When its Burn My Eyes debut was released in 1994, Machine Head began its career as arguably the biggest new heavy metal band since Pantera. For Machine Head, critical and commercial acclaim were both nearly boundless. The only variable in the band's conquest of heavy-metaldom was how long the Oakland, California-based quartet felt like staying out on the road. How long ended up being a long time, nearly two years. Nonstop. On the road.
If anything, these frequent-flier miles steeled the band's resolve to get even better and bigger. A more refined and complex, but no less heavy, version of Machine Head emerged from the studio following the recording of its sophomore effort, The More Things Change... in 1997. And though the band's buzz had subsided somewhat, its fans had become true believers, certain that they were privy to the next real thing. Machine Head would be the band of the future.
But in early 1999, with the release of its latest, The Burning Red, Machine Head had the faithful doubting; some, in fact, gagging. The new CD incorporated trendy heavy trimmings: rap lyrics and hip-hop-influenced beats. Some saw producer Ross Robinson's name in the credits and dismissed the changes, attributing them to an outside influence who tried to "Korn-ize" Machine Head. (Robinson first rose to prominence as producer of Korn's debut.) Worse yet, some saw the alterations as a cynical move away from the band's roots and as a way to gain market share.
In other words, some thought Machine Head had sold out.
Vocalist/guitarist Robert Flynn has gone on record as explaining that The Burning Red was the album that he had to make if he was going to be able to live with himself. Outside defenders point out that the band's aggression has remained unchanged and that the only things that have changed are cosmetic. Some bands stay the same, others -- like Machine Head now -- experiment. What's so wrong with that?
Says guitarist Ahrue Luster: "The main thing we wanted to do was not be concerned with what the record company was telling us -- what anybody was telling us, what our friends were telling us, what our girlfriends were telling us or anything except what the four of us wanted to do. We weren't concerned with what the press was going to say or what anybody was going to say except for what we were going to think of our finished product."
In addition to fending off attacks, Flynn and the rest of Machine Head (ex-Sacred Reich drummer Dave McClain, who joined the band prior to The More Things Change, and the other remaining original member, bassist Adam Duce) had to break in a new guitarist. Luster, a longtime friend of Flynn's, joined the band after the exceedingly acrimonious departure of founding member Logan Mader. Flynn was accused in the press of being a dictator, while Mader was painted, in less charitable moments, as self-serving and a wanna-be "rockstar/model."
"I was very supportive of what they were doing," says Luster of the nature of the transition. "Before I was in the band there wasn't the harmony that there is now. And I think me just bringing that vibe kind of shows on the record. The More Things Change was a little more claustrophobic and directed in a defensive direction, while this one is open and more expressive. When I got in the band they had three or four songs already written. It was two and a half years [since the last record]. Over that period of time you're not going to be doing the same thing unless you're stagnant."
Among the most immediately noticeable songs on The Burning Red are "Exhale the Vile," a hammer-and-sledge number with vocal growls and, strangely, a melodic bridge and chorus, and "The Blood, the Sweat, the Tears," a tuned-down, distorted, driving thrash number with vocal harmonies at the end.
These two tunes most effectively bridge the gap between Machine Head's old-school thrash-metal roots and its current hip-hopish rhythms ("From This Day") and atmospheric dynamics ("Silver"), among other things.
" 'Exhale the Vile' was one of those songs that they had written before I got in the band, and 'The Blood, the Sweat, the Tears' was one of the songs that I brought to the band," says Luster with a hint of irony, as if to further illuminate how natural the transition was for everybody involved.
Machine Head has been touring in support of The Burning Red for about five months, including a month in Europe before the holidays, playing four-figure venues and selling them out for the first time as a lone headliner. No matter how rabid fans here have been at different times in Machine Head's career, those in Europe have always been, according to Luster, steadfast.
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And now Machine Head returns to the United States. "We have a lot of new fans," says Luster, "and we still have most of our old fans, although there're some of our old fans that are kind of bitter and think that, you know ... they can think whatever they want!" Luster laughs. "They want to hear where Machine Head was five years ago."
The Burning Red has garnered Machine Head more airplay than ever. Its first single, "From This Day," not only finished 1999 as the 11th most-played track in heavy metal radio, according to various reports, but it also crossed over into mainstream rock formats. The video for the song is in regular rotation on the hard-rock outlets M2 and MTV-X, and sales of the CD are up from the previous effort. The band also has a prime slot on the soundtrack for the upcoming feature film Heavy Metal 2.
Doesn't look like Machine Head will be looking back anytime soon.
Machine Head performs Thursday, January 27, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. For information call (713)629-3700.