What is it about the Midwest that makes its metal heads so sullen? By nature, heavy metal isn’t a shiny happy genre, but the headbangers in America’s breadbasket have the gloomy game on lock (Morrissey, eat your vegetarian heart out). Is it the weather? The winter drags, and it has snowed as late as May in downstate Illinois. Perhaps it’s the endless void along highways like Indiana’s I-65, which beg you to pull over for a dish of white rice just to liven things up. It could be the fluorescent abyss in any number of decaying strip malls. All of that, plus the unsettling feeling that some of these towns could be wiped off the planet without the world blinking an eye. It’s enough to make you and seven of your closest friends hide behind masks for a while.
Mushroomhead hails from Cleveland, but Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children‘s dirt-churning take on metal recalls an overcast day in a town that could be anywhere from Dubuque, Iowa, to Indiana, Pennsylvania. It’s a doomy sound, if not quite doom metal (too fast) or death metal (too tonal). Look at those titles for proof: “Your Demise”. “Darker Days”. “Slaughterhouse Road”. It’s not all low end whiplash, however — these men have obviously spent time as kids walking the Wal-Mart aisles, absorbing the meat-and-potatoes radio rock that dominates the middle of the dial airwaves in the region.
The elephant in the room is the surface similarity to that other masked Midwestern outfit, but the older Mushroomhead attempt to be even more multidimensional. On Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, there are waifish fake strings and film noir piano joined at the hip with cavernous bellows and gratuitous DJ scratches. And speed lovers they may be, they’re not in any rush either, as the itchy “Harvest in the Garden” takes nearly a minute and a half to get going.
With faint orchestral stabs firmly in place, singer Jeffrey Hatrix moves from uninspired barking to working a Scott Weiland notebook worth of voices (Axl Rose’s wet dog whine, Jonathan Davis’ slithering hiss). The saturated synths opening “Inspiration” feel like a punch in the gut after the chumbucket thrash that precedes it in the homie-don’t-play lead single “Come On”. All the shifts in texture should keep things from getting boring, but instead, it’s too much. A 17-year career is long enough to evolve, but Mushroomhead too often goes in reverse — the slow harmonics in “I’ll Be Here” sounds like the exact breakdown every high school metal band has in its fan favorite song. “What’s up, hard dawg?” a young girl playfully asks before making some funky hip-hop sounds that belong in a flick she’s not old enough to see. This has exactly nothing to do with the song it introduces, and it’s hard not to wince. The band’s words don’t fare much better — that “life/strife” couplet is twice poor, being not only lazy, but recalling the opening lyrics of “MMMBop”.
Mushroomhead dare to thrive when they leave the Axl-rip singing in the dust in favor of less flashy vocal tricks. “Holes in the Void” juxtaposes a steady one-note cabaret piano line with steady one-note guitar. “Harvest in the Garden” flaunts a tribal stomp (albeit spoiled with DJ scratches — hey there, 1999, back so soon?) while Hatrix roars in tune. Asking for the angry masked dudes to show more restraint may be a futile effort — like a meathead fraternity, they’ve got nicknames such as Pig Benis — but the better songs are the ones that focus on doing a couple tricks competently rather than a handful sloppily.
That Mushroomhead has been doing this for as long as Miley Cyrus has been walking means this monster has developed sufficient technical chops onstage and off. There’s even small potential for the group to drown out the second-string Slipknot jokes and really crush skulls if it can resist the hammy vocal and musical overreaching, as it does on rolling storms like “The Feel”. A little respect is due for turning this shtick into a career – after all, being in a band big enough to sue Burger King still beats punching in for the night shift.