Godhead: At the Edge of the World

Here at FEARnet, when we run a news flash, we ain’t just blowin’ smoke up yer you-know-what. So when I dropped an item on the upcoming release of Godhead’s new album, I made a point of listening to the whole thing on their TuneLab stream site when it was up. About two tracks in, I was already convinced I had to have this CD in my collection.

If you still haven’t heard of these dudes yet, I’ll catch you up: the first band (the only band, actually) to sign to Marilyn Manson’s now-extinct label Posthuman, Godhead first entered the public eye as a supporting act on Manson’s tour and later landed a well-received spot on Ozzfest. It wasn’t long before people realized they were not dealing with just a Manson knock-off band here, but solid artists with a distinct sound of their own.

That sound manages to stand firmly and equally in both the gothic-rock and mainstream metal categories – a combination I might have resisted in less talented hands. Their instrumentation is deep, dark and rumbly, with a grind similar to latter-day Manson or even Tool, but singer Jason C. Miller’s voice provides a soulful, pained urgency that elevates the sound to a different level.

I first realized how well these elements came together when their cover of “Eleanor Rigby” (from debut album 2000 Years of Human Error) made its way into heavy MTV rotation. Frankly any band performing a Beatles tune dressed in black leather and vinyl, with a shaven-headed singer in white face-paint, black lipstick and eyeliner, is going to pique my curiosity. Admittedly I went in expecting a Gothic train-wreck… but instead found myself listening to the song multiple times. The quiet ballad of personal misery was suddenly elevated to an epic anthem about human suffering… and it actually worked.

Subsequent albums followed, moving their sound further and further out of Mansonesque mode until finally solidifying their straighter dark-rock style (to which many have drawn comparisons with Disturbed – a band they’ve also toured with), with the release of Evolver and The Shadow Line. Throughout this evolution Godhead always held onto their niche, dancing up to the edge of the mainstream from time to time but always holding onto that intensely dark urgency.

They’ve magnified that feeling to epic proportions in this month’s release, which contains some of their strongest material to date. From the totally metal cover art (the front cover looks like the evil twin of the classic Kansas album Point of Know Return) to the creeping, ominous opening drone of intro track “Approaching the Edge,” you know you’ve got a high-concept work in your hands. The intro segues immediately into “The Puppet” – a chugging grind with a beat and tempo similar to Nine Inch Nails’ “Reptile” but with a soaring, harmonized chorus that puts a silver edge on the grinding black machinery.

Following is the first single “Stay Back,” which has a great low piano thread on the verses and a nice dirty guitar riff driving it along, but the chorus feels a little too bright and happy considering the grit and grime on either side of it… but overall the energy is high and the hook is memorable. “Just Take Anything” is more straight-ahead rock with less dynamic range, but “Hero” compensates by venturing further into prog-rock territory and simple but expressive guitar work by both Jason and Michael Miller.

“The Decline” kicks into a higher tempo with a brutal beat from newly-acquired drummer Ty Smith and a punchy rhythm guitar line shot through with glittering synth accents, and Miller’s smooth vocals anchor these elements well. The superb “Edge of the World” is propelled by a very Tool-like bass line from Ulrich Hepperlin and contains some of Miller’s best vocal work, doubling a clean voice with a distorted whisper during the bridge – it’s definitely one of the strongest tracks on this album.

“Closing the Door” feels like a continuation of “Edge,” and takes some brave risks with slightly dissonant vocal layering on the verses; the down-tempo “Soldier’s Song” has a great swirly chorus effect on the verse vocals and some unusual chord patterns in the refrain. “Consumption” hits a satisfyingly aggressive note, substituting the forlorn mood of the previous songs with sly cynicism and a pointed political message – plus it’s got one of the best refrains from any of the band’s more recent work, and it’s still stuck in my head a day after listening. And I actually want it to stay in there for a while longer.

“Become the Sky” is driven by a more electronic rhythm which brightens the tone, but the guitars keep the mood intensely dark; “And Ever” contains some of Miller’s most passionate vocals, but tends to lose focus in the bridge, making it tough to reclaim the momentum by the time the showy guitar solo bursts onto the scene. “The Origin of Suffering” closes the album on a somber, pensive note thanks to a low, breathy vocal accompanied by melancholy piano, injected with a sweet and dirty guitar riff for spice.

The package is rounded out by a series of bonus remixes, courtesy of electro and industrial veterans from Assemblage 23, Thrill Kill Kult, Icon of Coil, Pigface and American Head Charge. A couple of these seem ill-fitting among their brethren, particularly the shiny-happy club beats of the “Stay Back” remix. But the strongest cuts take up the slack – especially the relentlessly aggressive “Melt Mix” of “Consumption” and Fat & Acid’s bass-rolling beats on “Edge of the World,” which closes out the album in an eerie session of bleeping cyborg chatter. Now I can’t help but wonder if someone just programmed my subconscious when I heard that.

The glue that holds this ambitious project together remains the strength of Miller’s passionate voice, which blends the searing intensity of Sevendust’s Lajon Witherspoon with the tonal range of David Bowie. (His vocal versatility goes far beyond music, in fact – he’s lent his speaking voice to animated series like Hellsing, Avatar and Ghost in the Shell.) It’s kept the band’s energy strong and consistent as they morphed from an industrial-metal sound into their present gothic-rock incarnation, and it’s clear again with this album that their black hearts are still in the right place.