Releasing nu-metal, or at least attempting to parade the decrepit husk of whatever remains of nu-metal in 2020, will always be contentious. The mainstays of the sub-genre – the rapped vocals, abundance of sampling and frenetic turntables – have long passed their best before date, forcing the main flagbearers of the scene to pick up a new set of tools or to rethink how to use their old ones. Fortunately for Mushroomhead, the band has a multitude of other influences to fall back upon in A Wonderful Life. Does it help? No, not really.
A Wonderful Life is the culmination of 25 years and seven albums from Ohio eight-piece Mushroomhead, yet the band’s longevity belies the jagged nature of their almost three-decade-long stumble through one of metal’s strangest eras. Their self-titled debut in ‘95 was, for the lack of a better term, bad. A bombastic and incongruous hot pot of ostentatious samples, poor vocal deliveries and forgettable riffs that strung its mangled form to an arduous 60-minutes.
Despite my distaste for the album, I reserved a strange admiration for its boldness and tongue-in-cheek attitude in the sort of way you gawk at the village idiot; not something I’d want to listen to but something that robs you of your attention throughout. This sense of ironic fondness probably arises out of the contrast between the debut and the six nondescript descendants to follow.
Just one year later, with the band’s sophomore release Superbuick, Mushroomhead starts the slow trudge into the arduously bland and uninspired with release after release weaning themselves out of an identity beyond their grotesque masks. I must concede that these records are much stronger, musically, than the debut as the band progressively veers away from the obnoxious samples, rap-focused hooks and generally began to improve their production value.
Yet, in doing so, Mushroomhead defaced their own legacy in the nu-metal scene with only the occasional fleeting spark of their original madness here and there. Now, after battling volatile lineups and a fair few visual re-arrangements, the band has made it to 2020 with A Wonderful Life.
Let’s start on a positive note. A Wonderful Life is Mushroomhead’s most bearable album; and I’d say that’s quite an achievement. I still have my grievances, and we’ll get to those in good time, but the stilted melodies, the dated tough-guy rap delivery and lifeless production that plagued the band’s last two decades are almost all but gone. As well as some belated farewells, the album makes a warm welcome to new vocalist Ms Jackie (of Unsaid Fate fame) who arguably gives the band more character than they’ve had in years.
Jackie is probably one of the only vocalists I can say I’ve truly enjoyed across the band’s discography with her upfront nasally delivery on tracks like “The Heresy” or the belting harmonies on “Carry On” providing much-needed flavor to an otherwise bland palette. Besides Jackie’s performances, the only other catch-all compliments I can give would be to the production, which somewhat elevates the lackluster material with real seismic heft through the bass and drums, and the album’s fairly good sense of rhythm which could keep any mindless bystander bobbing their head.
Beyond these rather rudimentary facets that the band has finally gotten to grips with, highlights are few and far between. There’s the occasional memorable hook, like “Madness Within,” some great implementations of sinister synthesizer notes, see “I Am the One,” and the odd showcase of good songwriting like on “The Time Has Come” or “Where the End Begins.” But these peaks are never matched by the remainder of the run-time. I’m sure with enough cherry picking I could Frankenstein some good tracks together but, as it stands, A Wonderful Life fails to justify its bloated runtime.
Naturally, this leads me to the bad and the ugly. Truth be told there aren’t any tracks that could merit the label ‘bad’, the worst crime the album commits is being forgettable and homogeneous with each track somehow managing to reinvent the same one-dimensional riff pattern and equally as superficial delivery from long-time vocalist J-Mann. By the end of 13 songs along with the four bonus tracks (although ‘bonus’ is not how I’d describe them), Mushroomhead have exhausted the same bag of tricks they’ve been toying with since they ditched the ‘see what sticks approach’ of the debut.
Mushroomhead fans (Mushroomhead-heads?) will find enough to enjoy here as they have done for the past 25 years and, with Ms Jackie providing nuance to the band, I sincerely hope they continue to explore her implementation and evolve their sound into something more tangible. Mushroomhead have always chugged contently along with a B-rate classification beneath the titans of nu-metal. Is A Wonderful Life the album to break the mold? No, probably not.
(released June 19, 2020 on Napalm Records)
Heavy Music Headquarters Rating:
Watch Mushroomhead – “Seen It All” Video