This week, Mushroomhead will release A Wonderful Life, the eight-piece masked metal band's first new effort in six years. An appropriately apocalyptic alt-metal album for our era, it's also an artistic breakthrough for the outfit. But for fans of heavy music who've never given the group a chance, they might just assume it sounds like Slipknot because the band wears masks.

What's more, they might dismiss it for no real reason at all — other than they've never actually listened to Mushroomhead. But just because the rockers have donned disguises alongside Slipknot since the '90s doesn't mean they ever sounded the same. And on A Wonderful Life, Mushroomhead have never sounded better.

Staunch Slipknot supporters could even be granted forgiveness for writing off Mushroomhead back in the day. A widely reported feud between the two bands was primarily projected by onlookers, anyway. At the time, much hype surrounded the perceived clash of nu-metal clans that both happened to have members who wore costumes.

Somewhat paradoxically, some Slipknot fans might only know about Mushroomhead because of the supposed feud. But it's a wise bet that many of them have never given much time to understanding Mushroomhead's music. The image battle during nu-metal's peak era didn't result in a stalemate as much as give Mushroomhead a built-in bias around their band. Even today, that perception still follows them around.

Is Mushroomhead even nu-metal? By some measure, the pedigree certainly can't be denied for the Cleveland-born octet. But A Wonderful Life captures a group that's grown beyond the subgenre. When listening, it might even make one wonder why Mushroomhead don't just give up the masks entirely.

Perhaps such a drastic move could earn the band another chance in the eyes of metal fans who've written it off. A clean slate in modern metal? It's not something that's going to happen. Mushroomhead drummer and sole original member Steve 'Skinny' Felton suggests the group's front will always include the affectation, even while everything else changes around it.

"We have never thought of gaining fans by dropping the masks," Skinny tells Loudwire when discussing the audience's perception of his act. "I think if anything, the masks add to the overall concept of the band. Performance art; it's entertainment. The main thing for the listener is to expect the unexpected."

He continues, "We look at the band as more character-driven with the masks. We think of it more like Mortal Kombat or Star Wars. The one constant over the 27 years that we've been a band is change. Constantly evolving."

Abe Robinson, Blind 7 Photography
Abe Robinson, Blind 7 Photography

The sound has undoubtedly evolved. Showing sharpened hooks and a steady groove, A Wonderful Life's first single "Seen It All" emerged in April. By the time the moody anthem "The Heresy" followed it up, the difference was clear. A mature Mushroomhead were coming with their opus for the end.

New singers Steve Rauckhorst and Jackie LaPonza do much for that approach, as does recently recruited guitarist Tommy "Tankx" Shaffner. Along with rapper/unclean vocalist Jason "J Mann" Popson, the trio of narrators infuses the album with dramatic energy, the vocal interplay always heightening the experience.

"Their abilities shaped a lot of the sound and writing," Skinny explains. "We did tons of experimenting with harmonies and stacking octaves. We never had the opportunity to explore this type of vocal production in the past. We definitely tried to take advantage of the new abilities that they presented."

Elsewhere on A Wonderful Life, the winking chorus of "I Am the One" and the sudden pop-rock bridge of "Pulse" shine through. Not to mention the eerie choral bookends that represent Mushroomhead's "requiem for humanity," as Skinny puts it. Plus, four bonus tracks that act as alternate album endings.

Still, when the record arrives June 19, it finds a world very different from the one that existed when Mushroomhead last released an album, 2014's The Righteous & the Butterfly. In the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest following the death of George Floyd continue to engulf the dialogue. Is it a wonderful life?

"[The album title] is another one that we like to leave for open interpretation," Skinny says. "It seems very satirical given the current state of the world, but ultimately, I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy."

That outlook serves Mushroomhead well almost three decades into their career. If there were a time when listeners discounted the group because they felt challenged by its visage, the reaction seems especially archaic now. A life full of wonder should be attainable for everyone, but it often feels like we have to go through hell and back to get there.

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