Colour Our World Blackened
02 August 2007
Words by Justin Donnelly and live images by Simon Milburn
When Oakland (San Francisco, California) thrash/heavy metal act Machine Head released their fifth album Through The Ashes Of Empires in 2003 (2004 in the U.S.), it was hailed as one hell of a comeback for a band that many had given up on following the release of 2001's less than impressive Supercharger.
Riding high on the success of Through The Ashes Of Empires (Both critically and in a sales sense), the four-piece band (Comprising of vocalist/guitarist Robb Flynn, guitarist Phil Demmel, bassist Adam Duce and drummer Dave McClain) returned to the studio once again, with the aim of recording an album that would stand the test of time, and eventually be considered a classic within the metal scene.
After months of built up hype and speculation surrounding the group's self-professed daring new sound, Machine Head finally released their sixth album The Blackening in late March, with many hailing the album as one of the group's strongest in years, and quite possibly one of the best for 2007.
In a rare day off on the road with Heaven And Hell and Megadeth, I caught up with Machine Head vocalist/guitarist Robb Flynn in Madison (Wisconsin) to talk about the group's latest effort The Blackening, and their surprise as to how well the album done immediately after its release.
“We're pretty stoked man. We're really proud. It was pretty shocking to hear the chart positions for The Blackening around the world, particularly in place like in Australia. I mean, what Through The Ashes Of Empires sold in three years, The Blackening sold in two weeks. That is pretty fucking insane! (Laughs) I guess people are feeling The Blackening around the world, but more so than anywhere down in Australia!”
There's a lot of speculation as to why The Blackening has been such a huge success, but if looking for an answer from Flynn as to a specific reason why, you're not going to get one.
“To tell you the truth, I'm not really sure. I can only speculate at this point. But I do believe the metal scene is really strong right now. I also believe that the band had a lot of momentum going into this album from the success of Through The Ashes Of Empires. By all standards, The Blackening stands against everything that dictates what should be a successful album. I mean we open the album with a ten and a half minute long song! (Clenching The Fists Of Dissent) The Blackening overall has four songs that are over nine to ten minutes long on there, features somewhat controversial lyrics and features edgy artwork. In our heads, it was almost like we were looking at the album as a piece of art. We definitely weren't expecting it to do the numbers that it has done throughout the world. All I can say is that we're really proud. We busted our asses and worked really hard on this album. We just tried to make a piece of art that would stand the test of time, whether people got it in 2007, or eventually in 2017. It was a musical statement that we hoped would change metal and make a lasting legacy for itself. That was really our only goal. Numbers, success and chart positions are not the sort of thing we were thinking about when we were writing this album. Those are only long-term projections you can hope for. And clearly, I think that shows. A ten-minute song doesn't stand that much chance of being played on the radio or M.T.V. In many ways, it's limiting. But in other ways, it's also quite liberating.”
One thing Flynn is quick to point however is that although The Blackening is the first studio album that Demmel was involved with entirely, his part in helping create Machine Head's new album wasn't all that different from what it was on Through The Ashes Of Empires.
“Demmel had a big say on The Blackening, but he also had a big say on Through The Ashes Of Empires as well. He was there for the last third of the writing process for Through The Ashes Of Empires, but he contributed a lot of that third. A lot of people don't know this, but (Drummer Dave) McClain writes a lot of the riffs for this band. I don't think a lot of people realise just how much music McClain contributes to this band. McClain wrote the main riff in Imperium, Halo and Descend The Shades Of Night. He writes a sizeable chunk of stuff that sometimes gets overlooked. But when you talk about Demmel being a part of everything from the word go on this album, then yes, I would agree. Where he really contributes is in all of the detailed stuff that you hear between him and me. It's where we bounce those ideas back and forth to come up with all the crazy guitar runs, and all the shit like that. Having a person like him in the band really opens thing up. Ultimately, I am still the main songwriter in the band, but having someone like Demmel in the band, who has been with us for like five and a half years now, it just opens up so many possibilities. Most of that comes from the team stuff we used to do in our previous band Vio-Lence. I think a lot more of that stuff is starting to come out more again.”
With half of the tracks on The Blackening running well beyond the nine-minute mark (The album overall features eight tracks, and runs for just over an hour), it's safe to say that the album is very much against the grain to what a lot of bands are doing at the moment, therefore running the risk of having many just not getting it!
“(Laughs) Dude, that was definitely a concern! We talked about it, but we decided we weren't going to do anything to change it. That would have been ignorant of us to do that. There was always going to be a proportion of people scratching their heads going, 'What the fuck is this all about?' (Laughs) The Blackening was always going to be one of those albums that took a couple of listens to get into, and to absorb all the information put on there. But for the four of us being kids brought up on groups like Rush, Mercyful Fate and even early Metallica, it was natural for us. All of those groups had albums where they had very long song structures and complex arrangements. Those songs took a few minutes to really absorb, but ultimately they were also the most rewarding. That was kind of the mindset we were in.”
While there's some concern for fans who might not understand what Machine Head are trying to achieve with The Blackening, there's also those within the promotions department at Roadrunner Records that are having problems getting the album's singles/promotional videos (Now I Lay Thee Down and Aesthetics Of Hate) onto radio and T.V.
“Yeah, it's even a challenge with the short songs on the album! (Laughs) We open up the album with a ten and a half minute track, but even the songs that follow, which still run between five to seven minutes long are a challenge to put on radio. The first two singles from the album had to be edited down because radio dictates that five and a half minutes is just far too long for a song. We just let the record company deal with that. That's their problem! (Laughs) We think the longer versions are cool. That's why we made them the longer versions in the first place.”
Another misconception people have about The Blackening is that Flynn had clear ideas what he had in mind for the album prior to starting work on the songs themselves, or that Machine were trying to be the new Metallica.
“I would love to sit here and say that when we started out writing The Blackening that we had this grand vision, but we really didn't have any idea of what the hell we were doing! (Laughs) When we're writing, it's so Beavis And Butthead. When it's just the four of us in the practice room, we're literally throwing stuff away, and keeping the good stuff that we think is cool sounding. I kind of guide and shape the riffs and arrangements, but it is very dumb like that. When we were writing, we kind of had these broad goals as far as what we wanted to accomplish, which was essentially to put together a timeless metal album. We had that goal. We wanted to have a Paranoid (Black Sabbath) or Master Of Puppets (Metallica). That Metallica album in particular became our goal. That's not to say that we were writing the album that we think Metallica should be writing, or that we're trying to be the next Metallica. No one will be the next Metallica. We're just trying to be the next Machine Head. We wanted to write an album that had the influence, the power, the epic grandeur and timelessness that Metallica's Master Of Puppets had. That was one of the more wide-ranging goals that we had with this album. Another goal that we had was to lyrically have something to say. We were so sick and tired of listening metal bands and thrash bands sing about how their girlfriends were leaving them. When we grew up listening to thrash and listening to metal, no one even thought to write about that shit. It seems like every fucking band that has a thrash sound is singing about this non-issue. In our eyes, and with all the fucked up shit that's going on in the world today, the only thing they can find to sing about is their goddamned girlfriend is something that's really pathetic. They should open their fucking eyes.”
Although tributes to ex-Pantera guitarist Dimebag Abbott are not uncommon these days, few have taken a stand quite like Flynn did on Aesthetics Of Hate, which is loosely based around William E. Grim's misguided Aesthetics Of Hate: R.I.P. Dimebag Abbott, & Good Riddance article following Abbott's untimely death.
“We've been criticised heavily in the conservative community for being the epitome of what Grim talking about. He calls us Neanderthal, dumb and immature. Many people have criticised the lyrics to that song as immature. My response to that is that yes, they're completely immature. That song is a fucking gigantic burst of Neanderthal anger. And I'll tell you this much, it felt really fucking good! (Laughs)”
Tying in perfectly with Machine Head's edgy lyrical content is the title and artwork for The Blackening.
“The Blackening partially reflects my vision of the world. Often music is a reflection of the times, and during the writing of this album, that's what it felt like. I felt the world was literally blackening. The name itself summed up my feelings perfectly, and I think the artwork that we chose reflects the title. The cover is a very crude metal carving from the 1600's. Essentially images like the church as propaganda issued these. It was sort of saying that these are the consequences for crimes against the church. They were sort of a deterrent from allowing people from doing these certain things. The particular image that we chose is one of a skeleton king. He's sitting on top of a throne, and his throne is on a bed of skulls. One of his feet is on top of the world, and his other foot is on top of a sand timer. But the most telling part is the mirror that he holds up. Written on the mirror is 'The Mirror Which Flatters Not'. For all of us when we saw that, it was a huge revelation. Here was this four hundred year old image that captured exactly what we all felt. This album lyrically, musically and phonetically is about holding up a mirror to myself, and not liking what I saw. It's also about holding up a mirror to you, along with society, and also not liking what I see.”
As mentioned earlier, Machine Head are currently winding up their tour alongside Heaven And Hell and Megadeth, which according to Flynn on the one hand been a welcoming challenge...
“It's fucking awesome. I mean come on, it's fucking Black Sabbath! They fucking rule. But having said that, it's been a strange tour for us. The crowds have been receptive sometimes. It's definitely an older crowd that what we're used to playing to. We kind of have our ten percent that are upfront for us going nuts. They're the younger crowd. And then we have a lot of older dads with younger kids that are rocking out to us, even if they have never heard of us. But overall, there's definitely a proportion of the crowd that's going, 'What the fuck?' So it's been awesome. It's been a challenge for us, because were playing to a crowd that is completely unfamiliar with us. I wouldn't be surprised if sixty percent of the crowd had never even heard of us before. And that's a cool thing. We're playing to people that have never heard us before, and we're winning them over. That's the best part. Within the first song, you can hear them thinking to themselves, 'Well who the fuck are these guys?' During the second song, they're starting to think it's cool, but by the third song, you can start to see people standing up on the chairs and head banging and totally rocking out. It's cool. Plus we're playing twelve to fifteen thousand seater arenas. That's pretty sweet in itself.”
...And a dream come true on the other hand.
“From a fans standpoint, to be on tour with Megadeth and Black Sabbath is beyond words. To be on tour with the two bands that are the very reason there is a Machine Head today is an unbelievable honour for us. You catch yourself all the time. You're sitting down to the dressing room, and all of a sudden Ronnie James Dio pops in to talk sports to you! (Laughs) Or you could be walking around past the drum riser, and who do I bump into? Tony Iommi! (Laughs) I feel like we're in some alternate universe. Every night our dressing room is right next to Megadeth's, and we'll just sit there and talk to the Megadeth dudes all night. We're all like the fans who made it into the club. It's kind of funny, because the Megadeth dudes are kind of older. We have a lot of friends come in, and we party a lot. So they've a security line for us night after night between their dressing room and ours! (Laughs) A couple of our drunk assed friends will see Dio and be like 'Ah! Dio!' So we've been given the green room permanently!”
As we wind up the conversation, I ask Flynn if there's any possibility of seeing Machine Head down under anytime in the near future?
“I think there's a possibility. We're talking with some bands right now in regards to a package deal, and it's looking really good. I really can't wait to get back down there. The last time we were there, it was fucking unbelievable. We had a really good time. We met a ton of cool people, and made a bunch of mew friends. There was nothing bad about the whole trip. The fact that we played all the capital cities was fucking cool too. It was all raging, and we hope to get down there again as soon as possible.”
Machine Head's latest album, The Blackening, is out now on Roadrunner Records through Warner Music Australia. For more information on Machine Head, check out www.machinehead1.com.
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