Considering their numerous lineup changes, the Slipknot "feud," and origins in the industrial/alternative/nu metal era, it's safe to say that Mushroomhead has a somewhat divisive reputation. In that case, I think it's proper to briefly map out their timeline and my take on the band's evolution to be transparent about any bias.
In high school, I began exploring their discography and was quite intrigued by the experimental approach to both visuals and music. Their first four albums (Mushroomhead, Superbuick, M3, XIII) showed an increasingly strong sense of dynamics and although the following switch in vocalists in 2004 may have been a bummer to the fanbase, I thought it lead to one of my favorite releases, Savior Sorrow. The next couple records, Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children and The Righteous and The Butterfly had some stand-out songs, but saw the group begin to plateau in quality.
With the new LP, A Wonderful Life, expectations were high as it had been six years since the last release and there's been a rather significant lineup change. This album marks the first without founding vocalist Jeffrey 'Nothing' Hatrix and keyboardist Tom 'Schmotz' Schmitz as well as vocalist Waylon Reavis who had been active in the past three albums and guitarist Tommy Church from the last record. In place of the absent, we see vocalists Steve Rauckhorst and Jackie LaPonza with guitarist Tommy "Tankx" Shaffner fill some rather large shoes.
As original drummer Skinny pointed out in my recent interview with him, Mushroomhead has always had lineup changes in between album releases. Nonetheless, this latest transition where we lost Jeff, Waylon, and Schmotz specifically felt like the most crucial change. And with such a dramatic shift in members, comes a dramatic shift in sound, for better or worse. For the most part, Mushroomhead has kept things interesting by mixing it up each album, but even the most diehard and openminded fan may be shocked from some material on here. Overall, there are two new routes that the band explores in A Wonderful Life; one being more radio-friendly and the other a tad unconventional.
The lead single, "Seen It All," was the first evidence of leaning towards a more accessible identity. And while it didn't initially wow me, the song showed promise regarding the new lineup, particularly in the case of vocalist Rauckhorst with his strong grasp on melody and range. Although a bit tame and repetitive, the song was still catchy and satisfactory. The radio-friendly tendencies continued on the following single, "The Heresy," with Jackie now taking the reins on vocals. Again, the aggressive urgency felt lacking, but the direct, melodic execution was sufficiently enjoyable. Despite wanting more heavy pizazz, I thought the radio-friendly route they took on these singles paid off considering they undoubtedly became stuck in my head and were showing of maturation. However, this approach wasn't always successful as shown on the cheesy and passable track, "Carry On."
Following down the other path reveals Mushroomhead allowing for a new experimentation in style and songwriting. "What a Shame" emerges as an absolute zany highlight. I find myself constantly returning to this track and wishing that the rest of the album was as fun and gripping. The harmonized vocals and quirky carnival-like keyboard-driven rhythms reminded me of a previous single "Qwerty" and proved that the dichotomy between Jmann and Rauckhorst can be recipe for innovative success. The eccentric momentum carries over to "Pulse," which dramatically smushes Faith No More influence into the latter half. If you're keen on Rauckhorst's Mike Patton impression, you'll also enjoy the strange composition of "11th Hour." The last notable unorthodox track to shine a light on would be the seven-minute closer, "Where the End Begins," a long-winded, but climactic anthem.
Although the aforementioned compositions that land in either the accessible or experimental categories piqued my interest equally for different reasons, A Wonderful Life also unfortunately holds pieces that stand on par with the so-so quality of the last album The Righteous and The Butterfly. For example, "A Requiem for Tomorrow" and "Madness Within" can be enjoyable, yet lack a distinct, memorable driving force. I respect the use of choir and the high energy in these songs respectively, however the mostly straight-forward foundations in these pieces lead to a 'meh' aftertaste. "I am the One" also portrays a less than inspiring complacency for a band on their eighth album. The lyrical line of “I am the one you love to hate, I am the one you hate to love” is fairly cliche and showing of an undercooked creativity.
With a fluctuating quality throughout the tracklisting, one thing remains consistent. The new vocalist Steve Rauckhorst is an absolute MVP, bringing a wave of new melodic varieties and range to the band. Even the weakest songs on the album were spruced up once Rauckhorst's vocal parts were cued in. As for other members' contributions, LaPonza's occasional vocals were tasteful and the keyboard contributions by Dr. F and St1tch definitely stood out strongly. On the other hand, the new guitarist Tankx didn't exactly bring much new to the table, so I hope to hear more of his own style in future material.
Overall, my feelings towards this album are a bit complicated. When they take an experimental or more accessible route, it’s actually exciting due to it being unexplored territory, yet the compositions aren’t completely cohesive or fleshed out. And on the other hand, there are also straight-forward tracks here that are moderately gratifying, but fall in line with lackluster alternative metal that they’ve exhibited on the past two records. With all that in mind, I view A Wonderful Life as a transitional stage for Mushroomhead as the new lineup has provoked an accelerated evolution with a fair share of growing pains and hesitations. Nevertheless, a majority of the material showcased is quite ambitious and with over seventy minutes of diverse music, there'll highly likely be multiple moments to satisfy your experimental alt-metal needs.