ASMR Featured September 2022 | Machine Head
Nuclear Blast Records
Metal culture has long experienced a push/pull dynamic between purist sensibilities and sonic evolution, especially when it comes to the old school. Gatekeepers like Slayer have always been needed – reliable stalwarts who don’t change too much, refining a sound over time while maintaining consistency above all.
Then there are the risktakers, mavericks like Fear Factory who aren’t afraid to mesh genres and flaunt convention, pushing the medium forward so new horizons may be witnessed and approached. They may lose some fans along the way, but gain plenty more as they challenge themselves and their audience to think bigger. Not every leap of faith will pay off, but at least they never wonder “What if?”
There is something to be said for swinging for the fences, even if you miss, and few acts over the last quarter century of metal have done it more than Machine Head. Critical darlings in one era, media whipping boys in the next, theirs has been a long and winding path, littered with hurdles and obstacles. The power groove brutality of their initial mid 90’s output gave way to a bouncy, infectious simplicity at the turn of the millennium; Of course, accusations of selling out and trend hopping followed, which is a shame given the quality of 1999’s The Burning Red.
With their luck running out and playing for their very survival, they rewrote the narrative with 2003’s Through The Ashes Of Empires – even now, lead track ‘Imperium’ is as powerful a song as you’ll hear in any genre. With The Blackening in 2007, they set the new gold standard for modern metal, hitting levels usually reserved for bands like Pantera and Megadeth in terms of speed, songcraft and technical prowess.
They’ve been consistent since, despite a slew of personnel changes (only lead singer Robb Flynn remains from the original or classic era lineups), and the usual controversy, both political and musical, surrounding a band that is simply held to a different standard than most others. A simpler, catchier tune on a new MH record always comes with slander from old metallic puritans, regardless of the confrontational lyrics or crushing climax as they let the ammunition fly.
It’s the nature of the beast, and this beast is the lionheart of heavy music. That heart is worn on sleeve with every outing, displayed bloody and bare, with a level of vulnerability and social conscience usually reserved for punk or prog rock. It opens itself to ridicule for some, profound understanding for others.
Each album is deeply indulgent and cathartic, leaving nothing to chance. Every bullet fired, every road followed to the bitter end. This all-or-nothing approach is what often separates the Oakland outfit from their more restrained and less memorable peers. I don’t know many metal fans who don’t have a strong opinion on the Head – one tends to either despise or adore them. Their new offering, OF KINGDOM AND CROWN, will likely reinforce whatever perspective you had already.
It’s nothing they haven’t done before, from the slow build of another typically lengthy opener in ‘Slaughter The Martyr’, to the straight up pit anthem of ‘Rotten To The Core’. It is, however, their most cohesive and consistent outing in over a decade, flowing from track to track with no loss of quality or momentum. It juxtaposes life affirming power and pride with a bleak outlook and anguished world view in the way that only MH can, and sits comfortably amongst their better works.
This is a band out for blood, and not afraid to spill some of their own along the way. The sacred cows of the right wing are slain without mercy, but the man in the mirror isn’t safe from the blade either. Metal is not a genre for thin skins or glass jaws, and these veteran Bay Area thrashers have survived and succeeded when many (even their former label at one point) had written their epitaph.
The cornered animal is the most dangerous – after 2018’s divisive Catharsis album, and the subsequent lineup overhaul, it seems MH are playing with their backs to the wall again. It may be when they’re at their best. It’s crazy to think they’ve got anything to prove almost 30 years into one of metal’s greatest legacies, but that chip on the shoulder keeps growing.