Album review: Roadrunner United: The Concert
Roadrunner Records’ legendary all-star birthday jam gets revisited on stunning live album…
For casual listeners, there has always been the impression that Machine Head’s career can be characterised in its staggering pinnacles (1994’s Burn My Eyes, 2007’s The Blackening) and lurching dips out of form (2001’s Supercharger, 2018’s Catharsis). For hardcore Head Cases, however, it’s clear there’s a consistent substance to their songwriting – whether it's up front smacking you in the face with some of the greatest riffs of the past 30 years, or buried deep beneath whatever strange stylistic choices frontman (and sole remaining founding member) Robb Flynn has decided to try out that week.
Drawing from his time with legendary San Francisco speedsters Vio-lence (lead guitarist Phil Demmel would also come aboard) and the seething discontent of a California still reeling from the 1992 LA riots, Robb started with the vision of a band that married the high velocity of thrash, the rolling heaviness of groove metal and the concussive high impact of hardcore punk. Three decades later, they have stayed true to those core values while expanding in scope and complexity on their own unbending terms.
Anyone who’s been to one of Machine Head's frequently three-hour-plus ‘An Evening With…’ showcases (they’ve long since opted out of the standard support band/festival circuit grind) can attest to what a knockout back-catalogue they have at their disposal. So much so that, though we’d love to plead the case for unfairly-reviled likes of Bastards and latter-day single releases like Stop The Bleeding, there’s simply no space in our low-fat, high-octane Top 20.
If you want to argue the toss, we’ll see you in the pit once this lockdown bollocks is over. In the meantime: ‘Cheers, fuckers. Cheers!’
Machine Head perfected their art early with the alternating buzzsaw/bludgeoning attack of Burn My Eyes. When they revisited the album in full during its 25th anniversary tour in 2019 (featuring the return of original guitarist Logan Mader and drummer Chris Kontos) fans were reminded of the outrageous energy of raucous eighth track Blood For Blood. ‘Beatings are what you'll inherit this time,’ Robb rages, against the leeches and hangers-on. ‘Fist bait, your new name, your pain is my shrine / Pulverise and break, determination / Pleasure I negate, your pain brings me salvation.’ Cue a wave of thrown fists and bust lips every time it’s unleashed.
Reportedly the first song written for seventh album Unto The Locust (during a Slipknot support run in New Zealand), This Is The End laid the groundwork for that record’s epic scope and neoclassical intricacy. An ornate acoustic intro ignites one of their most momentous latter-day riffs, before sliding into an absurdly sludgy third quarter (‘Bastards, you bastards / May you suffer oh, so long’) then the full thrash attack of the outro takes us home with a sense of unhinged glee. There was a poignancy in the themes of stagnation, and fear of the future, playing out right as we bore witness to another fearless evolution of the Machine Head sound.
There were a lot of questions hanging over eighth album Bloodstone & Diamonds. The Blackening and Unto The Locust had kickstarted and copper-fastened a mid-career renaissance that left raised fans’ expectations almost unattainably sky-high. On top of that, the departure of bassist Adam Duce due to ongoing differences left Robb Flynn carrying huge creative responsibility as the sole remaining original member of the band. Full of the energy and vitriol of that situation, second single Game Over confirmed they were as motivated and inspired as they had ever been: ‘Stuck in this prison with a brother I loved / Stuck in this prison with the memories of / Another time, when music's all that we had / Bonded by anger and addictions, so glad / Always together but no words are spoken / This is the sound of a friendship broken.’
Sixth album The Blackening earned its reputation as a mid-career masterpiece thanks to a deployment of sprawling, thematically-dense epics like Clenching The Fists Of Dissent, Halo and A Farewell To Arms. Second track Beautiful Mourning proved they could make their mark with a frantic sub-five-minute statement, too. ‘Razor at wrist I seethe,’ ring out its harrowing lyrics, painting their portrait of hopelessness in jagged shorthand. ‘The flesh is peeled apart now / Gone is my faded dream / Failure, I welcome in thou.’ The no-holds-barred guitar work and Robb’s chest-beating vocal delivery elevate the painfully important piece to another plane.
Some fans still cringe at Machine Head’s decision to go all-in on the nu-metal shtick with The Burning Red at the tail-end of the 1990s. Indeed, their perceived dereliction of duty as defenders of metal’s old ways during the genre’s lowest ebb – not to mention those ridiculous haircuts, eye-watering orange tracksuits and swathes of PVC – still raise eyebrows 20-odd years down the line, but the songs themselves have aged surprisingly well. Released on Halloween 1999, first single From This Day handed itself over to the ridiculousness of it all with real gusto, piling on the spring-loaded six-strings and quality rap-metal rhymes like, ‘Tears that made me / Ashamed to be me / But that gave me / Strength to see me.’ A gleeful throwback to simpler times.
Although the album touched on a plethora of frustrations and indignations, The Blackening’s most potent through-line dealt with the rightward lurch of American politics during the George W. Bush administration and outrage over the Iraq war. ‘Do you hear revolution's call?’ asks 10-and-a-half minute opener Clenching The Fists Of Dissent. ‘Time to fight our own denial / Warmongers keep us locked in fear / Invoke the past, a moment of tears / An ugly truth put forth by our youth / Under the threat of patriotic brute.’ A rousing, shapeshifting call-to-arms built around a world-class collection of whiplash riffage, canyon-deep grooves and breakaway solos – it is an apt opener for one of the greatest metal albums of the 21st century.
Through The Ashes Of Empires isn’t Machine Head’s most cohesive piece of work, but boy is it bookended by a couple of classics. Lacking a record deal and understanding the need to reboot and re-examine their very purpose, Robb reached out to former Vio-lence six-string co-conspirator Phil Demmel and steered back towards the thrash/groove formula with which they broke through for the most part. Near eight-minute closing epic Descend The Shades Of Night saw them drive in a different direction, however: a slower-paced and darkly textured composition with one of their all-time greatest solos. There was an immediately notable lyrical maturation, too, as Robb raged against the coming darkness: ‘Sitting in the empty black / The last slivers of dusk have passed / Accept the dawn to ease the fear / One day I will not be here.’
High on confidence following the rapturous reception for The Blackening, Machine Head indulged their most experimental whims on Unto The Locust. Boldly-titled opener I Am Hell (Sonata In C#) laid out their stall with a composition that built from the softly-sung chant of its intro via some heavyweight foreboding (‘I AM DEATH!’) to a main body that toyed with the brutal technicality of bands like Meshuggah the stadium-sized grandeur of peak Metallica. The loud-quiet transition around the six-and-a-half minute mark really hammered home the dynamism of their writing: stripping away the brutality and swelling proceedings to their heartfelt crescendo with the audacious mastery of classical maestros.
If Game Over was the sound of Machine Head looking back at the strained friendships and broken bonds that had led them to Bloodstone & Diamonds, Now We Die was all about their courageous path forward into the unknown. ‘Standing at the edge of the world,’ Robb sings. ‘Uncertainty calling as the page unfurls / Fortune, Heaven or Hell / Shedding my body of this mortal shell.’ If the lyrics seem a little fatalistic, the music – marrying string arrangements by Rhys Fulber to some of the band’s gnarliest-ever riffs – promised that they were facing the future with the resolve of warriors heading back into battle. Mike Sloat’s epically baroque music video – where the band face their untimely demises – is also one of MH’s absolute best.
Generally introduced live as ‘The Blood, The Sweat, The Beers’, the fourth track from The Burning Red has transcended the nu-metal controversy of its parent album through sheer concussive force and a bounce-tastic riff for the ages. A tribute to hard work, doggedness and determination, it also perfectly represented the band’s survivor spirit at a strange time for heavy music, and has endured as one of their most powerfully affirmative works. ‘I built these walls around me / And I can break them all away / I'll focus all the strength I call / Into unstoppable energy.’ Cheers fuckers. Cheers!
Machine Head’s thumping second album was a worthy continuation of Burn My Eyes’ righteous energy, but it’s more of an involved, front-to-back listen than a collection of compelling standalone songs. Alongside Take My Scars, lead single Ten Ton Hammer manages to stand out with a crushing display that largely lives up to its title. As (eventually long-term) drummer Dave McClain stepped in to replace original sticksman Chris Kontos, we get a predictably purposeful percussive display alongside a few atmospheric inflections from broader 1990s alt.rock. But this Ten Ton Hammer is still lodged in our heads for its weightily defiant power: ‘You'd love to watch me take the fall / I'll be the thing that you despise / ’Cause I'm the path to your demise / And I'm a be there standing tall...’
Considered one of the great American novels, Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 tome A Farewell To Arms tells of the tribulations of a young American lieutenant serving in the Italian ambulance corps through World War One across five ‘books’, and ends – spoiler alert! – in tragedy. The 10-minute closer to The Blackening saw Machine Head attempt to update Hemingway’s themes for the modern day (as Metallica had done before them with 1984’s For Whom The Bell Tolls) through an atmospheric, explosive metal track for the ages. ‘Can you hear the cries?’ Robb asks, as a barrage of musical ideas detonate around him. ‘Nowhere the children run to hide / Crimson rivers flow down hills, atone our ills / And woe to all her songs of love…’ An outrageous show of confidence from a band at the very top of their game.
We’ve already touched on the boundary-pushing stylistic shifts with which Machine Head experimented on Unto The Locust, but none were as daring – or as powerful – as those seen on fifth track and second single Darkness Within. Building from its acoustic foundation into a ballad full of seething power, it has a beauty in which even non-metal aficionados can find real worth, while still delivering a gut-wrenching impact that connects with the hardcore. ‘Mystery’s forgotten chords / I strum in vain to please the lord,’ Robb allows his deepest emotions to flow freely, ‘But he has never answered me / My faith has waned eternally…’ A masterclass in soul-baring vulnerability without compromise.
From its unmistakable opening bassline and nervy six-strings to those weird, distorted cries of ‘BLOCK!’, the closing track to Burn My Eyes has gradually become one of the most powerful in all of heavy music. ‘Hate breeds hate, my eyes they have seen / The decimation of all that is pure…’ Robb rages, proving the bottomlessness of his righteous outrage. ‘A system that feeds their machine with / The blood, sweat and money of the poor…’ The weirdly juddering ebbs and flows are accentuated by a fake-out and fast-building restart around the two-minute mark, while Chris Kontos’ peerless percussion evoked the paranoia of a battleground where the next shot could come from any angle. It might’ve been the last blow in BME’s hour-long beatdown, but Block was ultimately a promise that Machine Head were just getting revved up.
The title to the second song (and single) from Burn My Eyes spoke of the timelessness of so many social and political failures, and still feels painfully relevant today. Powered by a riff from on high and a sense of real outrage, while also featuring the head-spinning vocal breakdown from which the album takes its title (‘Burn my eyes and try to blind me / Bury me so they won't find me / Try to suck my power empty / Got no crown of thorns on me’), Old has evolved into a ubiquitous live favourite whose bludgeon still feels as urgent as its message.
When legendary Pantera guitarist 'Dimebag' Darrell Lance Abbott was gunned down by a deranged fan onstage at a Damageplan gig on December 8, 2004, the outpouring of love and grief from the metal fraternity was overwhelming. Beyond the boundaries of heavy music, however, there were detractors: perhaps most notably William Grim, Contributing Editor at popular conservative site The Iconoclast, who took the opportunity to decry “the squalor, inhumanity, filth (both in the metaphorical and hygienic senses), depravity, ugliness and ignorance of everything that heavy metal represents.” Aesthetics Of Hate was Robb’s full-bore reply. ‘Oh, you tried to spit in the eye of a dead man's face,’ he rails over high-impact riffage, ‘Attacked the ways of a man not yet in his grave / But your hate was over all too soon / Because nothing is over, nothing's through ’til we bury you!’ No shit taken.
‘Down they come, the swarm of locusts / Skies above converge to choke us / Feast of souls consume the harvest / Young and old, suffer unto the locust…’ Robb and Phil Demmel veered hard into Old Testament imagery with the title track from Unto The Locust, likening the Passover story’s eighth plague of Egypt to the experience of being drained and digested by the industry parasites who tend to circulate around successful bands. The song builds like the soundtrack to some dark Biblical epic, too, from its ominous opening notes through a sweeping main riff to the snarling main body of the song. The band embarked on a disappointingly-attended UK arena headline tour shortly after release, but this was one of the tracks that proved they absolutely could own the grandest stages with such fiercely uncompromised concepts.
A deliriously complex composition that sprawled out over nine minutes, Halo wasn’t exactly an obvious hit-single release, but when it dropped as the third cut from The Blackening it felt emblematic of everything that made that record such an important moment in time. ‘Halo over our demise,’ Robb sings, taking no prisoners in his tirade against organised religion. ‘Following a god so blind / Sallow in their sickening / Swallow not, the shit they feed…’ The track’s real strength is in its instrumental execution, however, with all four then-band-members – Robb, guitarist Phil Demmel, bassist Adam Duce and drummer Dave McClain – credited for its construction. The single cut shortens proceedings to a mere five minutes, but listeners really should strap in for the full album version with its astonishing light/dark dynamics, moments of beauty and explosions of unbound rage.
A blast of machine-gun percussion. That ear-piercing opening riff. Then the unstoppable, building momentum of a freight-train crashes into Robb’s unforgettable declaration: ‘LET FREEDOM RING WITH A SHOTGUN BLAST!’ The first movement of the first song on Machine Head’s debut might still be the most iconic heavy metal moment since the genre-forming highs of the 1980s. Addressing the infamous Waco Siege of 1993, where a stand-off between a religious group – known as the Branch Davidians – and the ATF ended with four law enforcement agents and 82 cult members dead, the song feels like a broad indictment of so much about early-1990s America. Almost three decades on, that subject matter might’ve faded into the history books, but the track retains every ounce of its furious force.
We’ve mentioned before that although Through The Ashes Of Empires lacked a little in its overall execution, that album’s majestic bookends are amongst the finest tracks in the Machine Head catalogue. Opening the record like an avalanche, in fact, Imperium has to be the purest distillation of what exactly makes the Bay Area brutalists great. As Davidian did before it, the composition builds over nearly 90 seconds towards a fists-in-the-air battle cry (‘HEAR ME NOW’), with the sense of rising tension and furious release gut-wrenchingly tangible. The five minutes of catharsis that ensue feel all the harder-earned for it. Arriving when it did (after the muted receptions for 1999’s The Burning Red and 2001’s Supercharger), Imperium would be utterly vindicated as a defiant statement of Machine Head’s willingness to go on and become the band we still know and love today: ‘Bearing down upon a path we choose / Chosen from the start living different rules / Existence something to cherish true / Will not succumb to doubts that I hold onto!’
Check out Machine Head playing a bunch of these songs, plus a ton of covers, in their awesome K! Pit set below.
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.