A new record from an unsigned band touring with Caligula’s Horse should be enough for most reviewers to perk up their ears and attempt to claim it from the promo bin. Somehow, though, Opus of a Machine’s new album Stray Fire had its cloaking device firmly in place, and none of us grabbed it until the AMG Overlords forced it upon me. Turns out the Caligula’s Horse connection is stronger than mere touring pals: until last year, guitarist Zac Greensill was a member of both bands (now, just OoaM). Citing influences from Muse to Devin Townsend also adds to my curiosity (if not raising my faint, withered hopes), so here I am, mid-August, getting my prog on with an Aussie act. Can they live up to the pedigree their island mates have shown in recent years?
I’ll tell you two things about Opus of a Machine: first, they know how to play their instruments. Second, they write some pretty moody songs. This quartet fits in with a number of Australian acts. Sure, Caligula’s Horse, but they also have the progressive bent of Karnivool and the alt-rock magnetism of Dead Letter Circus. The potential in this band is high, and while that might not show through completely in the opening track, “Strength in Stone,” it certainly does in other areas. “Strength in Stone” is an odd way to open an album. It’s a tentative, introspective track following the quiet verse/louder chorus template we will hear throughout, plus a tasteful solo from Greensill, but it’s the kind of song that feels like it should be in the middle of an album. Instead of fully enveloping us, it leaves us underwhelmed, waiting for a payoff that never comes.
Perhaps second-slated “Up. Out.” should have been swapped into the opening. It immediately engages with a sweet guitar lick before moving into some electronic shoegaze ambiance. It again features the quiet/loud dynamic, but in a much more engaging manner. Elsewhere, the short “WILD // UNKNOWN” is an entrancing ambient cut, and “Rudi’s Song (Thirst for Life)” is a languid instrumental with some beautiful guitar/keyboard interplay. Both demonstrate the band’s penchant for ambient post-rock. But the highlight of the album is without question the closing track, “Beacon.” The song serves as a template for everything Opus of a Machine can be—it plays to the same bases as earlier songs, but takes things to the next level, with a complex staccato breakdown one-third of the way through and a riff-driven, shouted climax. Like Caligula’s Horse and Karnivool, these guys know how to bring an album to a satisfying conclusion.
With one exception, the production of Stray Fire is superb. Lush and warm are appropriate adjectives. The issue is minor and comes up infrequently, but when it does the effect is jarring. Certain bass guitar notes resonate to an offensive level. This is most noticeable early on, at the 0:53 mark in “Strength in Stone,” and is so loud I can’t believe it wasn’t noticed during the mixing of the album. Perhaps a new pair of reference monitors is in order for that studio. But aside from this anomaly, Stray Fire sounds excellent. Mitchell Legg stands out with his emotive vocals, and Greensill is a phenomenal guitarist—his solos in “Beacon” and “Up. Out.” are works of art.
As with every record we review, enjoyment comes down to listener preference. Like the genres listed in the meta here? You’ll keep playing Stray Fire. Dreamy, shoegazey post-rock not your cup of tea? You’ll find the majority of Opus of a Machine’s music to be dull and tedious. While I could have used a couple more musically dynamic moments (or songs) on the album, overall I can’t argue with the fact that Stray Fire is full of good, and at times great, songs, excellent vocals, and some amazing musicianship. I hope the band can kick this up a notch on their next release.