August 2022 Feature Release - The Pit Edition
New month here at Metal Academy and therefore time for a new feature release here in The Pit, the home of all things thrash, speed and groove metal related. This month's feature release has been chosen by myself and I have attempted to embrace (some) of my inner groove metal karma by choosing Machine Head's comeback album from 2007, The Blackening.
One of metal's long established and at times controversial artists, Machine Head saw their return met with reasonable interest following a four year gap after Through The Ashes of Empires, an album that showed flashes of a return to form away from previous nu-metal influenced outings. Tell us what you think of the release anyway, more so because the banter is good and love the release or hate it, your thoughts are always welcome.
I actually gave this album a listen and review as part of a reviewing challenge two years ago. It did not get me into listening to this band full-time because of a few weak disappointments, but who knows, maybe one day... Anyway, here's my review summary:
Machine Head has two sides of the metal coin that can be flipped over at any moment. It might be the groove/thrash metal heads or the nu metal tails. Most of their albums are in the heads, while flipping to the tails in the turn of the new millennium and in their recent album Catharsis. The Blackening is often considered the most thrashy of the band! That sounds about right, and it might be their most progressive album too. The album has long epics, an aspect that I love, and it's better than most nu metal albums out there, so that's a bit promising. The Blackening is a good album, but it left me disappointed by not being the masterpiece people thought it was. This is due to a couple songs, including the first of the two 10-minute epics, having mediocre riffs and vocals, plus one song that's an outright horrible sh*tter. The rest of the album is much better, often having excellent riffs and solos. All in all, The Blackened is a good release that I have mixed feelings for. I gave the album 3.5 stars thanks to the nice flowing vibe and a few great songs. It's nice listening to the great solos that make up for some of the bad parts. Seeing how long the album gap was, it must've taken a long while for the band to mature and compose the songs just to be themselves. There's just isn't a lot I would consider mind-blowing....
I also have done a review of this album and I largely stick by my words and rating. Not withstanding that nostalgia plays a big part in my rating, given where I found myself musically at the time, this was a good pick me up for the hole I was digging myself out of. Not perfect by any means but I still stand by that they have not come close to this since.
I recall a time when I had been away from the metal scene for a couple of years, away in fact from music altogether. Upon venturing back into metal one of the first albums I downloaded was Machine Head's The Blackening, the band's sixth offering. I had based my decision to buy this cold entirely based on their debut from some fifteen years earlier, an album that was very important in my metal development as well as being a widely recognised key release generally. The band had strayed off into nu-metal tinged releases more or less immediately afterwards and I had long lost touch with their output by the time I made this impulse purchase.
For an impules purchase, it wasn't too shabby. Coming back to the genre, at the time I though it was heavy as fuck, certainly closer to the original sound of the band that peaked my interest back in 1994. It made excellent gym music for my (then) regular early morning workouts and as such became an important part of my daily routine for a good number of months. Without reinventing any wheels, the album was just what I needed at that point in my life. It was a straight up, no frills , balls to the wall metal album that immediately reignited my taste for the genre.
From the opening throes of Clenching The Fists Of Dissent the album instantly began constructing a solid structure that was (largely) consistent throughout the whole album. The impact of the album went beyond just a couple of tracks, maintaining pace well for what at first glance of the tracklisting looks to be a short album, clocking in at just eight tracks but actually has a run time of just over an hour. Even when the album hits lulls or dips in quality it quickly re-establishes itself finding firm footing more or less immediately. After the lacklustre Slanderous for example, the album picks up straight away with the fan favourite Halo which then sets up a fine run of a trio of tracks that close out the album brilliantly.
Arguably Machine Heads last good album with the line-up of Flynn, Demmel, McClain and Duce the focus on more groove and thrashy elements makes The Blackening stand out from what came before. It fills in the gaps that were present on Through the Ashes of Empires and gave fans of the debut one last hope that the band were going to hark back to the intensity of what they delivered in the early nineties.
I have an admission to make. Despite being aware of Californian groove head establishment since the very beginning of their recording career & having seen them perform live in years gone past, this is the only Machine Head record I’ve ever listened to in full before now. This omission is a little unusual as I usually pride myself on my willingness to step outside of my musical comfort zone in the interest of maintaining the broadest knowledge of metal music I possibly can, perhaps being driven by my Metal Academy responsibilities in recent years if I’m being completely honest. I was certainly aware of the significant impact that Machine Head made on the metal scene with their 1994 debut album “Burn My Eyes” & I know the bigger tracks on that record by heart thanks to the consistent exposure I received from other parties at the time but the early 90’s groove metal explosion perhaps didn’t have the same impact on me that it did other metal fans as I was already well & truly immersed in extreme metal. Was I missing out? Well, if “The Blackening” is an elite example of the genre then I’d suggest that I didn’t as I still struggle a bit with the lack of substance & the general focus on macho posturing but I can’t deny that this is a decent metal record & my score here reflects that.
I do appreciate the tight performances from the band & the solid, chunky production which does a good job at highlighting the strengths of the individual musicians. There’s still a truckload of Pantera influence in Machine Head’s sound even all these years later with Rob Flynn’s vocals sounding uncannily like he’s trying to emulate Phil Anselmo at times. There are a few differentiators to be found though & they’re well worth discussing. For starters, the extreme length of many of the eight tracks on offer pushes up into self-indulgent territory at times. The tracks aren’t boring or anything but I have to ask what the point was as it’s not like there’s much of a progressive component to these song structures so they really are just extended groove metal songs. There’s also a significant thrash metal influence to some of the tracks here, perhaps more than I’ve noticed in the Machine Head material I’ve heard from other releases. It’s not enough to justify a primary thrash tag but it’s definitely there. I’m not much of a fan of the clean vocals which seem to be a clear attempt at commercialism but the biggest surprise for me was the inclusion of Iron Maiden style guitar harmonies & often for extended periods. I can’t say that they work all that well as they try their level best to drag the band into a cheesier territory that’s somewhat at odds with their masculine image. I wouldn’t say that this is a deal breaker by any means but I think the implementation could have been executed in a more subtle way. The lead guitar work is pretty effective though & is often a highlight.
The tracklisting is pretty solid with only the one obvious dud in the more commercial “Beautiful Mourning” but there aren’t really any genuine classics for me personally. I generally like the vast majority of the album but the only track that really gets me going on a physical level is “Now I Lay Thee Down” which I find to be the clear album highlight. From what I can tell though, “The Blackening” not only seems to compete with “Burn My Eyes” for Machine Head’s most popular record these days but is also one of groove metal’s most highly regarded releases overall so I can only really assume that my personal taste is restricting its appeal. I do remember enjoying the tracks I know from the debut a bit more than what I’ve taken from “The Blackening” though so it might be worth my while giving it a chance at long last over the coming months. I have to admit that “The Blackening” is unlikely to disappoint fans of quality metal music but it was never going to threaten my upper scores from a purely stylistic point of view.
For fans of Pantera, Sepultura & Soulfly.
It'd be great if you can all keep this Hall of Judgement entry in mind while checking out this month's feature release guys.
The Blackening is one of those albums that I have fond memories of blasting "Beautiful Mourning", "Aesthetics Of Hate" and "Halo" back in the day, but I can never find it in myself to return to this album years later. Perhaps it is the downward spiral that has been Rob Flynn for the better part of the last five/six years and his absolute butchering of Machine Head over that timeframe, or maybe it's my continued distancing from thrash metal over the years.
That really should not be a problem since this record leans far more heavily towards groove metal than anything else. I mean, "Aesthetics Of Hate" is a song literally about some deadbeat writer who pissed on the grave of Dimebag Darrell. And there are (fleeting) moments where Machine Head pull out the stops and do a solid Pantera impression. The independence between the dueling guitars and the bass is splendid, the soloing occasionally pulls out some of the Dimebag tropes, and Flynn pulls off the sing/scream better than Anselmo could on later Pantera albums like The Great Southern Trendkill, Reinventing The Steel and even those later Down albums. But it is a flawed album where the band cannot keep the same intensity in the melodies from the first half to the second. The last three songs all being at least nine minutes is tiring and can get quite boring by the end. But those first four tracks are bops and make for a great addition to anyone's top list of 2000's thrashers.