Beautiful Mourning: A Love Letter To Machine Head
For a generation of 30-something metallers, the Bay Area smashers’ journey has run parallel to their own.
I was eight years old when their incendiary debut Burn My Eyes dropped in 1994: too young to understand the righteous anger coursing through songs like Davidian, Old and Block when exposed to them in the company of older, cooler friends – but old enough to recognise the prickle of excitement that comes with being turned on to something truly special.
Seeing grainy VHS footage from Machine Head’s 1995 Dynamo Festival performance seared, fittingly, into memory.
It would take another five loops round the sun to reach something close to true appreciation. 1999 was a hell of a time to be a fledgling fan of heavy music. The mainstream – the real mainstream – was on its way to being spectacularly infiltrated by nu-metal. We were in that pre-millennial sweet spot where the genre hadn’t quite jumped the shark yet. Korn were the most exciting band on the planet. Post-Woodstock, Limp Bizkit still had an air of danger. It was the era of Napster and penniless high school kids trading dodgy CD-Rs full of thrilling new sounds at the back of shadowy classrooms.
On the face of it, I was one of the purist assholes. You know, the ones who’ll spurn any trendy new sounds in favour of Metallica’s first four albums and who can recite every lyric of Slayer’s Reign In Blood with the rhythm of a pneumatic drill. Publicly, nu-metal was anathema to everything I stood for. Secretly though, I had a real soft spot for those slamming sounds. Somehow, Machine Head satisfied both sides of that divided loyalty.
Burn My Eyes was now an accepted masterpiece. Amidst the rise and fall of grunge, a swirl of metal experimentation, Iron Maiden hitting the skids and Metallica ‘selling-out’, they had become standard bearers for music that simply wanted to kick ass. 1997’s The More Things Change… suffered difficult second album syndrome but largely held the course. Then original guitarist Logan Mader (now of Once Human) departed and things started to get weird.
Machine Head – Old
On third album The Burning Red, frontman Robb Flynn and his then-cohorts (drummer Dave McClain, bassist Adam Duce and guitarist Ahrue Luster) embraced nu-metal’s spring-loaded sound and neon aesthetic. The scene was outraged. CDs were melodramatically chucked in the trash and posters were torn from walls. It was bad enough that the shifting scene had seen Max Cavalera turn his back on Sepultura but for these heroes to be bouncing around on MTV in orange tracksuits, animal-print hair and fucking bondage gear felt – for many – like the last straw. For an open-minded teenager still coming to terms with his own eclectic tastes, however, it transpired that the band I’d been waiting for had been hiding in plain sight.
Since then, they’ve been with me every step of the way. Released just weeks after 9/11, fourth album Supercharger wound up as a commercial disaster, but began a musical healing process.
Despite K!’s scathing two‑K review (16-year-old Sam did not approve), 2003’s Through The Ashes Of Empires fared better: album opener Imperium still arguably their greatest composition, while the patchwork songwriting somewhat camouflaged the return to form, following the replacement of Luster with hugely-talented six-stringer Phil Demmel.
By 2007, high school was behind me. University broadened horizons and the discovery of ever stranger and more extreme sounds meant that so many adolescent things had to be put away. In truth, Machine Head were never in danger of mothballing, but their sixth album brought them back front and centre.
I first heard The Blackening on a friend’s car stereo in a car park before a gig in Northampton. He’d somehow acquired an advance copy, and it utterly blew my mind. From the 10-and-a-half minutes of Clenching The Fists Of Dissent to the melancholic closing sprawl of A Farewell To Arms it was an astonishing blend of early Metallica, classic Pantera (Aesthetics Of Hate was even a stirring rebuttal to an attack on late guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott) and something very much Machine Head’s own. Even amidst the New Wave Of American Metal and the rise of heavyweights like Killswitch Engage and Lamb Of God (whose own 2006 Sacrament masterpiece arguably set the bar The Blackening vaulted) this represented a crashing of mainstream metal with as much ambition and complexity as the genre had ever seen.
Machine Head – Imperium
Perhaps even more importantly, it pulled the trigger on a Machine Head renaissance that lasted for the following decade. Rabid fandom was resoundingly back on the cards. There was their absolute decimation of the Download Festival mainstage in June 2007 – such a scene of chaos that even Slayer struggled to follow it – and the European festival run that followed, which would lay the groundwork for them to headline some of the continent’s grandest spaces. There was the support slot for Metallica at Wembley Stadium the following month where they threatened to upstage the headliners. Autumn’s Black Crusade tour saw queues doubling-up around Brixton Academy and the venue literally rocking when they hit the stage. Playing main support to Slipknot in Autumn 2008 saw them shift confidently into arenas.
By 2009, their stature was such that when Sonisphere Festival supplanted Limp Bizkit into their third-placed spot on the mainstage without MH’s consent they dropped off the bill. Unwilling to let their fans down, they played as unbilled, ‘secret’ special guests anyway. The crowd’s chants of “SPECIAL FUCKING GUESTS! SPECIAL FUCKING GUESTS! SPECIAL FUCKING GUESTS!” before they appeared are still amongst the most joyous scenes I’ve ever witnessed at a festival.
2011’s Unto The Locust would prove to be both high-water-mark and tipping-point. Musically, its snarling groove-metal was more classically accessible, but there was no lack of ambition in the three-part narrative of I Am Hell (Soanata in C#), the towering Locust and the audaciously dramatic Darkness Within. A headline tour of UK arenas alongside Bring Me The Horizon and Devildriver produced waves of blood, sweat and beery memories (rupturing a knee in the pit at Glasgow’s SECC was a personal highlight) but limited attendances suggested they weren’t quite there yet. Their headline slot at Bloodstock Festival on 11 August 2012 was triumphant, but – chatting with Robb still bloodstained from the Hatebreed pit – there was an inescapable feeling that as fine a venue as Catton Hall is, they might’ve been topping the bill down the road on Donington’s hallowed turf. Touring that year was halted as Robb suffered a hernia in min-November. Momentum was hamstrung. Frustration lingered, not least for us die-hard fans.
Machine Head – Aesthetics Of Hate
The six years since seem to have passed in a blur. The departure of founding bassist Adam Duce in February 2013 and his subsequent lawsuit against the band felt ominous. His replacement Jared MacEachern has left little to be desired, however. 2014’s Bloodstone & Diamonds – the band’s eighth LP – felt fine, but lacked the sense of grandeur of the records that preceded it. The beginning of their ‘An Evening With Machine Head’ cycles – an idea borrowed from Metallica, but transplanted into venues a 10th the size of those used by their Bay Area forbears – felt like ultimate fan service, albeit at the cost of any real further expansion.
When Robb began to tease that this year’s Catharsis would hark back to The Burning Red, it split fans: many disgusted that the band would be interested in revisiting their most maligned era, but some of us enthused that the old firebrand was unwilling to fade into journeyman obscurity. Brilliantly/terribly, the record proved every bit as wilfully abstruse as promised.
When Robb appeared, red-eyed, on Facebook Live to announce the departures of Demmel and McClain on Friday, it seemed both out-of-the-blue and somehow unsurprising. Yes, Machine Head are a band who’ve prided themselves in overcoming adversity, but beyond the beer and circle-pits, this is an outfit sustained by a serrated sense of passion in what they do.
“I’ve got some rough edges,” Robb confessed during his announcement. “I’m kind of a barnacle and you know those rough edges have given us a lot of the success we have, but they’ve also hurt the people around me.”
As the sole remaining founding member, perhaps that’s his imperative. Machine Head’s upcoming tour will be the last to feature Phil Demmel and Dave McClain. All we can do is thank Dave and Phil for their service and hope these shows are every bit the celebration they deserve to be. After that? We can only look forward to what Robb Flynn will do next with Machine Head.
Cheers fuckers. Cheers!
Words: Sam Law
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