Monday, 19 September 2011

Machine Head - Unto The Locust [7/10]

There comes a time in any band worth their salt’s lifespan where, presumably after years of endless touring, jamming and a mass of shared life experience, they release an album that so succinctly and unapologetically defines their sound, with that intangible sense of the “stars aligning” to create what will ultimately become the benchmark each respective band is compared against forevermore. As triumphant and indeed infrequent as these moments are, especially in metal, a band enters very dangerous waters when these albums are made. Case in point: The Blackening. You don’t need me to explain how lauded this album was the world over, and still is to this day. It remains Machine Head’s crowning achievement – a near flawless amalgamation of all of their best qualities while simultaneously pushing their sound into uncharted territories. Since word hit the street that Machine Head were holed up in the studio working on the follow up to their modern metal classic, the same question has been practically everywhere: how on earth are they going to top it? They’ve responded with Unto The Locust, their most technically proficient offering to date and unbelievably only their seventh full length in a near 20 year career.

The album opens with the glorious ‘I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)’, a dynamic and ferocious three part anthem, equal parts sing-along, equal parts balls-out-thrash-masterpiece. It is not a traditional opening track in any sense of the word, an eerie multi-tracked acapella intro giving way to one of the chunkiest riffs the band have penned to date and a severely pissed off Robb Flynn. Before you get too comfortable in the swinging groove of this first movement however, you’re flung into full on thrash mode. It’s double kick drums galore as riff after riff passes you by, and the band are on simply fantastic form, taking all of 30 seconds to confirm that this is by a country mile Robb Flynn’s strongest vocal performance to date. Seriously. He’s hitting notes here that he’s never hit before, without losing a single trace of his trademark growl. The song ends with an elegiac variation of the chorus as classical guitars play in simply sublime harmony, before bursting back into life with huge power chords and tremolo picking into a fade out. And this is all in one track. We’re off to a good start, ladles and jellyspoons.

‘Be Still And Know’ fares worse unfortunately, despite boasting an instantly massive chorus and plenty of tossing and turning with the dynamics. The truth is, there are just too many unnecessary parts. Where songs off The Blackening seemed to have just the right dose of everything whether the song was ten or six minutes long, ‘Be Still And Know’ comes off sounding very muddled and pieced together, and very nearly veers the albums momentum completely off course. Lead single ‘Locust’ saves this however, a grower in every sense of the word. The general consensus when an advance mix of this song was released in June was one of disappointment. In truth, this song isn’t as strong as anything from its predecessor, and upon first listen felt a bit of a damp squib compared to ‘Aesthetics Of Hate’ (The Blackening’s lead single). The great news is that the final mix is MILES ahead of the rough treatment we were given in June, and the track truly comes to life within the context of the whole album. The grooves are plentiful, the patented Machine Head harmonics litter the verses, and how powerful is the segue from the pre-chorus into the chorus? Vintage Machine Fucking Head.

‘This Is The End’ roars out of a classical guitar intro (note: I’d be very surprised if it didn’t remind you of Metallica’s “Battery”) into more thrash metal fare, with what is to memory the first blast beat on a Machine Head record ever and a scream-along chorus that is sure to solidify the song as a future live favourite. For all the curiously adolescent aggression that builds the majority of the album, ‘Darkness Within’ has understandably been the big talking point of the album in all of the countless reviews. Machine Head fans will undoubtedly have a love-hate relationship with the track – this is not a traditional Machine Head “ballad” ala ‘Descend The Shades Of Night’ or even ‘Now I Lay Thee Down’. Granted, structure-wise and even musically it is strikingly similar to these songs and many more before it, but there’s something untraceable in its overall tone that sets it apart from anything the band have done before. Flynn seems to be in a constant duality with himself as he sings of depression and his apparent disconnection with religion, only to then sing of his undying love for music and how he views it as his “saviour”. As far as metal goes, this is a seldom visited subject. How many metal bands can you name that actually take a break from the almost essential misery and despair that are absolutely paramount to metal, to simply sing about their love for music? It’s a bold move, and Flynn and co. should be applauded for showcasing their vulnerability, even as an established band with absolutely nothing to prove. ‘Pearls Before The Swine’ suffers a similar fate to ‘Be Still And Know’ before it, having all the pieces and elements to make it work but a complete disregard for arrangement and a horribly weak chorus letting it down. It’s a damn shame, but it’s up to the dramatic and at times full on cheesy ‘Who We Are’ to send us off on a high note. While musically it is at times very efficient, and judging by the outro there’s absolutely no other way they could’ve ended the album, the way in which each part transitions into each other is not nearly as smooth as anything off The Blackening, or even Burn My Eyes. It is, again, a damn shame, as so many pieces of this song are absolutely sterling and a simple tweaking of the arrangement could have easily shot this into the pantheon of Machine Head’s best loved tracks. Nonetheless, the aforementioned outro is anything if not beautiful, and is a fitting climax to this most confusing of albums.

It seems that there really was no way Machine Head were ever going to follow up The Blackening. Unto The Locust is their Return Of The Jedi to Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back, their Rise Of The Machines to The Terminator’s Judgment Day, their The Godfather III to The Godfather II (at least it’s not Joey to Friends, if that’s any consolation). There are so many albums, films, books, or any form of art, that are crippled under the weight of expectation brought on by previous works. It’s happened to the best of artists, and it’s seemingly unavoidable. But that’s not to say that Unto The Locust is a bad album by any stretch of the imagination. Thousands of bands would kill to have this as their debut album, such is the quality of much of the album, not to mention the excellent production job with Flynn himself at the helm. But this band have proved on more than one occasion that they’re capable of so much more. Whether they’ve stopped to smell the roses off the back of The Blackening’s success for too long or they’ve simply reached their unbeatable peak is beyond you or me, but you have to wonder how songwriters of this calibre didn’t notice that this latest batch is hardly up to scratch when compared with past efforts. With any luck, this is just a dent in a hopefully very long road. All’s we can do is accept the album for what it is – a solid collection of often questionable songs -, go and see the band as they tear the roof off UK arenas with Bring Me The Horizon, DevilDriver and Darkest Hour later this year in their first headlining UK arena tour, and keep our fingers crossed that they’ll be back up to par for their next offering. Machine Head are one of the biggest metal bands in the world this side of Metallica, and with good reason. To give up on them now would be, frankly, stupid. Fingers crossed, always.

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