Alunah – Strange Machine Review

Birmingham-based Alunah returns with their fourth album—Strange Machine—and second since the departure of founding members Sophie and David Day. As originally formulated, Alunah played straightforward—albeit folk-tinged—doom metal. Perhaps the biggest difference from doom in the vein of Saint Vitus is Alunah’s penchant for the bounce and swing of early Black Sabbath’s heavy blues. Alunah’s first album with singer Siân Greenway—2019’s Violet Hour—saw a modest departure from their folkier influences in favor of stoner rock. Does Alunah still observe the Sabbath, or are these Brits now a gang of lapsed apostates?

While Sophie Day’s passion and mysticism were integral to the atmosphere on Alunah’s earlier work, the arrival of Siân Greenway unlocked poppier possibilities with more intricate vocal lines. Gone on Violet Hour were the 7-plus minute epics of Solennial and Awakening the Forest, replaced by significantly shorter tracks that highlighted Greenway’s expanded vocal range. Strange Machine picks up where the band’s 2019 offering left off, with an even sharper turn towards stoner and classic rock. Alunah can remain just as heavy as ever, thanks largely to the arrival of new axe-man Matt Noble. Noble seems equally comfortable with both the band’s older and newer styles, able to crank out thudding doom riffs (“Teaching Carnal Sins,” “Strange Machine”), Sword stylings (“Over the Hills”, “Silver”), and psych-rock (“Fade Into Fantasy”). He’s aided by a guest spot from Crowbar’s Shane Wesley, which thickens “The Earth Spins” without necessarily sludging-up the track. Unfortunately, the heaviest moments will likely be too few and far between for long-time fans. 

Meanwhile, the psychedelic and hard rock compositions that dominate Strange Machine prove a mixed bag, with significant variation in quality both between and within songs. At its best, the band’s new stylings are in the vein of mid-era The Sword, with the added benefit of a killer vocalist. “Over the Hills” would fit neatly on Apocryphon, while the riffs on “Silver” evoke Warp Riders’ “Night City.” Unfortunately, the band seems far less comfortable with the more psychedelic and classic rock cuts, relying heavily on genre tropes. “Fade Into Fantasy,” for example, rips straight from “Dazed and Confused” for its opening, which jarringly distracts from the track’s brilliant proggy bridge and back half. It’s doubly unfortunate for long-time fans, since the song also features the most prominent folk elements on the album. The most blatant case of musical malfeasance, however, is early-release track “Psychedelic Expressway.” Given the early-release and its positioning at the midpoint of Strange Machine, I’m concerned that this is the track the band is most proud of and what they consider indicative of their future trajectory. From the Byrds-cum-Greta Van Fleet jangling guitar riff to the stinkface-inducing flute breakdowns, “Psychedelic Expressway” is firmly centered in the Summer of Love. It’s a complete mess and a strong contender for worst song of the year. Maybe it’ll feature in the inevitable fourth Austin Powers movie’s non sequitur segues.

As with the compositions themselves, the album’s production is hit or miss. Strange Machine breathes much more than its DR 7 would indicate, due to the band’s penchant for streamlined instrumentation. For instance, Noble frequently foregoes a second tracked rhythm part during his solos, which resultantly highlights both his solos and Dan Burchmore’s bass work. The production also suits Greenway’s voice well, with reverb accentuating her without seeming like a crutch. The exceptions, however, are where Greenway leans into the far-upper register of her falsetto, such as in “Fade Into Fantasy” and “Psychedelic Expressway.” These are the only times on the album where the mix backgrounds her voice, which is distracting and implies—correctly or not—that she can’t quite hit the highest reaches of her falsetto. Again, Greenway is a fantastic vocalist, so the production and compositional choices confound.

Alunah seems stubbornly insistent on the path of most resistance. While it’s difficult to stand out as a doom band, the band had at least established itself; it’s assuredly just as difficult to stand out in the stoner and psych scenes. Maybe Alunah will become more proficient in their new style on future endeavors. But if those endeavors feature more tracks like “Psychedelic Expressway,” we might need to commission  the Hippie Drill from “Die Hippie, Die.”

Rating: ​2.0/5.0
DR:​ 7 | ​Format Reviewed:​ 320 kbps mp3
Label:Heavy Psych Sounds |
Releases Worldwide​: April 15th, 2022

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