It wouldn’t be unfair to say that, as the new millennium dawned, MACHINE HEAD weren’t in the most optimum of places. A shining light for metal in the difficult period of the mid-late 90’s, embracing he style and sound of nu-metal on third album The Burning Red alienated a significant portion of their fan base despite the record selling well. Things would only get worse.
Fourth album Supercharger, released in 2001, was greeted with the same response as its predecessor, often cited as the worst album the band have ever created. The tragic events of 9/11 caused lead single Crashing Around You to be pulled from MTV circulation owing to its depiction of falling buildings. Then, to put a rather poisonous cherry on the top of the already rotting cake, Roadrunner Records then dropped their funding, leaving MACHINE HEAD no choice but to leave the label; the departure of guitarist Ahrue Luster only soured the taste further. By the end of 2002 MACHINE HEAD were label-less, a man down and in serious danger of ceasing to exist on a huge whimper. And then the stars aligned.
Phil Demmel, who had filled in for Luster at the end of the previous tour, permanently joined the band in 2003. The band released the brilliant Through The Ashes of Empires that same year to critical acclaim and secured a second record deal with Roadrunner off the back of this. With the gears back in motion, MACHINE HEAD re-entered the studio in the summer of 2006 to record their sixth album. Ten years ago yesterday, the world got the fruits of their labour and watched as every metal album released in the new century was blown clean out the water over the space of a relentless, pulsating hour of perfection.
Ahh, The Blackening. An album that has set the benchmark for modern metal for years to come. A decade on and the tour de force of riffs, solos and brutality that explodes from whatever device you’re listening on hasn’t lost any of its potency. The crawling, ominous intro of Clenching the Fists of Dissent building to a headbang-inducing groove is still as infectious as when it first saw the light of day and the decision MACHINE HEAD took to open the album with a track over ten minutes in length is just as bold – how many other bands have done that since? It’s something the band weren’t strangers to – Descend the Shades of Night from Ashes also clocked in round that timeframe but it was right at the end of the record instead. Mind you, that seemed to set a bit of a trend, with epic closer A Farewell to Arms completing a then triumvirate of songs in the ten-minute club. There’s the raw, unadultered power of Beautiful Mourning, the shout of “Fuck you all!” from frontman Robb Flynn still holding the ability to incite circle pits at every venue they play. The masterful drumming from Dave Maclean on tracks like Wolves and Slanderous continues to pound the ears of all listeners, whilst Demmel’s exquisite guitar work is the absolute pinnacle of Halo, arguably the best song on the whole record and twisting and turning more than the average roller-coaster.
What has also helped The Blackening keep its ferocity is the current global climate, which is uncertain at best. The themes that MACHINE HEAD used to write the eight tracks on the planet have not disappeared but just changed in guise and therefore have as much weight behind them as they did before. Take Clenching the Fists of Dissent, for example, written in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term in office and, over in the UK, a year into Tony Blair’s third term as Prime Minister. At the time, both countries were embroiled in the Iraq War and would be for a number of years to come, the general mood around the country being of unrest and disgruntlement. Sound familiar? With our homeland about to trigger Article 50 on Wednesday to leave the EU and America under the guidance of Donald Trump, the mood is more or less mirrored. “They say that freedom isn’t free/It’s paid with the lives of sons and families/’Cause blood is their new currency/And oil pumps the heart of money” roars Flynn in a rallying cry for us to stick two middle fingers up at the establishment and keep fighting until our collective voice cannot be silenced any more. The Iraq War may have finished but there is a new evil to contend with in the shape of radical Islam and the cowardly efforts of individual terrorists to have the world bow to the unhinged insanity of Sharia law. This combination of conflict and religion still rings true in both A Farewell to Arms (We’ll pay for closed eyes/with our genocide’) and Halo (This is a right to life/Not the Religious Right’s Act). Given the way things are going, it’s likely that this will still stand tall in 2027 as well.
Of course, there’s one song that has stood the test of time for other reasons, and that’s because, almost thirteen years on, the world of heavy metal still mourns the tragic loss of one of its favourite sons. When William Grim of conservative website Iconoclast wrote Aesthetics of Hate: R.I.P Dimebag Abbot, & Good Riddance six days after the merciless shooting of the ex-PANTERA axeman on stage, he probably pre-empted the controversy it would cause but not the rebuttal from Flynn and co. The venom contained within Aesthetics of Hate never loses its aggression, every note and word a release of unremitted fury that effortlessly causes blood to boil, the sentiment of “Iconoclast I hope you burn, burn in hell/may the hand of God strike them down” echoing from all corners, band and fans alike. Would Grim have cared? Of course not, he probably got the reaction he was looking for, albeit on a much louder scale. For MACHINE HEAD and metal, however, it was an utter triumph, a show of defiance in the face of a deluded individual who couldn’t quite fathom the fact that what he was celebrating was as inhumane as the event itself.
The Blackening would propel MACHINE HEAD into the stratosphere they had nearly never made. It sold 16,000 copies in its first week of release in the States and reached the Top 20 in many countries, including the UK where it got as high as #16. Academies turned into arenas, positions on festival bills would rise considerably. They toured the album for nearly three years, opening for METALLICA along the way and leaving a trail of destruction wherever they went; even now, the eight individual numbers are a staple part of their live show. Things might have simmered down since despite the excellence of both 2011’s Unto the Locust and 2014’s Bloodstone and Diamonds, the picture of them playing to a half-empty Wembley supporting the former album a particularly damning sight, but they still went on to headline Bloodstock Festival and tour to packed houses on these shores, playing 2-3 hour sets. If their legacy had already been secured with their blistering debut Burn My Eyes back in 1994, it was cemented in place with The Blackening and the accolades it continues to receive are no more than fully deserved. We will never see another album like it.
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