Mushroomhead: 'Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children' - CD Review

It's pretty easy to see how the masked marauders of this Cleveland-based supergroup have fully embraced the sinister side of metal – I mean seriously, just look at them – but while they've definitely played up the nightmare circus performing style, there's more to Mushroomhead than monstrous looks and hooks. The less-informed tend to rush straight to the whole Slipknot comparison, but these dudes had the secret-identity thing well established as early as 1993 – yes, a couple years ahead of their Iowa counterparts – when the various members opted to use masks and costumes to fully distance themselves from their original bands. The creepy image took hold, and the band soon embraced their devilish alter-egos, incorporating horror elements into their stage shows and diving into full-on gore FX for some of their videos, making both horror and metal fans (often one and the same, ya know) sit up and take notice.

The band has finally released the long awaited follow-up to their runaway 2006 hit Savior Sorrow, so I've been looking forward to giving Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children a spin or two. Read on for the full album breakdown... and catch a couple of splatterific Mushroomhead clips while you're here!

I'm actually a little late to the Mushroomhead party, having first heard their single Sun Doesn't Rise on the Freddy vs. Jason soundtrack in 2003, nearly a decade after the band's formation. But the track hooked my interest enough to check out some of their self-released early projects, then move ahead to XIII, their first album for Universal. That big-time crossover didn't diminish the band's strengths, in my opinion – in fact, the wider range of instrumentation and epic-sized production played directly into their chaotic crazy-quilt style of blistering electro-infused metal. Three years later, the hugely successful Savior Sorrow, released under Megaforce Records, managed to seal the horror connection even tighter – landing a couple of songs and a live appearance in makeup FX wizard Robert Kurtzman's splatter indie The Rage. You can see the full version of the band performing Damage Done in this clip, which was also shot by Kurtzman's production team...

Most recently, the single Soul Is Mine made it into the SAW VI soundtrack, and you can viddy that promo here too:

Those overt horror elements and experimental flair are not quite as prominent in the band's latest project, but the brutality and schizoid eccentricity of the Mushroomhead vibe is thankfully still intact – this time focused on a core of simple, chunky and powerful thrash, with a little less instrumental variety than its predecessors. Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children is actually a pretty good title for the band's current configuration, as this music blends beauty and brutality in equal measure and stylistically picks up pretty much where Savior left off... though maybe with less detail and imagination than I expected.

The opening track and first single Come On is an example of this sledgehammer approach on some of the heavier songs, and the band is obviously going for an unrelentingly violent groove. As a result it's probably the least musically interesting song on the album, but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in mega-ballsy attitude. Check out this sneak preview of the upcoming video, and you'll see what I mean:

Thankfully, with the following cut Inspiration we return to that unmistakably furious 'Shroom vibe; the track weaves coarse drop-tuned riffs with biting synths beneath the strong vocal interplay of melodic lead Jeff Hatrix, aka Jeffrey Nothing (who still reminds me of Mike Patton from the early Faith No More days), and Waylon Reavis, who replaced the band's original hardcore screamer Jason “J-Mann” Popson after XIII and impresses with a more versatile voice than his predecessor. That same wild-eyed mania comes across in Burn The Bridge, an angry hornet's nest of ultra-fast syncopated beats and dirty riffs, with tight-knit vocals creating an evil death-chant.

Thrash elements come further to the forefront with tunes like Darker Days, a high-energy explosion enhanced by excellent production and some catchy synth stabs; Your Demise serves up one of the album's most explosive fist-pumpers, and will definitely play well in a live situation. While staying true to that thrashy, trashy core, the band still experiments with some alternate sonic styles, capturing a certain Soundgarden feel in Slaughterhouse Road with coarse and robust rhythm guitar riffs, and while Harvest The Garden is not going to help put those frequent Slipknot comparisons to rest, it's still a seriously strong entry, featuring impressive tribal beats from drummer Skinny Felton and percussionist Dan Fox.

Evenly distributed through the album are some moody, dark and atmospheric ballads that serve well to counterbalance the psychotic energy of the up-tempo tracks: piano-driven Holes In The Void is full of dynamic ebbs and flows and is packed with intense drama, while a dusty spaghetti-western tone permeates the closing number Do I Know You? which features some clever and creepy sampling of a child's voice and builds to a suitably grand and cinematic finale. But for my money, the strongest of these mood pieces is The Harm You Do, which showcases some of the band's most creative production – layering piano, synth and lead guitar lines while blending clean and filtered vocals to create a twisted funhouse feel.

While it doesn't exactly break new ground from the previous release, this record is still a rock-solid effort and proves these versatile cats still have what it takes to rip your face off (maybe literally, as you may notice Jeffrey's new mask has a certain Leatherface touch). There's still that broad, theatrical sound which characterizes a Mushroomhead song, and the bulk of these tracks reflect their skills with building and arranging the sonic elements to fit that larger canvas, populating that world with larger-than-life characters who slide effortlessly from vengeful rage to melancholy... and maybe even a touch of hopefulness, if you listen VERY carefully. If you like where the 'Shrooms have been headed lately, you'll definitely want to stay onboard for this latest leg of their journey.