Album review: Roadrunner United: The Concert
Roadrunner Records’ legendary all-star birthday jam gets revisited on stunning live album…
Machine Head’s career has often felt like a rollercoaster – in the best and worst of ways. Although, with high points as towering as game-changing 1994 debut Burn My Eyes and 2007 masterpiece The Blackening, a degree of drop-off elsewhere was inevitable, mainman Robb Flynn’s ardent, occasionally wayward insistence on not lingering too long on any one sound has often left listeners smacking their foreheads in sheer disbelief at the Oakland bruisers.
And yet, they endure. Perhaps it’s the understanding that we never really know what’s coming next that keeps fans coming back. Or perhaps it’s the simple guarantee that even amongst their most divisive work there will be at least flashes of the cut-loose genius that got us onboard in the first place. So, we delve back through the catalogue to remind ourselves that no matter how close to the brink Machine Head have come, redemption has only ever been a couple of releases away…
Although the stylistic swerves of The Burning Red and Catharsis provoked far more of fans’ ire, the bland songwriting and generic flavour of Supercharger mean it’s the least likely of their records to actually be revisited. Still stinging from the backlash to TBR’s nu-metal experimentation, but not yet decided on the best path forward, it’s a frustratingly directionless trudge that, like so much metal of the era, packs neither the ridiculous, balls-out swagger of what had come before nor the unchained aggression of the glory days. Of course, there were a few slamming tracks in there – Bulldozer and Crashing Around You for instance – but on the whole this one didn’t pack nearly enough voltage to stop a creative flatline.
A couple of years down the line, it’s hard not to look at Catharsis without mixed feelings. A 75-minute emotional exorcism, veering wildly across genre boundaries, it bears the hallmarks of a songwriter opening his soul, but also the patchiness of a band on the brink, with guitarist Phil Demmel and drummer Dave McClain leaving shortly after, in the wake of claims it had become a ‘Robb solo project’. There are moments of glorious righteousness and defiance here, from the 'Fuck the world!' battlecry that opens proceedings on Volatile to the anti-bigotry sentiment that runs throughout. There is also a greater emotional dexterity, with Robb dropping his trademark bullishness to allow melancholia, vulnerability and faint hope to shine through. But too often there is a sense of stylistic misguidedness. Here’s hoping it’s a first draft stepping stone to something more spectacularly coherent.
It’s easy to see what Machine Head were hoping to accomplish with their eighth album, keeping hold of some of the more progressive flourishes of its two direct predecessors while also harking back to the harder hitting groove and thrash aesthetics of their past. In many senses, it succeeds, and on re-examination there is real imagination and creativity in some of the songwriting choices, with the likes of the seven-minute epic Now We Die and spine tingling Ghosts Will Haunt My Bones finding the Oakland quartet close to the top of their game. Held up against the records that came before, however, it simply wasn’t as game-changing or memorable, and the relative disinterest from (admittedly spoiled) fans likely precipitated the fallout they’re still working through today.
It’s still not entirely clear why Machine Head went for the jaw dropping nu-metal overhaul that was The Burning Red. Commercial concern? A desire to embrace the zeitgeist? Maybe they just really fancied getting into ridiculous haircuts, eye-watering orange tracksuits and PVC? With the help of renowned producer Ross Robinson, though, they made a fairly impressive fist of it all the same. Embracing the ridiculous, with bangers like From This Day, The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears and Exhale The Veil might have stuck to the souped-up rap-metal formula, but they were delivered with enough confidence and clench fisted conviction to make their mark in a crowded genre. Plus, that cover of The Police’s Message In A Bottle was, er, really something…
Starting with arguably their greatest song of all – the unimpeachable, avalanching Imperium – it’s easy to forget how much of a mixed bag Through The Ashes Of Empires is. Indeed, we at Kerrang! were sniffy on our original review, focusing on the continued lack of a compellingly coherent vision and failing at the time to recognise the green shoots of rebirth that have become so obvious with retrospect. With the band lacking a record deal and Robb understanding the need to reboot and re-examine their very purpose, former Vio-lence six-stringer co-conspirator Phil Demmel was brought onboard and songwriting was steered back to the thrash and groove metal with which they had made their name. The route one thump of tracks like Left Unfinished and Seasons Wither sounded like a simple clearing of the pipes, but the horn-flinging conviction of Bite The Bullet and Elegy teased the brilliance to follow.
Difficult second album? Don’t make us laugh. Although critics have been quick to point out the lack of creative evolution on Machine Head’s sophomore release, the sheer quality of tracks like Ten Ton Hammer (doing what its title promises), Take My Scars (groovily cathartic), Struck A Nerve (fuel for the pit fire) and Down To None (atmospherically malevolent) thrillingly endure in the broader MH canon, and remain live highlights to this day. With long-term member Dave McClain stepping in to replace founding drummer Chris Kontos, and master recordings going A.W.O.L. it wasn’t the smoothest process, and true, it didn’t perform nearly as well commercially as the band would have hoped, but fairweather fans skipping over TMTC’s deep, dark delights are truly missing out.
Machine Head were riding a wave after the second wind success of The Blackening, and the seven tracks of Unto The Locust are virtually overflowing with that confidence. There was an almost inevitable critical consensus that this record simply couldn’t match its immediate predecessor, but with the benefit of hindsight it stands up as its own beast: a more progressive, dynamic, colourful counterpart to their monochromatic 2007 masterpiece. Populated with epic compositions like Locust, Be Still And Know and This Is The End, pulsing with progressive purpose and falling over themselves with sheer exuberance, it is perhaps the greatest blend of pit-stirring force and Robb’s experimental tendencies in their catalogue. In Darkness Within’s pumped up balladry, too, they even briefly courted the mainstream, proving they could tug on your heartstrings just as hard as they could smash your face in.
Burn My Eyes had no real right to achieve what it did. With Robb still staggered by the failures of Vio-lence and the concrete groove metal at play driving hard in the face of the far wishy-washier grunge era, Machine Head’s furious debut could so easily have been overlooked as a confused blow-in from some alternate reality where metal had refused to fade away. From the moment Robb yelled 'Let freedom ring with the shotgun blast!' though, this was never going to be ignored. Bookended by solid concrete smashers Davidian and Block, while also wielding the likes of Old, A Thousand Eyes and Blood For Blood, it doesn’t quite have the inscrutable singularity of our number one pick, but packed more than enough punch to establish the Bay Area crew as metal big guns who’d endure for the quarter century to follow. More than that, as a standalone it remains a jagged, era-defining landmark sitting proud alongside Korn’s self-titled LP amidst the historic metal wasteland that was the mid-’90s.
It’s hard to express how important The Blackening felt when it dropped on March 27, 2007 – not just to Machine Head, but to all of heavy music. Although the NWOAM was in full swing, with records like Lamb Of God’s Sacrament and Killswitch Engage’s The End Of Heartache leading the way, we had been waiting an age for a real full-blooded, yet arena-bothering metal epic to get festival fields in full voice and act as a gateway for young fans first getting into heavy music. The Blackening delivered just that. Completing the reinvention that TTAOE had hinted at, this was the ultimate two-fingered salute to doubters who had written the band off. Like classic Metallica (indeed, actively invoking their Bay Area brethren in that album title and Hemingway-referencing epic A Farewell To Arms), they shortened the tracklist, trimmed away all fat, maxed-out the riff count and brought to life the timeless imagery of grief and tragedy, love and war, the corruption of politics and the hypocrisy of organised religion. Songs like Clenching The Fists Of Dissent and Halo aren’t epic because of their nine-minute-plus run times, but because they will endure through the metal ages.
Roadrunner Records’ legendary all-star birthday jam gets revisited on stunning live album…
The All-Star Sessions album and accompanying New York show from 2005 will be released by Roadrunner in various formats next year…
Machine Head mainman Robb Flynn reflects on a life of touring and grinding – from the all-time worst toilets to gigs in line-dancing bars…
Robb Flynn takes us inside Machine Head’s new album ØF KINGDØM AND CRØWN, and explains how he can get knocked down, but he will always get up again…
Machine Head redeem themselves with stunning return to form on ØF KINGDØM AND CRØWN.
The next single from ØF KINGDØM AND CRØWN is here! Watch the video for Machine Head’s new track UNHALLØWED, along with the video filmed at Electric Happy Hour.