Concert review: Machine Head

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The Agora Ballroom, Cleveland, OH – February 7, 2015

Machine Head roared out of the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994 riding a wave of institutional hype that, properly harnessed, could fell a great elk, and possessed of enough obvious, fiery musical potential to roast the sucker on the spot. The institution in question – post-boom, once again underground heavy metal – was a minor one, granted, but the hype, for an ostensibly lucky sub-subset of genre over-enthusiasts like us, was very real, and, in its reach and fervor, inescapable (and, eventually, fairly persuasive). I remember seeing banner ads and full page spreads touting Machine Head’s debut Burn My Eyes in relatively niche publications like Metal Maniacs*, while a younger friend of mine confirmed he first learned of the album’s existence in the pages of Guitar World. First listens, improbably, almost justified the hype. MH frontman/figurehead Robb Flynn cut his teeth as a guitarist in ‘80s thrash cult underdog Vio-Lence, but had an altogether grander plan for his new band, which, ideally, would combine the complexity and musicality of prime Metallica with the muscular groove and seething aggression of Pantera. Cobbling together a Frankenstein’s monster out of the best elements of the two most popular metal bands on Earth wouldn’t be Flynn’s last moment of overt calculation, but it still proved a significant critical success, if not the commercial blockbuster it probably should’ve been. The hallmarks of Machine Head’s sound – tuneful, powerful guitar work with those trademarked pinch harmonic flourishes, athletic drumming, the determination to make every part of a song memorable, not just the chorus – are present from the start. Even today, lifers speak of Burn My Eyes in reverent tones, despite the fact that it is overcooked in spots, threadbare in others, and, overall, maddeningly incomplete, because its scattered but towering peaks – the songs “Davidian”, “Old” and “Block” in particular – are so bloody spectacular.

*A momentary digression here in remembrance of the late Katherine Ludwig, MM’s longtime editor. For a metal fan foundering through the pre-internet wake of thrash’s early ‘90s collapse, “Metal Maniacs” was part lifeline, part lighthouse, and completely essential, a well-written, well-considered, excellently curated monthly expedition into the heart of a rapidly changing musical landscape. Ludwig recently lost her battle with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and will be remembered fondly and with gratitude in the coming years by so many small town outcasts now grown, for whom her magazine’s consistent smarts, passion and taste were seemingly the only things comparable to their own.

Robb Flynn is one passionate dude, and always has been. Passion, in a way, is what Machine Head was built on, but where Flynn’s verve/bravado was once an amorphous thing, unpredictable, often counterproductive and, occasionally, outright silly, he seems now to have grown up, or at least in the ways that matter…the ways you’d recommend. Passion becomes him. It enhances him and his band, and is an obvious source of renewable energy as they push forward together. Anybody who has ever watched or read an interview with the man, or checked out his dependably thought-provoking and often outstanding blog “The General Journal: Ramblings of a Frontman”, has been party to Flynn’s passion without even needing to share a room with him. Nothing beats the in-room (on stage) experience, of course, and nothing ever will. The one constant of the roller coaster that has been Machine Head’s career to date is that the band is dependably excellent live, and since its current “An Evening with Machine Head” tour seems predisposed toward bottling and serving up so much tasty history, a quick refresher is probably in order. Flynn’s creation endured a tumultuous first decade, progressing and receding alike in dramatic fits and starts, whipped by the fickleness and cruelty of the music industry. Machine Head spent a couple of years basking in its status as scene darlings, boldly decided with album #2 to up its intensity level in a credibility power play, then, with 1999’s The Burning Red, crushed its net gains into baby powder by attaching itself – in spirit if not in name – to the Y2K era’s pestilential “nu-metal” movement. To misappropriate fictional reporter Irwin M. Fletcher, “you haven’t lived ‘til you’ve heard Robb Flynn rap…and after that you don’t want to.” Low ebb came with 2001’s Supercharger, a halfhearted, double-time full retreat that, wholly bereft of its trademark passion, seemed to simultaneously settle the question of the band’s spoiled past, wasted present, and unlikely future in the form of a giant, collective shrug.

As much as I felt let down by a Machine Head I know was still on some level struggling to define itself around the turn of the millennium, I never stopped being a fan. I still loved the first two albums, and I dared never discount the band’s potency live. Those were days in which the public Flynn of interviews seemed alternately besieged or clawing for relevance, but, having seen his band play four different club shows across three states over the course of a “down year”, I gotta say they still tore each new place apart like clockwork. Happily, for all involved, a reenergized, deadly focused version of Machine Head – now crucially boasting Flynn’s former Vio-Lence running mate Phil Demmel on guitar – celebrated its ten year anniversary with 2004’s revelatory, wholly unexpected Through the Ashes of Empires, a mission statement disguised as a rare, uncompromising comeback album. Bookended by the fearsome “Imperium” – the band’s de facto set opener from then on – and the epic, brooding “Descend the Shades of Night”, Empires lit a fire under both band and fan base that has yet to flicker, and kicked off a dramatic decade-long renaissance – in which Machine Head has subjectively already bested Burn My Eyes not once but twice – that has yet to wane. Two decades in, history is finally, definitively on Machine Head’s side, and the band is making the most of its hard-earned and sustained latter day excellence, celebrating its technically twenty-first year of existence by going back to basics with an arduous North American club tour – no opening acts, minimal distance (physical or metaphorical) between the band and its fans, just “2.5 hours of Machine Head”.

Since its last headlining gig in ’04, I’ve seen Machine Head open entirely too many high profile tours, and every time I came away frustrated, if not angry outright. Machine Head wasn’t some nostalgia act still shamelessly trading off its halcyon beginnings. This was one of the cornerstone metal bands of the last two decades, an always formidable live presence now operating at the peak of its powers. It deserved more than five (admittedly long) songs in which to get its point across. I found an unfettered, unclipped chance to experience Machine Head live as in olden times too tantalizing a prospect to refuse, one (probably) well worth a five-hour round trip through freezing rain to make happen. The evening also marked my return to Cleveland’s venerable Agora Ballroom, site of some of the greatest metal shows (and In Absentia-era Porcupine Tree!) I ever witnessed. On this occasion, the Ballroom’s capacity runneth completely over, so much so that we were funneled into an adjoining overflow parking lot I’d never once used (I don’t think I knew it existed) over dozens of prior shows. I actively wondered why we weren’t moved into the larger Agora Theater, with which the Ballroom shares a common foyer, and heard more than one Agora staff member similarly grumble as we filed past them like cattle through a chute. The answer? Robb Flynn specifically requested the smaller room, because of course he did. We arrived a half hour early, found a spot along the wall and waited impatiently for the festivities to start. Errant spaces continued to fill in around us as the clock crept first past the announced start time of 9:00 and then well past it. My only moment of true frustration within the Agora’s walls came at the moment I glanced at my phone and saw 9:31 in return. A second or two later, the lights went out and all was forgotten except the moment.

What makes “Imperium” a dependably excellent song with which to open an album, a concert, or, as it turns out, a redemptive and triumphant third act is both immediately evident to the listener and still worth digging into a little. At 6:41, “Imperium” immediately set the new paradigm for song length and complexity Machine Head would follow and, occasionally, overindulge throughout the ensuing decade. It begins gently but ominously with a standalone two-note acoustic guitar figure, over which an ascending electric line is eventually layered, building the mood. Every eight bars a new element is introduced: first the two-note figure, then the ascending line, then a full band explosion that transforms the two-note into guitar-accentuated cymbal crashes and the ascending line into a gripping lead riff. Eight bars later, the kick and snare drums join in, escalating what had preceded into something more martial and fierce. Then the drums take over, turning the four-beat bars into double bass played in time with the snare as the band locks down and clearly begins preparing for the song’s next phase. “Hear me now!” shouts Flynn as “Imperium”’s final (and only) music-less beat is erased by the driving, foundational mid-tempo verse section, an evolving fusillade of guitar riffs laid atop Dave McLain’s thundering double bass and tom tom drum work. Flynn’s lyrics are the very picture of defiance as he bleats about a life lived sans regrets. The music beneath him whips and caroms, changing then resuming its headlong charge three times before Flynn’s inherent passion finds it purest expression in the galvanizing, highly profane, chorus. “Imperium” is, at once, a spine-tingling introduction, a rumbling anthem of rebellion, self-reliance and musical community, a low end, full-body breakdown, and, in its final moments, a mutant thrash exaltation, where Flynn states his intent, liberated, to “challenge the whole human race”. “Imperium” is engineered to connect with its audience on as many levels as can comfortably fit in a metal song, and its achievement is twofold: it swings in multiple directions musically with an amazing, uncompromised success rate, and it extracts from its listener every ounce of passion it offers. Cleveland cheered loudly from the beginning. Crowd and band alike were there for each other until the end.

“Imperium” is both tone and table-setter, but at the Cleveland show, Machine Head seemed determined to never let its established momentum flag. Attaching the moniker “An Evening with…” to any concert implies that it will boast a thoughtfully assembled, comprehensive, career-spanning and, likely, surprise-containing set list. The first two points proved largely true, while the second two were forgivable technicalities. The 19-song, 2+ hour set was thick with favorites from the past decade, including the aforementioned Empires bookends, three tracks from 2011’s Unto the Locust (the lively title track and nakedly confessional “Darkness Within” were highlights), four from last year’s Bloodstone and Diamonds (lead-off hitters “Now We Die” and “Killers and Kings” were predictable winners), and another four from the band’s acclaimed 2007 opus The Blackening, the only Machine Head album that conventional wisdom says matches (or outdoes) Burn My Eyes. “Beautiful Mourning” retained its wonderful alchemy – part propulsive, part elegiac – in a live setting, and the searing “Aesthetics of Hate” remains the metal world’s most powerful statement on the impact of late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott and repudiation of the short-sighted pundits who discounted both him and it. So much emphasis on latter-day works meant the first four albums couldn’t help but be shortchanged, but songs like “Ten Ton Hammer”, “Bulldozer” (the only unequivocally good song on Supercharger) and blistering Burn My Eyes manifesto “Davidian” provided heady recall for and delirious response from the crowd.

The surprises came in forms welcome (Empires’ “Bite the Bullet”), somewhat less than (Bloodstone’s plodding, overlong, oversimple “In Comes the Flood”), and actively upsetting (weird, vacant Burning Red artifact “From This Day”). The rough patches were anomalies in the grander scheme, however, as Flynn maintained a brisk, hard-hitting pace throughout, even paring his characteristic stage banter down to a tight, winning fifteen. “I turned 21 years old on this stage,” the now 47-year-old recalled wistfully. “It was one of the greatest nights of my life. Cleveland has been very good to us, and to me.” Later, Flynn professed what had been his serious initial misgivings that this kind of tour, at this point in the band’s life, would even work. “This isn’t some DJ pressing a spacebar and music comes out,” he told us, but rather, “four musicians sweating out their blood on stage.” Flynn indulged his baseline tendency to stage manage the audience like a combination personal trainer/train conductor, amusingly berating a guy at the front of the crowd for his lack of enthusiasm, chiding the larger masses over what he considered a particularly anemic interstitial chant of “Machine F$#@ing Head!” and all but ordering his charges to fire up the latest in the evening’s endless procession of old school circle pits. “Evening with” tours and their like have proven vanishingly rare occurrences in metal history. Most bands choose to defer costs, mitigate risk, and hedge their bets by touring as part of overstuffed package deals, sacrificing the prominence and stage time they might otherwise deserve in favor of a grungy, manageable, instant festival atmosphere. By bucking that trend with this tour, Machine Head is rising or falling entirely on the basis of its own grassroots promotion, guerilla resistance guile, and unsurpassed hard work. The bet Flynn and company have made on themselves seems to have provided instant returns, evidenced by the lit up, smiling faces on both sides of the stage. Machine Head ended with the devastating 1-2 punch of Burn My Eyes’ “Old” and The Blackening’s “Halo”, then posed for a celebratory picture at stage’s edge with the crowd behind them, horns aloft and still mid-frenzy, before sending the throng out into the misty, wintry Ohio night.

You’ve gotta love passion, and respond in kind. My residual adrenaline carried me all the way home.

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