REVIEW: MUSHROOMHEAD – “A Wonderful Life”
Dawn 'Mama Love' Brown
Through almost 30 years and 7 studio albums, Mushroomhead has been a stalwart in the alternative/industrial genre. Starting out in Cleveland, Ohio in 1993, their sound has been shaped over the years by the virtual rotating door of their line-up during that time. The band currently consists of 8 members: Steve “Skinny” Felton on drums (the only consistent member throughout their history), Jason “J Mann” Popson on rapping/screaming vocals, Rick “St1tch” Thomas on turntables, percussion and keyboards, Ryan “Dr. F” Farrell on bass, Robbie “Roberto Diablo” Godsey on percussion and keyboards, Steve Rauckhorst on clean vocals, Tommy “Tankz” Shaffner on guitar and Jackie LaPonza (Unsaid Fate) lending female vocals. Rauckhorst and Shaffner joined the band in 2018 when fans were admittedly blindsided by the sudden departure of one of MRH’s co-founders, Jeff Hatrix (Jeffrey Nothing) along with Tommy Church. This inevitably splintered MRH’s fan base given the perceived animosity between them and their former members and friends. As the author, I’m firmly walking the fence, being a rabid fan of both entities. After the departure of Church and Hatrix, Jackie LaPonza was promoted to an official band member with the release of this album.
Regardless of the frequently changing roster, Mushroomhead has been able to make their mark with classic tracks from each of their many iterations. From “Solitaire/Unraveling” to “Sun Doesn’t Rise” to “Simple Survival” to “We Are the Truth”, MRH has been able to capitalize on each member’s strengths to orchestrate mindblowing riffs, crazy breakdowns and superbly woven vocals from multiple singers that contain harmonies and melodies that many metal bands can’t pull off that well.
With MRH’s last album, ‘The Righteous and the Butterfly’, having dropped in 2014, fans have been waiting quite a while for some new music. MRH’s new record, ‘A Wonderful Life’, is set to hit in June 2020 after a 6-year wait. The anticipation for this album has been palpable. The concern being the unique sound and songwriting style of Hatrix no longer being contributed to the music. This concern was allayed not upon first listen, but upon second and third listen. Many of these tracks bring a heightened melodic content but at the expense of the harder industrial edge for which Mushroomhead is known and loved. At the same time, when the harder edge hits, it hits you in the face like speeding trash can lid.
Overall, this album is a solid offering. It has a lot of the classic MRH sound with multivocal, cacophonous arrangements and industrial elements that have defined MRH’s discography. However, there are a few moments of confusion as well. The first one is right off the bat with the opening track, “A Requiem for Tomorrow” which begins with a 30-second operatic movement and then jumps right off the cliff with a characteristic driving drum and bass line. Rauckhorst’s clean vocals take some getting used to. His voice has a relatively high pitch but lacks the unconventional charm of his predecessor. “Madness Within” is one of a handful of songs that were written prior to the most recent line-up change. Not unlike many songs on this album, it has Hatrix’s influence all over it. “Seen It All” is the single that’s been released from the record and their first video for this outing. It has a more commercial feel, like this one was intended to garner radio play. J Mann’s harsh vocals remind the listener who they’re actually listening to but, other than that, it’s hard to recognize this as an MRH song.
“The Heresy” is the first track featuring LaPonza’s vocals. It has a slower pace which is something MRH has not shied away from historically. “What a Shame” opens with what sounds like a harpsichord reminiscent of the Addam’s Family, first thought being, “…please don’t let this be a parody-type thing.” It’s not, thankfully. “Pulse” has a subdued piano intro and also features LaPonza’s vocals in a haunting backup track. “Carry On” features a rap-style vocal track from J. Mann with a mixed chorus and more hip-hop influences. “The Time Has Come” is another slower-paced track with a piano opening leading to what is essentially a pretty kickass tune. All vocalists are represented and the song includes some clever time signature changes. “11th Hour” opens much like several other songs with the slow pace and piano notes. A bit more confusion set in here as the main vocals in the first third of this song seems to be intended to mimic a certain singer no longer with the band. However, it’s not all bad as it is a powerful track. “I Am the One” starts off with that strange commercial-y sound as heard in “Seen It All” but redeems itself with another dynamic drum and bassline and aggressive lyrics. But then it goes back to the strange commercial sound in the chorus. I kind of see what the guys were doing there…maybe.
The album closes out with “The Flood” which is yet another that opens very similarly to many others here. This is one that has a bit more of a melodic feel. “Where the End Begins” is the longest of the tracks at over 7 minutes. It also has vocals using that mimicking technique and is reminiscent of the more subdued MRH tracks like “Embrace the Ending” or “Do I Know You?” The song takes a slight turn at about the 4-minute mark with what sounds like distant gunfire but the pace never really picks up and feels like it runs just too long. From there comes the final main listing track, a 4-minute piece of chamber music set to the historical “Confutatis”, a Latin requiem mass which has been set to music by many different composers including Mozart, Pinza, among others. This version was composed by “Dr. F”, Ryan Farrell himself culling from his classical music training at CSU. Apparently a lot went into composing these works including bringing in the Cleveland Chamber Choir to provide the stirring vocals to the compositions. There is another 2-minute work, “Lacrimosa”, in the bonus tracks. This is also a Farrell composition of a historical Latin requiem. Farrell expresses that these tie the theme of the album together somehow as a requiem is a mass for the dead. Okay.
In all honesty, despite having lost a huge influence on the songwriting and overall sound of the band, Mushroomhead has successfully made the transition to their next chapter. As a Mushroomhead fan, this will definitely be added to the regular rotation. Minus the chamber music.