Friday, October 25, 2013

Mahogany Head Grenade - Return To The Point Of Departure (2013)

What makes the greatest guitarists in the world truly great isn't how fast they can play, or how many ridiculous faces you make while you do it. It's so much more than that. What sets those players apart from the others is their ability to write cohesively. Sure, we all remember "Eruption," but what made Eddie Van Halen great was that he knew when to unleash a solo, or when a signature lick would fit into the grand scheme of a song. Far too often, the "look what I can do" attitude ruins guitar metal, a sad state of affairs that has only gotten worse in recent years. But Mahogany Head Grenade, for their part, are taking a different approach. This Dallas based three piece are staying true to the metal genre, without writing song after song rooted in hammer on/pull off dynamics. Instead, they are focused on the songwriting process, a collected effort between three musical minds that has the capability of producing rich, memorable tracks, rather than a few fleeting shred fests. Their new album may not be "1984," but it is a guitar driven album with all of the substance to stay around a while. And that substance, in guitar, bass, and drums, is what makes "Return To The Point Of Departure" an album worth hearing.

After an extended intro and sample, you would be hard pressed not to feel your neck snap back at the first thumping piece of percussion. Drummer Mike Pritchett isn't one to hold back or restrain himself, as is evident early and often. But here, he is the ground floor of a skyscraper, providing every bit of the foundation. The groove, the intense riffing of guitarist Dan Hyer leaps ever farther upward, exercising all of the shredding power of a Van Halen, with all of the thrashing devastation of Noud Smeets. He makes his guitar talk, sing, and scream over the course of nearly seven minutes, without the need for a breath or sip of water. The splicing together of vocal samples has a noticeable place in the mix, albeit as a background player. But it is the second track, "Trouble For Trouble," that will firmly ensconce this group in your brain stem. The guitar leads are catchy, but not in the sugary sweet vein of modern power metal; they boast a classic rock disposition, while still, ultimately, flexing a modern appeal. There is a thin line between a masterful hook and pandering, and Hyer has found that line and walked it according. He does, however, have the great equalizer at his disposal; the steadfast and groove laden bass work of James Falcon.

If it hasn't hit you to this point, "Vinedresser" is a stark reminder that this is only a three piece band, but with incredible depth of sound. Whether that be attributed to the production work or the songwriting structure, it is impressive on many levels. Speaking to the latter, they forgo the standard verse, bridge, chorus, verse, bridge, lead, chorus, outro pattern in favor of something far more freeing and expansive. While it often leads to unrestrained greatness, it can also go too far outside the lines. While there aren't any specific moments that stand out, "Vinedresser" does make a seven minute run feel equally long. On the contrary, "Etude War Machine" with it's electronic accompaniment, is about as well rounded and firm a track as you can find. This track, in all it's glory, becomes the signature of the album, a combination of intense riffing and a masterful rhythm section. Pritchett and Falcon aren't hear to keep time or provide a beat; they are adding to the mix at every turn. Bookmark the final minute for a reminder of how tightly put together this album is. After a line of longer tracks, the finale is this shortest, the four minute slugfest known as "Venetian Bricks." In what is a long line of guitar driven metal tracks, this is the final argument for how you make such an album without it feeling stilted.

We've all seen that guitar player on stage; the one that puckered his lips, clenches his ass, and moves his fingers faster than your eyes can follow. And by no means are we denying the skill that they display. But what Dan Hyer is doing is on a different plane of talent. Fast and slow, light and heavy, smooth and choppy, Hyer and company can do it all. They form a structure all their own, one that allows for some freelance solo work at times, but isn't rooted in that mindless shredding. His strengths are accentuated, along with those of his bandmates, as they've written songs that further than talents, rather than just spotlight them. There are sure to be many who disagree with the entire premise here; Rolling Stone magazine once listed the likes of Kurt Cobain and Edge from U2 over Randy Rhoades and Van Halen. But if you want to impress with a modern guitar metal album, you have to go beyond solos and hooks, and look deeper into the repertoire. And on "Return To The Point Of Departure," these three musicians have done exactly that. Maybe Mahogany Head Grenade are ready for bigger and better things.


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