It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well, but I was quite eagerly anticipating the arrival of the debut album from Machines of Grace. Why, you ask? Well, for those who don't know, Machines of Grace is a new project, which is actually the reformed project of Savatage singer Zak Stevens and drummer Jeff Plate, originally named Wicked Witch. The band disbanded when the two joined the mighty Savatage, and now, a good decade and a half later, they have decided to resurrect it. This debut album features both brand new tracks as well as re-recordings of the tracks featured on the band's bootlegged demos from all those years ago.
So, what can one expect from this brand new old project? Well, not Savatage, that's for sure, and that's not a negative comment at all. Mr. Stevens' voice is certainly the closest thing this disc has in common with Savatage. The overall vibe of the disc is much more rock than metal, featuring a good amount of 90s-sounding King's X-ish guitar bits as well as some cool groovey riff work. The choruses aren't generally that particularly catchy, but that actually tends to add a more genuine sound to this, as opposed to an overproduced poppy one. The drum sound could have been better. Not to say Jeff Plate doesn't do a great job, he does. I just feel that the drum sound itself could've been better. The bass is pretty present in the mix as well.
When it comes to the tunes themselves, I think it will become pretty obvious that a lot of these songs were penned in the early 90s, and considering that fact, were pretty cutting-edge for the time. In 2009 some of this might sound dated to some ears, but I think it actually stands as a pretty strong testament to what was actually musically great of the area in which it was originally devised. "Just a Game" is a pretty good start to the disc, but stands a good distance from being the album's highlight. In fact, track 2, "Psychotic" is probably more memorable, thanks to it's melodic pre-chorus and very in-your-face chorus. "Fly Away" has one of the better choruses on the disc, featuring something this album has which the latest Circle II Circle album was definitely missing: Backing vocals. Overall, this album is a breath of fresh air for Zak Stevens' voice, the style allowing him to open up and reach the extent of his capabilities, as opposed to the more one-dimensional approach of the aforementioned latest Circle II Circle album. "Innocence" offers something I can't say I've heard many times in my life, as it is an entirely acoustic song, guitar-wise, even though there are full drums and bass. It's quite an interesting concept, and overall I'd say it worked more than it didn't, even if it doesn't necessarily give the song anything it couldn't have had fully electrified. "The Moment" stands out to me as one of the highlights of the album, and the aforementioned King's X musical vibe is in full-swing here, particularly reminiscent of that band's "Goldilox". Some cool lyrics and a fantastic vocal performance by Zak make this a great semi-ballad. Starting out with a cool acousticaly-driven prelude, "Between the lines" is another one of this disc's highlights, and the solo on this one is particularly worthy of praise. The guitar playing on this album in general is quite good for someone who has gone unnoticed for this many years. "This Time" is this effort's closest thing to a ballad, eventually featured again, in acoustic form at the end of the album. This song has a really cool vibe and another 5-star vocal performance. Rather than go into song-by-song detail for the rest of the disc, I will merely highlight my favorites. "Soul to Fire" is a great track with another cool acoustic guitar bit, something this album has a lot of, it seems. Eventually you reach the track "Better Days", which has to be in my personal top 3 tunes on the album. The intro vibe is oddly reminiscent of Dio's "Caught in the Middle" even though the majority of the song bears no similarity. I've always liked when bands bring albums to a close with more positive, upbeat-sort of numbers, much in the way that Savatage wind down Edge of Thorns with "Miles Away", and this is a classic example. The chorus here is easily among my favorites on the disc, and just leaves the listener with a great musical after-taste, just in time for the previously mentioned acoustic "This Time" to put everyone to sleep, in a good way, as Zak acoustic stuff tends to do.
So, all in all I found this debut record from Machines of Grace to be pretty damn good. Not much incredible work to be found here, but also not a bad track, and on an album of 14, that is an accomplishment. The new and old songs stand aside eachother quite while, and at one moment or another the whole band shines, unlike the Zak-dominated performance I was expecting. Some cool vibes, some great tracks. All-in-all a very commendable effort, and I'm already hoping the band opts to do a follow-up at some point.