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Machine Head - The Blackening

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Thursday, March 8, 2007 @ 9:12 PM


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The turnaround Oakland’s Machine Head were able to pull off with their last album, 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires, was nothing short of incredible. At the time, the quartet was very much on the ropes, and Ashes may well have been their last shot. The lackluster response to 1999’s nu-metal tinged The Burning Red and 2001’s dodgy Supercharger — which then got lost in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks— cost Machine Head their U.S. record deal. So when Ashes was first issued, it was not available in the states — never a good thing for an American band.

But after the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the album abroad, and the band’s triumphant touring in support of it, Ashes finally got is U.S. release six months later — ironically, by Machine Head’s former label Roadrunner. And the reaction here was much the same as it was elsewhere, enthusiastic and then some as fans embraced the band’s return to the pummeling, unapologetically epic metal approach of their first two albums, the classic Burn My Eyes and The More Things Change. By the time all was said and done, Machine Head were as popular as ever, and, more importantly, had regained the respectability they had been shedding for quite some time.

Which leads us to The Blackening, the eagerly awaited — been a while since you could say that about a Machine Head album — follow-up to Ashes. Given the band’s prior history, The Blackening could have followed one of two paths, build on the obvious old-school strengths that made Ashes so resonant, or drift off to try and catch some of the fire of metal’s new breed — the ‘roid-rage thrash of Lamb of God or the metal-core histrionics of Shadows Fall or Killswitch Engage. This time, Machine Head chose to stay within themselves, to quote the old sports cliché, and take the battle plan of Ashes to the next level. Good choice. Save for its dopey, Spinal Tap-y title, and a smattering of overwrought lyrics on, for instance, “Slanderous,” The Blackening is a virtually perfect album, and realizes the potential of metal’s sheer grandiosity and audacity like few others have of late. If Ashes was Machine Head’s Master of Puppets, then The Blackening is its ... And Justice for All — only better. That the album opens with a mammoth 10:27 epic, “Clenching the Fists of Dissent,” pretty much says it all. It’s bigger, bolder and just more massive in every way.

And here, that’s a good thing. Instead of frittering the time away weaving myriad parts and lead breaks together that ultimately don’t go anywhere — despite boasting four tracks of 9 minutes or more, “Halo,” “Wolves” and “A Farewell to Arms” being the others — most of The Blackening builds and builds and builds on the back of Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel’s hulking riffs until finally erupting. The hard-charging war anthem “Dissent” yields to a barrage of bludgeoning hooks to carry its “Fight! Fight! Fight!” rallying cry while the quaking “Farewell,” which closes the album, reaches a breakneck crescendo as drummer Dave McClain kicks things up to help bring it all home to a concussive finish.

The more succinct “Beautiful Mourning,” “Slanderous” and “Aesthetics of Hate,” however, cut right to the chase, bulldozing straight ahead at a thrash mentally pace, but never accelerating to the point that the impact of Demmel and Flynn’s muscle-bound wall of guitar is dulled. Talk about a “Ten Ton Hammer.” Holy shit.

The pair also show some unexpected flash and flair here. Machine Head have never been a real “guitar solo” band, it was always the riffs first and foremost. And while the same is largely true here, Demmel and Flynn offer some nifty harmonized leads and tradeoffs on “Aesthetics of Hate,” “Slanderous” and elsewhere that give The Blackening some added panache – yet without seeming wanky in the slightest.

And as HUGE and involved as The Blackening is, it very easily could have devolved into an indulgent, ostentatious waste of time. But Machine Head keep a tight grip on the reins and a careful eye on the road ahead, and deliver a triumphant album that only gets better the more you listen and the nuances emerge from the din. And while the dozen-year-old debut Burn My Eyes is still regarded by many as the definitive Machine Head album, The Blackening may end up changing a lot of peoples’ minds. A classic.

**** ˝

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