Call me Russ L

Welcome To The Machine (Head): The Burning Charger

Posted in Music, Well, it passes the time by Russ L on 18 November, 2011

(The intro to all of this tomfoolery can be read here; the previous part, treating of the first two albums, here).

…And so our Machine Head re-listening project continues with another burst of between-album history. They hit the road again after “The More Things Change…”, obviously, and their schedule included not only the first Ozzfest tour in the USA but also a headlining tour over here that stopped at Wolves Civic Hall and had both Entombed and Misery Loves Co. in support (the latter isn’t widely documented or particularly important in the grand scheme of things, but I remember it very distinctly even though I didn’t end up going. It seemed like the heaviest line-up possible to me at the time). Guitareur Logan Mader left the band, after (according to Wiki) he “showed up to a practice session late, high on methamphetamine, cursing at and insulting the band members”; one Ahrue Luster (to paraphrase Mark Radcliffe out of context, that’s one of those American names that you’re sure must be a clever anagram but you just can’t work it out) replaced him. I recall this being seen as a big deal in the pop-metal magazines of the time – I suspect they were interested in trying to push a guitar hero with appeal beyond the specific bands he was in, and when Mader (briefly) joined Soulfly after leaving MH I imagine that they thought they’d found their Mick Ronson. It turned out not to be. It is thought by some, meanwhile, that this Luster character may have been responsible for a lot of the changes that we’ll see in the two albums that we’ll look at in this post. That “the guitarist was responsible” style of analysis always seems a touch too simplistic to me, although who knows. I have no foundation on which to base any accusations of truth or untruth.

“The Burning Red” came out in 1999, and was roundly acknowledged (amongst both those who liked and those who disliked it) to be a lot closer than anything they’d done before to the nu-metal style that was by this point enormously popular. I had a taped copy at the time, although this will be the last one I actually once had from now on, or – to put it another way – as we go forward I won’t turn out to have previously had any more that we will yet encounter. Clear? Good. I liked it the least of the three that I had – the obvious bandwagoneering bothered me a touch more back then than it does now, although it still wasn’t a huge problem. I simply didn’t find it as good as the previous two, and the fact that they’d gone down a makemoneymoney-cashmoneymoney path to produce something inferior seemed like a shame. Upon starting this re-listening project, though, I had a teensy feeling that I was going to like it more this time around. I don’t know precisely why, but something led me to think that I was going to reap greater rewards from this album in the here’n’now.

These feelings turned out to be incorrect.

Let us first consider ways in which their style changed. The riffs, as we’ve already discussed, were not so different – they were actually petty nu-style to begin with, before such things had even been defined. The biggest guitar difference is that there are a whole pile of background squeaks and cheeps throughout most of the songs, which may pass for sonic detail in certain circles. There is, of course, a lot more rapping, or rather that sort of metal-rapping that often seems comical for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on precisely. There’s also plenty of what I suppose we could call ‘whispery growling’, in a very Korn/Deftones-esque way. Let us not speak of the whiny clean-throated (albeit effects-laden) singing that abounds (“Nothing Left” is as good an example as any. Or rather as bad an example as any).

The production was a bit of a surprise. Nu-metal-fella-supreme Ross Robinson was in charge of this album, but it actually doesn’t have the stock Ross Robinson guitar tone that I remember it having. That was a huge surprise – I really remember it having that typical Korn-esque guitar sound. This has an overall much more shiny wipe-clean production than the previous albums, but it’s not the typical nu-metal sound that I remembered/imagined. I still don’t think it particularly suits them, though.

Worse than all this is the fact that the writing seems to have gone backwards. The songs and moments that elevated the previous couple of albums are far scarcer. The highlight is probably “The Blood, The Sweat The Tears” but even that marries its killer high-energy chorus to what are really quite lumpy and plodding verse parts – when the guitars drop out, is somehow feels like the song is going forward at a slower pace than it actually wants to.

What else? It’s varied, if nothing else. “From This Day” is probably the second best song, a reasonably fun bit of rap-metal although nothing amazing. “Silver” goes for a more grungey/alt-rock-y sort of approach, and doesn’t really work. “Devil With A Kings Card” uses a big rubber-band-twang of a riff to create what could very loosely be seen as a “Vulgar…” era Pantera vibe, but again it doesn’t really work. The title track is a long slow build that doesn’t actually lead to anything. Oh look! A cover of a big 80s hit! An original idea indeed and certainly not what every commercial distorted guitar band of the time was doing. Their take on “Message In A Bottle” is every bit as poor as you might expect it to be.

This isn’t a very good album, ultimately. Sorry.

There isn’t much to note in the between-song history after “The Burning Red”. It became their highest-selling album up to that point, they toured some more, and by 2001 they were ready to put out “Supercharger”.

I’ll warn you in advance, friends – I don’t want to spend much time talking about this one, because it’s genuinely not worth it. It is, if you’ll excuse my Hungarian, a bag o’shite. Stylistically, “Supercharger” takes the “this is what was popular at the time” elements of the previous album and magnifies them – there’s a lot more comical rapping and whiney singing. On “All In Your Head” Flynn manages to do both at the same time, which I suppose is impressive in its own way. Having a DJ do a bit of scratching was a commonplace thing in the commercial metal of the time, so naturally there’s plenty of ones-and-twos manipulation layered over various songs throughout this (and even a whispered “chigga-chigga” at the start of “Blank Generation”. That was a genuinely new thing about all of this – I don’t think I’ve ever heard a vocal scratching impression that attempts to atmospheric before. Ever the innovators). If doubts still remain, you may be amused to learn that “American High” speaks of being bullied and being unable to ‘get a date’ at school. Really now. Never ever believe that a band aren’t capable of being even more obvious in their attempts to appeal to angsty teenagers.

“Trephination” has an effective barrage of riffing and some tribal-y drums that make it sonically probably the highlight, although this isn’t a big claim. The odd thing about, though, is that (like “Five” on the previous album) it’s apparently about Rob Flynn having been abused as a child. ‘Mainstream pop-metal songs’ just seem like a strange place to attempt to discuss that sort of matter. If he genuinely finds it a helpful catharsis then long may he continue, but… well… I’m wary of going off the deep end of cynicism regarding a very sensitive subject here and so I’m not going to labour the point, but recall that Korn had already done songs about child abuse.

Machine Head built their reputation as serious wrecking ball of a band, at least as far as mainstream metal goes, and the points where they approach that again (“Bulldozer” and the aforementioned “Trephination”) are the best of a bad lot here. For the most part, it’s shiny shiny commercial metal. That’s not necessarily a problem in itself, at least not for me, but it’s not even good shiny shiny commercial metal. If “The Burning Red” wasn’t very good, “Supercharger” is outright crap.

It did seem to hurt them in the short term, too, but we’ll get onto that in the next post…

(If you’re saft enought to want to, you can read the subsequent parts of this here, here and the big finale here).

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