Arguably the most promising Bay Area heavy metal band to emerge in the last twenty years, Machine Head released their powerful debut, Burn My Eyes, in 1994. Their unique brand of punishing thrash metal stretched the boundaries of the form at a time when the music itself was commercially dead. Their follow-up, The More Things Change…, was essentially more of the same, but this time around wasn’t as fresh. They changed things up a little bit with their next few records, adding a little rap rock to the proceedings to freshen up their sound, but the change alienated their long time fans and did little to bring new people to the fold. The band that many thought could rise to the heights of Metallica and Pantera had turned out to be nothing but a dud, a dynamite debut but nothing more.
Thankfully, nothing could be farther from the truth. 2003 saw the release of the ironically titled Through the Ashes of Empires, which far from being a rehash of the sound they developed with Burn My Eyes, turned out to be a breathtaking return to form. This was the album that should have followed The More Things Change… , an unapologetic return to the battering ram guitar attack and audio dynamics that bandleader Rob Flynn founded the band upon back in the ’90s. The album sold well, and the band found themselves once again recording the follow-up to a successful, groundbreaking disc.
The Blackening is that album. Machine Head is back, chugging away at full volume with violent bursts of lightning fast guitarwork. Four of the album’s eight tracks are over nine minutes in length, but none are ever boring. Machine Head keeps the songs fresh, introducing new riffery in every twist and turn along the way.
“Clenching the Fists of Dissent” is a fitting introduction to the disc, featuring Rob Flynn’s haunting clean vocals with an almost Middle Eastern slant before fading into a lilting, neo-classical guitar piece not unlike the beginning of Metallica’s “Battery.” War drums enter, and electric leads fill the ears with mournful serenity.
Then, all hell breaks loose.
The main riff is worthy of an album itself. It is the living embodiment of unexplainable rage. “Before the light you will fall,” Flynn snarls. The word “blunt” is an apt description of Machine Head’s music. This is, quite simply, hammering “go for the throat” metal, and Machine Head pushes as far as they can, challenging not just themselves with their malicious fretboarding but the listener as well. At four and a half minutes into the song, the noise abruptly ceases into a sort of breakdown, with a Black Sabbath-happy lead exchange before launching into a scream-fest that lesser bands would squander.
At this point, the bar has been set so ludicrously high that the listener can’t help but feel there’s no way the rest of the album can live up to this.
They are wrong.
“Beautiful Mourning” is another powerhouse track despite being a little less than five minutes long. “Fuck you all,” Flynn cries, voicing the sentiment of an entire raging generation. Here, Flynn also gets a chance to show off his clean voice through the chorus, adding an almost angelic sound to an otherwise assaulting rhythm section.
The opening of “Aesthetics of Hate” sounds like it’s ripped straight out of a horror flick. The song is unquestionably haunting, the guitars again adapting a Middle Eastern flavor. “Now I Lay Thee Down” has a grim riff that literally grounds the listener’s head into the dirt by the end of its five and a half minutes of runtime.
“Slanderous” is the only weak point on the CD. Though still a decent thrash metal track, it’s not quite up to the standard of the rest of the disc, stretching on a little past its welcome courtesy of some unnecessary racially charged profanity. Everybody knows that Machine Head swears a lot, but here it’s overdone. Even so, the song is skippable, not bad.
“Halo”, “Wolves” and “A Farewell to Arms” form a solid thirty minute block of doom that, quite frankly, is perhaps the best final three in metal history: three consecutive nine plus minute tracks that alternately punish and tease with loud attacks and moments of respite not unlike being stuck in the eye of a hurricane. This stuff will make any classical composer gawk at the sheer audacity of these swirling masterpieces. “A Farewell to Arms” is the biggest stand-out. It’s clear that Flynn’s singing is blooming, and his voice singlehandedly makes this track a classic.
Machine Head’s The Blackening is an album every fan knew the band could make, if they only put themselves to the test. Finally, they are realizing the metal potential hinted at in their first two releases. No one should pass up on this one.