Things are getting worse. The seasons are becoming more unforgiving and natural disasters on a colossal scale are becoming more common. Species and their habitats are being pulverized into extinction at a rapid rate and humanity, instead of looking for a solution, seeks to jump ship to other planets. How are we, the powerless, going to solve this? What can we really do? Well, we can curl up into a ball and listen to Maschine’s second full-length that focuses on the ramifications of our disregard for Mother Earth. Let us channel the majority of our outrage internally and verbalize the smidgen of frustration that remains via online forums. It’s the only way. Naturalis is a 51-minute prog-rock adventure that moves through moments of joyous natural harmony to moments of devastating disregard. The story that unfolds in between, as with all prog-rock releases, is complicated.
Naturalis begins with the excellent 11-minute journey, “Resistance.” A progressive track in the truest sense, the song moves through various unique yet interconnected sections that merge eerie electronica, Steven Wilson-esque heavy riff work, 70s prog-folk touches, and celebratory pop melodies expertly. The electronic elements, in particular, enhance the instrumentals greatly: synthetic choir chants mimic riff shards as the siren-like vocals of keyboardist Marie-Eve De Gaultier drift through the mix.
Here we get the first taste of the male-female vocal harmonies that make up a vast quantity of Naturalis. Lead guitarist and main composer Luke Machin resonates with a smooth baritone that harmonizes wonderfully with the serene singing voice of Gaultier. Their tranquil and bewitching voices interweave and flow like a flock of starlings on a twilit eve, and they’re given the space to waltz thanks to a wonderful production. Their harmonies are more evident following the dramatic shift from the dark guitar-driven first half to the hopefulness of the second. Following a folky flute interlude and a bridge of pure silence comes buoyant acoustic strumming and bubbly pop melodies as Machin and Gaultier passionately combine in one of the most upbeat and smile-inducing musical moments I’ve heard in a long time.
This upbeat quality continues into “Night and Day.” Following warming guitar work, wobbling bass lines and expressive drum grooves, Gaultier and Machine’s vocals circle one another whilst twinkling guitar notes, pulsating electronic noises and aggressive Chris Squire-esque bass resonances bubble beneath. The song builds to its conclusion not through heaviness but through gradual progressions of sound. The dynamic fills and forthright drumming of Vader’s James Stewart intensify as the song progresses and the vocals build to their measured crescendo. Just as with Vader, Stewart’s drumming contributes masterfully to the various tones and moods that circulate throughout Maschine; death-metal fills and double-bass pedalling make an occasional appearance at the heavier moments, however his ability to fluently switch to jazz fusion-esque fills and grooves alongside more measured yet equally powerful pop sparsity puts him up there with some of the best today.
The remainder of the album, however, is much the same as the “Night and Day” and because of this the album stagnates. “Make Believe,” despite its attempt at building an immersive atmosphere, is over seven minutes of easily forgettable material that lacks the dynamism and variety to justify its length. Similarly, the first five minutes of “A New Reality” are essentially a carbon copy of sections of “Make Believe” and “Night and Day” and it’s not really until the song transitions into a smooth mock-improvised jazz section that things become even remotely interesting.
Maschine suffer from repetitive placidity and the middle period of Naturalis really drags because of this; this is a real shame because the album is bookended by two prog-rock epics that I’ll be listening to for a long time to come. Obviously, this middle-section of the album is supposed to reflect the semi-calmness before the storm that is final track “Megacyma” (Greek for great wave) but the purposeful calmness and harmony of the songs that build up in juxtaposition to “Megacyma” are all too alike to really flourish. “Megacyma” is the climactic storm that follows calm; Naturalis needs more storm than calm to really succeed.
Naturalis is so close to being a great album, however, it’s let down by a mid-album slump that it struggles to get up from. Maschine have the technical ability and an ear for melody and progression, however, their approach to the album as a whole is lacking. “Resistance” and “Megacyma” will stay with me for a long time and I will stay with Maschine for a long time to come because their musical development could be very interesting indeed.