Welcome To The Machine (Head): Burn My Change
(The intro to/explanation for this foolishness is here).
Ah, hindsight: it now seems so obvious that it would have been a good idea to “make sure I have a few things to write about Machine Head” before I committed myself to “writing a few blog posts about Machine Head”.
Oh well. I’ve decided to do it two albums at a time, and to stick to listening to just those two until I’ve posted about them. Hopefully this’ll give me a clearer sense of how the band progressed and/or changed over time, where applicable.
A bit of history, then: the band formed in Oakland in 1991, after vocalist/guitarist/mainfella Rob Flynn left thrashers Vio-Lence (due to “a physical fight between the band members and a local gang”, according to Wikipaedia. I bet it was just like “Grease”) to join up with bassist Adam Duce, guitarist Logan Mader, and what appears to have been a revolving cast of drummers in the early years. Apparently their name is not actually taken from the Deep Purple album “Machine Head”, which is both a surprise and disappointment to me. I can’t think of anything that you shouldn’t name after a Deep Purple album if you get the chance.
A demo got them signed up with Roadrunner Records, and in 1994 their first ‘un came out: “Burn My Eyes”, an album regarded as a classic by many people into the less commercial end of the more commercial end of heavy metal (if y’get’me). I had a taped copy of it in my youth, and I suppose I should take this opportunity to apologise for having killed music by home-taping.
The burning (pun partially intended) question, then, is “what is it like in the re-listening?” Well, what strikes me as interesting is that not only does it sound differently to how I remember it, but to my ears it doesn‘t sound much like the way it’s usually described as sounding, either. The standard narrative is that Machine Head ‘went nu-metal’ after their first two albums, but it’s astonishing how close they were to that not-yet-existing style to begin with – vaguely on the whole but also very specifically in certain parts. Take “Old”, for example – listen to the riff during the chorus and imagine it with ‘that’ guitar’ tone. That could easily be your generic ’99 baggy jeans band of choice, couldn’t it? Shortly after that, you have a low-dagga high-cheep two-guitar bit (try from 2:36 here) that is very reminiscent of the main riff from that uptempo Korn song that I couldn’t remember the name of when trying to look it up for this. Similar things occur throughout the album. Vocally, you have an almost quasi-rapping (or at the very least a staccato manner of singing often used by urban-influenced metal bands. I suppose ‘rapping’ is a bit generous) used in parts of “A Thousand Lies”. That sort of thing cropped up a lot in NYHC (think Madball etc.) prior to/concurrently with this, and so I assume that was what he was going for rather than anything hip-hop-y as such, but it doesn’t alter the fact that many parts of this album really do function as proto-nu-metal. The later stuff might not sound quite so different, this time around.
Another interesting stylistic point that strikes me is that although they’re considered to be a step on from thrash metal into this groove metal lark, they seem to actually be at their best in terms of writing songs (and parts of songs) when going back to that particular set of roots. The overall thrash-o-rama of “Blood For Blood”, the gallop in “None But My Own”, the slightly-less-straightforward up-tempo rhythm of “Block” are some of the most fun bits of the album. The bits which could be more clearly identified as groove metal (and I’ll say again that I don’t remember that term being used at the time) don’t work as well, although aren’t entirely without their moments (the aforementioned “Old” would be the one I’d pick out, although that was actually one of my favourites of theirs first time around and I do feel bound to mention that it’s nowhere near the head-nod-inducer that I recall it being).
So, what else? In terms of individual elements, the guitaring is a touch of a disappointment. It doesn’t have the sheer riffology that I was expecting, I’m sad to say, although there were some good ones here and there. The attempts at some eerie South Of Heaven-esque leads are OK, I suppose, and work really well in the chorus of “Death Church”, but they don’t add a lot for the most part. Flynn is a real clodhopper of a vocalist, isn’t he? All those monotone vowel stretches – he’s like the metal version of Robbie Williams on “Angels”. The drumming is excellent – hard hitting but very nimble throughout, with lots of fun little fills that really suit the overall sound (don’t ask me who was responsible for what, though – the aforementioned revolving cast of drummers saw Tony Constanza replaced by Chris Kontos during the recording). Nothing stands out about the bass either way.
I’m not going to be paying a lot of attention to the lyrics henceforth unless anything particularly stands out (really now, none of us live long enough to look up Machine Head lyrics. I can’t believe I’ve already bothered), but I am disappointed to note that he’s singing “Old man, dead God” and not “Old man, dick head” like it sounds. Bless their little hearts for attempting a stab at political comment with the speech samples on “Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies”, and apparently “Davidian” is actually about Waco. In light of that, their most repeated line “let freedom ring with a shotgun blast” could possibly meaning something entirely different to the call-to-arms many that claim they read it as. Then again, the amount of political action inspired by MH may suggest otherwise.
This all sounded heavy at the time, and now it doesn’t. I realise that ‘heavy’ has a million definitions, but I can’t really fit any of them to this – here and now it doesn’t have any great sonic weight, any particularly convincing emotional intensity, and it’s not even all that riff-heavy like Slayer. That last-named is the surprising one, and I think that may be the source of a niggling disappointment that I can’t otherwise put my finger on – I wasn’t genuinely expecting to be amazed by Machine Head this time around, but I thought they might provide some harmless headbangery fun. “Burn My Eyes” doesn’t achieve that with anything approaching consistency. Far from a classic album, this definitely falls into the “not without its charms, but…” category for me.
Back to the history: they toured, they gained a following (particularly on this side of the pond), they finally settled on a drummer (Dave McClain, who remains with them still), and in 1997 they came out with their second album “The More Things Change…”. I actually had this one on CD. I imagine I still have, somewhere.
The standard line on this one seems to be “not bad, but nowhere near as good as the debut”. I’m afraid I’m going to have to play contrarian yet again – although I preferred “Burn My Eyes” all those years ago, listening in the here’n’now I find “The More Things Change…” to be superior by a fair distance.
Again, the most interesting things to actually talk about are the broader stylistic/genre-matching matters – whilst largely in the same mould, this one seems to actually move away (slightly) from the nu-metal-ish sounds that were getting quite big by 1997. The album on the whole has a slightly darker and more evil feel, with what I described above as “eerie South Of Heaven-esque leads” playing a bigger and far more effective part.
More importantly, their songwriting and riff-writing seems to have come along significantly. There’s stuff on here that’s far better than anything on the first album, chiefly the opening song “Ten Ton Hammer”. It starts with a huuuuge intro worthy of the title (heavy~! I knew they were capable of it), and proceeds to alternate between staccato bits that are all screwed-up-eyes/clenched-teeth and a subdued melodic chorus. It’s really effective, far more so than I even remember it being. “Take My Scars” has a great riff in the middle of it, and very briefly a descanting eSOH-el which breaks things down beautifully.
Again, they do their thrashy stuff well – the punky “Struck A Nerve” and parts of “Bay Of Pigs” are highlights. At this point I am wondering what might have been if they’d decided to specialise as a fast-fast band.
Reading all that back, I suspect I’d better tone down the effusiveness – I do like the good bits of this, but let’s not go mad. Comrades, I really would be misleading you if I gave the impression that it was ‘love’ rather than ‘like’. It doesn’t all work, either, and there’s still plenty of filler – songs like “The Frontlines” and “Spine” have an air of ‘keep repeating that riff, it’ll have an effect eventually’ (having said, that, I suspect most of both of these albums would feel like that if you caught them in the wrong mood/aural light. Maybe that’s exactly what’s happened). “Violate” tries to be all moody but doesn’t get there (although the sped-up bit is fun, at least partly because Flynn’s attempt to do a rapid high-syllables-per-minute vocal line is quite comical).
I quite liked this one, then. It’s not anything amazing, but it is a lot closer to the good clean fun I was hoping for. At this point also a bit happier about having started this blogging project, too, which I’d started to regret almost immediately after I announced it – given that so far my re-listening has confounded both my own memories and the standard “story of Machine Head” at every turn, I almost feel like I’m learning something. I’ve managed to come up with more to write than I was anticipating, too. Hopefully my reserves of nonsense won’t dry up on me henceforth. We’ll be heading into the contentious period next, and then after that into stuff that’ll be completely new to me, so get your tin hats ready…