest song on the record, it has an intricate arrangement and is a fine example of the album as a whole.
Wolverine do not limit themselves to any single sound or style on Machina Viva. Second cut “Machina” opens with synth and electronic drum loops, and builds through a gradual progression to a true, albeit abrupt, prog metal finish. Consider it a highlight of the album. “Pile of Ash” appears twice on Machina Viva. The first time, a stripped down electric guitar and vocal dirge. The second replaces guitar with a string ensemble, closing the album on a somber note. The second is the more compelling version, but it follows the seven minute “Sheds,” itself a slow synth-driven number, thus giving us twelve minutes of hymn-like introspection to close things out. Maybe not the best choice as far as song order is concerned.
“Pile of Ash” and “Machina” suffer from the opposite problem of most progressive metal: they end in rather jarring fashion on an unresolved note, making the listener wish they kept going. It’s odd for songs that are five or six minutes long to come to such abrupt ends, without even seguing into the next cut. The performances are solid – vocalist Stefan Zell sings with clarity and emotion, and Per Henriksson’s synth samples are tasteful – but it sounds like Wolverine couldn’t come up with endings for those two tracks. A minor nitpick, but annoying.
That said, there is a satisfying variety to the tracks on Machina Viva. Slower, moodier cuts dominate, but the arrangement of these songs, notably “When The Night Comes” and “Nemesis,” keep the listener engaged. “Nemesis” in particular begins as a piano/vocal duet, and one wonders if they should press the skip button, but hang in there because a compelling prog track lurks, featuring guitarist Jonas Jonsson’s strongest solo on the album.
Machina Viva is a well-mixed, well-produced record. As one might expect, the band employs a plethora of instruments here – electric, electronic, and acoustic – and all come through the mix clean and vibrant. Nothing is overdone production-wise, keeping the feel very authentic. The stereotypical pitfalls of prog metal are avoided here, with the exception of song length. With the middle songs all clocking in around eight or nine minutes, and all leaning towards the slower, moodier tilt of the band, things do drag a bit.
Perhaps most similar to a lighter version of modern day Katatonia, or a more orchestral version of Pleasant Shade of Grey-era Fates Warning, Machina Viva (and Wolverine’s back catalog by extension) is worth a listen. Now I’m off to start a Rename That Band campaign. I’m thinking maybe Arctic Fox…