After waxing lyrically about female voices in metal in my previous review, a random grab from the promo bin saw it fit to expand upon that intro with a female growler. When leaving The Agonist, Alissa White-Gluz infamously said: “No one can do what I can do,” and metal has been happy to prove her wrong time and time again. Bands such as Aephanemer, Bethlehem, and Light This City are just a few examples of extraordinary female laryngeal destruction, and Critical Mess is joining that growing pantheon. Continued diversification of metal is vital for keeping our beloved genre alive, so relishing the opportunity, I sat down to see what the richly alliterated Man Made Machine Made Man was all about.
Critical Mess hail from Germany, their proximity to both Sweden and Poland are apparent in their music. MMMMM, their sophomore record, sees the band spread their wings in a style borrowing from old school Swedish death in general, and Decapitated more specifically. The songs mark themselves with tight riffs at high speed, occasionally lapsing into dirty breakdowns, the dual guitars1 singing like buzzsaws, the drums coming in hard, fast and precise. Vocalist Britta does not mess around, largely sticking to a dry yet crackling growl in the lower end of the spectrum, occasionally going full guttural such as on “WOTF.” It’s a familiar style, but the execution is excellent throughout, never dropping the ball on the tight, energetic performances.
It’s a shame then, that the riffcraft specifically lets the band down. Blame it on my ADD, baby, but even during dedicated listens it is consistently difficult to remember any specific riffs, let alone full tracks, or remain engaged with the material across the entire running time. The riffs don’t set themselves apart from their peers in any way, through either sheer energy or memorability, and the songwriting doesn’t have enough variety to differentiate between most of the songs. The title track is the most structurally different, slowing things down into doom-death territory, yet this track, too, fails to evoke much response from my adrenal or serotonin glands. The band has all the ingredients to be cool and interesting, and they just… aren’t. It’s not even down to the production either, because despite the dense master, the mix is good and the music has plenty of texture to get by, with the guitar tones particularly well balanced between old school grime and more modern directness.
That the band does show themselves to be able to write the kind of riffs this record needs makes the whole package the more disappointing, as demonstrated by single “Cut the Cord.” Britta fires the starting gun with a brutal roar before the band bursts into a frenetic Decapitated riff that grabs me in a chokehold every time. Follow-up track “Demise” utilizes a delicious blackened riff on the chorus as well, and these two tracks are the absolute highlight of the album. If they had managed this across the entirety of the album, this would have been a whole different ballgame, but sadly everything before and after these tracks is mired in mediocre songwriting and quickly forgotten.
Man Made Machine Made Man has a lot going for it that should have made it a killer piece of death metal. The performances are excellent all around, they have the energy and focus, and though growling women are becoming less rare all the time it’s still enough to pique curiosity for many aficionados. The production is pretty standard but nothing that weighs the album down. But the majority of the riffs lack the staying power for the album to leave an impression. The fact that there’s an exception to that rule sparks hope, and I pray Critical Mess closely study why “Cut the Cord” works where most of the record misses the mark. If they can manage that level of riffcraft across the entirety of the next album, we may still be in for a record that kicks as much ass as it is supposed to. Third time’s the charm?