February 11, 2008

CD Review: Machine Head - The Blackening

Have you ever listened to an album from a band whose body of work you are at least a little familiar with and thought: "Wow, this is what they have been working towards all these years"? I am sure at least a few of you have had that experience. Listening to The Blackening the feeling has come back. There is something else that came to mind as I listened to the album; it was me mentally kicking myself for not getting this album sooner. The Blackening came out in March of 2007, but it is only now, following their first career Grammy nomination (for the song "Aesthetics of Hate") that I have gotten around to checking it out. Listening to the album is like listening to them for the first time. The band sounds fresh, young, and re-energized as compared to some of their other output.

Machine Head is a band that has been around the seen for over a decade, having released their first LP, Burn My Eyes, way back in 1994. I remember picking that album up and being a little less than impressed. I am not sure what it was, I like it more now but then I cannot say I cared much about it. For some reason I picked up their sophomore release, The More Things Change, and this completely changed my perception, I loved this album, warts and all. Then came The Burning Red. I did not care for this album at all, save for one song ("The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears"). My interest waned, and in retrospect it may have been partially due to the change of producer and mixer to Ross Robinson and Terry Date from Colin Richardson. It turned out to be the only time they worked with them. Richardson returned to the mixin board, and Robb Flynn took over producer duties on the past two releases.

It was during this era that I got to see the band a couple of times, with the first being just prior to the release of Supercharger, an album I never bothered to pick up. I heard a couple songs off a sampler disk from the show, and while not terrible, they were a little too nu-metal for what I expected from them. A few years later they released their next album, Through the Ashes of Empires, which I picked up for some inexplicable reason. Turned out to be a solid album and a step up for the band.

By now you are probably screaming at the page: "Get on with it already!" I hear you. It all comes back to the idea of everything that has come before was building to this moment. Dress rehearsals, if you will.

What does this have to do with The Blackening? Well, all of those albums and experiments all seemed to have been in preparation for this. In short, this is a spectacular example of modern thrash that just puts it all out there. The sound is laced with that classic old school sound, blended with modern production techniques and a fearlessness that is completely infectious.

It is rare that a band would produce what is quite possibly the best album this deep into their career, that is usually a distinction held by a one of their first two or three releases. This is an album that really put Machine Head back on my radar. It's not like they were ever off, but this pushes them back up the ranks of relevant metal acts.

Machine Head, despite their inconsistent releases have always had a distinctive sound. That sound is in full effect on The Blackening. I can say that while you may detect their influences, there isn't a band that I have experienced that sounds quite like they do. It is not that they are wildly innovative and out there, but they have experimented enough with what they want to do and have developed a straight up sound that has a recognizable flavor. This is something that is an absolute must in this industry, if you sound like everyone else, why should we listen?

The Blackening is an eight song, 60+ minute epic that lands on all technical aspects and engages the head rocking, fist pumping portion of the brain in anyone within listening distance. The riffs are skull crushingly heavy, the rhythm section insistent and driving, while the vocals lead us through a new landscape of modern thrash. Guitarists Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel play back and forth trading rhythms and nailing lead break harmonies, all with the signature sound (I love those, I am not sure what they are called, harmonic sounds that have been a part of their sound since the beginning). Robb Flynn is also the voice behind the band and while he may not be the greatest singer, he has a voice that is very good and stands out from the crowd of generic screamers.

Machine Head does not waste any time in getting down to business. The album opens with "Clenching Fists of Dissent," a song that immediately signals the band's return to the forefront of the metal scene. It begins with some low sounds with Robb's voice deep in the background before introducing some acoustic guitar. Everything builds to a gut punch of thrash guitar before breaking into the song. This is all I needed to hear to be sold. This truly is a strong thrash release and one that deserves your attention.

Bottomline. Very strong album, if I had gotten it sooner, it would have been included in my Best of 2007 column. Still, you can consider it to be on it, it deserves it. This a great slice of American metal, and something I did not think they had in them. It is heavy, brutal, and pure.

Highly Recommended.


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