Nowadays, it seems like just about every modern-metal band is trying desperately to escape being tagged “metalcore” (a genre that is supposedly on its way out). Most haven’t yet succeeded in doing so, but to some bands, “metalcore” is nothing more than a quickly fading object in their rear-view mirror.
After releasing their debut, “Burn My Eyes” (which is groove/post-metal landmark), in 1994, Machine Head began experimenting with their sound by releasing a series of mediocre and uneven albums which were substantially softer, and even arguably nu-metal-ish. As a result, the band lost a large part of their fanbase. But then, in 2004, they stormed back onto the scene with a triumphant return to form, “Through The Ashes Of Empires.” Unfortunately, heavy metal (and the metalcore genre, in particular) was at the peak of its popularity that year, so some fans thought of “Ashes” as just a trend jump. But now, three years after that, the Oakland-based quartet have released their sixth studio effort, “The Blackening,” an album that leaves mere “metalcore” and “groove metal” in the dust. In fact, throw out all of the categories, because Machine Head are now in a class by themselves.
“The Blackening” sounds like a mix of old and new. Frontman Rob Flynn (who was once in a Nineties thrash band called Vio-lence) draws a bit from his own past by filling these songs with intense tempos, excellent riffs, and killer solos which evoke the Bay Area’s glory days. Plus, “The Blackening” recaptures much of the same raw energy, emotion, visceral impact, and iron-fisted aggression as 2004’s “Through The Ashes Of Empires.” But in no way is this just a simple throwback album, because it expands a great deal on Machine Head’s sound, musicianship, and songwriting skills. T hese songs are friggin’ epics — they range from just under five minutes to over ten and a half minutes long, and are, musically, a lot more complex, meticulous, and multi-faceted than anything MH have ever attempted. (Flynn plays a big part in the band’s growth by frequently showing off his surprisingly strong singing voice and intelligent, inspiring, often politically-charged lyrics.)
Every track on this record is a winner; it’s darn near impossible to find a single dud or weak moment anywhere on here. Whether opting for brutal and straightforward or more restrained and slowly-building songs, Machine Head almost always make sure the music bristles with intensity and unpredictability. Opener “Clenching The Fists of Dissent” begins quietly and slowly, with mysterious acoustic guitar strums, but in not too long, a breakneck tempo change kicks in, launching the listener into a river of furious riffing. The guitarists (Phil Demmel and the above-mentioned Rob Flynn) toss in a pair of superbly ripping solos near the end, too. Then, an explosive barrage of thick, hefty, churning guitars and hard-hitting drums back Flynn while he bellows “F you all!” from his gut, thus signifying the made-for-moshing beginning of “Beautiful Morning.” The next track, “Aesthetics of Hate,” boasts a quick, bouncy drum beat, and a wealth of great guitar melodies and harmonies (including a fairly long solo section), before ending with a dark and spine-tingling spoken-word passage where Flynn repeats “May the hand of God strike them down” several times. “Aesthetics of Hate” is also of note for it lyrical content because it is a livid tirade against a journalist who wrote an insulting article about Pantera/Damageplan guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott only a week after his tragic murder in 2004.
Elsewhere, “Now I Lay Thee Down” and “A Farewell To Arms” both have quite a bit of clean, proper singing (in fact, the latter track even features some supple, even borderline-sweet crooning), thus making them probably the record’s two most melodic and restrained cuts. “Slanderous” and “Halo” are also of note because they sport heavy, propulsive riffs, catchy, adherent grooves, and wailing solos. And, lastly, track seven, “Wolves,” takes the cake for being “The Blackening”’s biggest highlight. This song is over nine-minutes of sheer awesomeness! Most of it is super fast and heavy (with an absolutely blistering thrash guitar lead, deft, thumping drums, and four wild, careening solos); but somehow, the song also always manages to be super catchy, and it includes a very memorable and powerful chorus (“Unleash the wolves!”) that ranks right up there in greatness with the chorus from “Davidian” (the world-renowned first track on 1994’s “Burn Your Eyes”).
“The Blackening” is an opus that practically has “greatness” written all over it, and all metalheads should fall in love with it very quickly. In addition to being the best heavy music release of 2007 thus far, this album is doubtlessly MH’s most godly, epic, masterful, brilliant, intricate, expansive, exhilarating, and realized work to date. It silences every doubt and answers every question skeptics have ever had about Machine Head. Yes, they are still relevant; yes, they are still inspired; yes, they can still shred almost anybody’s musical pants off; and yes, they are still fully capable of making a killer album that is sure to go down in history as a classic. Now only one question remains: how in the world will they ever top this one?!