Welcome To The Machine (Head): Helpire
And so Machine Head rolled on. They toured, as you would expect, but it turned out that “Supercharger” didn’t sell so well. Justifiably, I’d say, but that’s by the by. Further trouble occurred when the video for “Crashing Around You” attracted controversy – it was released immediately before the Twin Towers attacks, and included footage of the band playing in front of a screen which initially showed brief glimpses of buildings and later showed brief glimpses of flames. Unfortunate timing to say the least, but I can’t say I see a great deal of insensitivity in the use of some fairly stock and clichéd imagery before the thing actually happened. The combination of fewer sales and bad publicity nevertheless led the American branch of Roadrunner Records to decide they were no longer in the Machine Head business, so to speak – a live album was released to fulfil contractual obligations, and they parted ways. On a positive note, it was during this period that the band eventually brought an end to the lead-guitarist merry-go-round that replaced their initial revolving drum stool – Phil Demmel replaced Ahrue Luster, and remains with them up to the current day. From this point onwards their line-up has been stable.
This brings us, then, to “Hellalive” from 2003. It’s a live album and live albums are, with very few exceptions, completely and entirely pointless. This one goes for the “have your songs sound very similar to the originals with a swish of crowd noise between them, maybe occasionally going a bit faster or slower here or there” approach. The ones that were good to start with still are, and the filler still fills.
There’s Flynn’s stage talk, I suppose. He changes “The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears” to “The Blood, The Sweat, The Beers” because… erm… is it meant to be funny? There’s a mention of Bin Laden feeling the “Ten Ton Hammer”, which I imagine is to prove that they didn’t really mean anything by the abovelinked video. “I normally say a bunch of bullshit here, but I’m not” he observes at one point. Of course not.
On and on and on to the next one, as the fellow said. The band recorded and produced “Through The Ashes Of Empires” themselves, which was released through Roadrunner Europe in 2003 and widely acknowledged as a return to their roots. It was at this point that Roadrunner USA decided that they liked the sound of this here new album, and promptly signed them up again on what were apparently more favourable terms for the band. Their dropping lasted for a grand total of zero albums and they actually did better out of it. It’s like a Spinal Tap situation that they actually benefited from.
As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that in the space of six albums, we’ve had a “Burn”, a “Burning” and now an “Ashes”. Do you think they like fire? Looking at Rob Flynn as a Beavis analogue is actually a very good way of getting a handle on MH, now that I come to think of it.
Whichever way up, with this album they demonstrated that their embarrassing rappy nu-metal phase was over. The basic sound of it is largely a return to the style of the first two albums, but with a lot more very specifically thrash-esque riffs and some fun proper-metal style lead work (presumably to prove that they’ve got the woolly hat out of their system). There’s also a fair bit more of his horrible whiny singing, though, alas.
The opening track “Imperium” is a real rocker. After a typical start-of-the-album ‘atmospheric’ intro, it bursts into thrashing riffs and pounding drums and actually does hit pretty hard in a fun-metal sort of way. The whiny chorus bits are incongruous, but don’t quite ruin it. This is the sort of thing I want from them.
They don’t keep it up throughout, of course. This seems to be their perennial problem – some fun bits, and then a load of riffs and shouting that have absolutely no effect on me whatsoever. The fun bits are there, though – consider the speed metal bounce-along in “Left Unfinished”, and the lurchy riffs in “Vim” (and if that’s a Bad News reference then +onemillionpoints).
There are a few bits that depart from the album’s aforementioned basic sound, though, too (actually, of all their albums so far this is probably the one that departs the most from the template that it sets for itself. If that makes any sense at all). They actually channel Tool (of all people) in the verse parts of “Elegy”, before a cackhanded roared chorus spoils it all. A similar softly-sung verse is combined with springy guitar noises on “All Falls Down”, before they switch to what are this time are some more genuinely rollicking heavy bits. It’s a highlight, and the brief bursts of his whinyvoice don’t spoil it.
They saved the worst for the end of the album. “Descend The Shades Of Night” is their stab at a biiiiig album-ender, with a slow-burn moody start building up to riffy bits and Maiden-proggy guitar pyrotechnics. Bless ‘em for trying something outside of their comfort zone, but it’s a swing-and-a-miss at absolute best. The penultimate song “Wipe The Tears”, meanwhile, is awful. It tries to do a Rollins Band rant over the top of guitar squawls, and comes across as comical. In a bad way.
So, uneven, but with fun bits – yup, it’s fair to say that this was indeed a return to form for Machine Head.
I’ve been told that things will get a bit more interesting for the last two albums. We’ll see…