Breaking Down Machine Head’s ‘The Blackening’
Ten years ago today San Francisco thrash and groove metal band Machine Head released their sixth album, The Blackening. An immediate success, the album debuted with 16 thousand sales in its first week and peaked at 54 on the Billboard Top 200. The album was greeted with rave reviews upon release. Metal Hammer called it the Album of the Decade in 2010.
However, The Blackening maintains a vocal group of detractors. On Metal Archives it maintains an average review score of 64%, not because people rank it at the top of the bell curve, but because a vocal minority drag its average down with single-digit reactions. Editors Joseph Schafer and Ian Cory will break down the album’s legacy a decade after its release.
Ian Cory: I've got no shame in admitting that when it comes to heavy metal my taste often skews towards artists with a broad appeal. I am not an underground king, I am not a collector of rare tapes or a hoarder of demos. A big part of the fun of being a fan is being able to talk about the music that I listen to with other people, and because of this I have no problem prioritizing blockbuster metal releases and big names over more niche acts. I would much rather talk about less cool music if it means that everyone in the room can join the conversation. But despite this poptimist approach, there has been one record that has completely baffled me for the last ten years. I simply do not understand the love for Machine Head's The Blackening. I know that in some circles this marks me as a total weirdo. Before we get into why I don't think the album deserves anywhere near the amount of praise that it's received, I want to give you an opportunity to defend it. What am I missing here?
Joseph Schafer: First off, know there's no shame in enjoying metal with popular appeal, even if most quote-unquote major metal releases could stand to sound a little less quantized.
If you want to understand The Blackening, you need to look at it in terms of the context of its release, which means you actually need to rewind four years: Machine Head were one of the many 90's bands that lost their creative spark by incorporating a bunch of rap and alt metal influences, but more importantly they were one of the few who got wise to shedding those influences real quick (keep in mind, Vinnie Paul is still in Hellyeah). Their previous record, Through The Ashes of Empires, came out in 2003, and was a pretty solid early 90's style groove-thrash metal. Which makes sense, since the band had just added Phil Demmel, who was Robb Flynn's second in command in Vio-lence. This is important.
They managed to beat a ton of bands to the game: Overkill were on nobody label Spitfire in 2003, Exodus were back in action but hadn't put out Tempo of the Damned yet. Testament were getting their sea legs again after Chuck Billy's cancer scare. Slayer were touring behind God Hates Us All with 7-string guitars. Megadeth were totally lost at sea. Did Anthrax even have a singer? Municipal Waste, Mastodon and Lamb of God, each to varying degrees, were about to make thrash cool again, but hadn't taken off yet. Lamb of God released Ashes of the Wake seven months before them, but were not yet a headlining band. But most importantly, Metallica had just dropped St. Anger. This is key: Machine Head and Lamb of God were the first bands to get the train chugging again, pun intended.
So fast forward four years. Each of those bands had already put out a record or multiple records while Machine Head were touring behind Through The Ashes of Empires, and all of those records were pretty darn good. Some of them were classics. But none of them really captured the feel of the Bay in the mid-80's. The Blackening is Machine Head doubling down on that idea with all of their chips, all of Roadrunner Records’s studio money. Demmel and Flynn tried their very best to make, essentially, a classic Metallica record, long proggy songs, pretty guitar intro and all. The Blackening is the world's best Metallica cover band — one that was there with them in the Bay at the height of their prowess — trying to write, essentially the record that would have connected ...And Justice For All with The Black Album. And they did a pretty fucking good job. If I'm honest it is the best Metallica album since 1991, even if Lars and James never touched it.
Cory: As I see it there are two arguments being made here. First, that understanding the record's place in history explains why critics, and the public, were eager to anoint it as the second coming. The second argument is that the music itself, in tandem with the record's context, hit home with an audience hungry for a return to metal's golden age sound. I think there's some truth to both of these statements, but for now I want to focus on the former.
I'll absolutely concede that the culture was primed for a band like Machine Head to capture the crown. As you pointed out, thrash metal's heavy hitters were all in the process of making comebacks, while younger bands in the "New Wave Of American Heavy Metal" had re-established a more traditional strain of heavy music as commercially viable after nü-metal's dominance in the 90's. That sea change from 'jump the fuck up' to walls of death is crucial here because it's also relevant to Machine Head's own body of work. By bringing Demmel back into the fold, Machine Head were signifying that they were ready to return to their own roots, and in the process abandon the rap-rock sound that they rode on through the middle of their career. Because of this it's easy to read The Blackening as Robb Flynn's "come to thrash Jesus" moment. Flynn, an avatar for where thrash metal went astray, returning to the fold is a satisfying narrative. The prolonged break between records makes it even easier to slot The Blackening into this role. The problem comes with the second argument. I don't believe that the music warrants any of this myth making.
Again, I'll make some concessions. Machine Head certainly went for it on this album. This motherfucker is long. But where you see an emulation of the classic Metallica model, I see a whole lot of hot air. Maybe it's just a matter of CD/iTunes era inflation, but none of Metallica's classic records are as bogged down or as long winded as this album. The Blackening has four tracks over nine minutes. That means that in half the number of songs it's roughly the same length as Ride The Lightning. Moreover, while there are some allusions to the classic form, like the acoustic intro that you mentioned or the lengthy duel lead sections that pop up here and there, the real meat and potatoes of The Blackening is eons away from the Bay Area of the 1980's. The songs reach their gargantuan lengths by stacking mid-paced breakdowns and grooves on top of each, with the occasional break into hard rock melodicism. I can understand how that formula might look like a 21st Century Black Album on paper, but in practice it feels like a fairly conventional mainstream metal album full of water weight instead of any real muscle.
In order to break down what works and what doesn't we're going to have to get into the weeds and talk about some specific tracks. What songs should I revisit and what should I listen for?
Schafer: You're dead right that The Blackening is long. Like, ‘The Return of the King - Director's Cut’ long, if you get the extended edition. Which is, in a sense, a very Metallica thing to do. Every single one of that band's albums from ...And Justice For All on has been too big for its britches, and I'm saying that as a huge admirer of much of that material. You're right, there's fat to trim.
Here’s the rub: for the most part the fat isn't in the extended cuts. On those songs, Machine Head make their ground-and-pound sections work in the context of longer narrative structures. "Clenching the Fists of Dissent" delivers the goods, and so does its inverted bookend, "A Farewell to Arms". "Halo" hasn't left the band's set list since and with good reason. It's a prime example of the kind of mosh-ballad marriage that made prime thrash (and Pantera, and Type O Negative, etc etc) so potent. Only "Wolves" gets lost in the woods and if I'm honest that's just because I never need to hear a lyric involving shotguns ever again.
The stuff that doesn't work all comes in that long run of potential singles on side A. That's where mainstream convention bogs the band down. "Now I Lay Thee Down" could be a Nickelback song. Get that shit the hell out of here. "Beautiful Mourning" isn't much better. Every metal classic needs a ballad, but only one, and that's "Halo". "Slanderous" gets a pass by me, just because of its high speed and tight pinch harmonic mosh riff. Flynn's well meaning underdog anti-bullying lyrics earn points on paper but delivering a laundry list of slurs at circle pit speed isn't exactly transcendent or insightful. They did all of this stuff better on the two albums since.
To me, your critique of the band getting too long in the tooth for their own good really holds water on "Aesthetics of Hate". In fairness, that's a bad place to get caught with your pants down. It was the big lead single, and a tribute to Dimebag Darrel whose death was still a pretty fresh wound when The Blackening was new. Plus, the song resulted from an internet feud between Flynn and William Grim, the columnist at a right wing website called The Iconoclast. There's myth-making inside of myth-making on this one. And for most of its run, it's rousing and moshy in all the ways you want it to be. If it cut off at about five minutes, it would be ideal. The full minute and a half slow motion breakdown into a rock and roll fade-out at the end stops the record's momentum cold. Nobody has time for that.
So, I consent somewhat. But you can't tell me the two bookends and "Halo" don't kick all sorts of ass.
Cory: I think you may have just uncovered the skeleton key to our disagreement on this record. We have a nearly inverse view of which songs work and which ones don't.
Even though it's essentially a twitter argument set to tape, I think "Aesthetics of Hate" is far and away the best track on the record. Granted, the fade out is a coward's tool, but "Aesthetics of Hate" is the only song on The Blackening that has a clear dramatic through line even when taking detours. The song moves from tempo to tempo, and from aggression to melody, with its eye on the prize the whole, everything building to one big juicy breakdown.
This is the thing, I'd rather a song be functional and compositionally focused, even if the elements themselves don't do much for me. That's why I think "Now I Lay Thee Down" is the better of the ballads on the album. Not because it appeals to my sensibilities — cause holy shit does it not — but it makes sense from top to bottom as a dumb hard rock song. You're 100% right that it sounds like Nickelback, just like most of the melodic parts on this album do, but having those melodic choices isolated and organized in a way that flows naturally is much better than hearing those elements inelegantly shoved into the middle of "Clenching The Fists Of Dissent".
Butt rock is in Machine Head's compositional makeup, and no number of leftover Vio-Lence riffs is going to change that. I enjoy them more when they lean into rather than run for it, and the longer songs on The Blackening do a whole lot of running. While there are some neat moments on all of the songs on this record, too often it sounds like they're trying to signify something rather than be something.
I'm glad you brought up the two Machine Head releases since The Blackening. I'm curious about how you think the band's career has gone since The Blackening, especially because neither Unto The Locust or Bloodstone & Diamonds got anywhere near the degree of attention as their predecessor. Was The Blackening a turning point in their career or was it an outlier? And more broadly, I'm curious about how you feel The Blackening has aged since it's release.
Schafer: The legacy of this album has certainly been obscured by time and what came after for the band. Machine Head lost their original bassist, Adam Duce, in 2013, which in turn lost some of that O.G. thrash pedigree that made The Blackening so attractive. Robb Flynn was the most vocal opponent to Phil Anselmo following his "white power" salute at Housecore Horror Fest after writing a song defending Dimebag Darrel on The Blackening. Those pitfalls came later, though. At first, Machine Head toured hard behind The Blackening. Trouble is they just kept touring behind the same songs while popular metal tastes evolved. I saw them play in between Trivium and Gojira, all of them under Lamb of God, immediately after the album's release. Gojira is now opening for Metallica in 2017, but Machine Head is not. That's indicative of where tastes have gone since 2007. Likewise the political dissent that galvanized The Blackening fizzled out under President Barack Obama. The same thing happened to Lamb of God (and Ministry). These bands need a powerful anti-authoritarian sentiment to express. I'm not sure they had one after 2008.
It took Machine Head four years to write Unto The Locust, the follow-up to this album. I remember the awareness for that campaign picking up a lot of steam, but disliking Unto The Locust when it was released, even though it received some good reviews. It's strong in-general but doesn't have any powerful moments that I recall. If The Blackening was a re-imagining of ...And Justice For All, then Unto The Locust was a singles album like The Black Album. Trouble is, none of those singles were anywhere near as indelible as "Enter Sandman" as far as I'm concerned. I think that the relative wet squib from Unto The Locust probably impeded Bloodstone & Diamonds, which was a Nuclear Blast release, not a Roadrunner release. Maybe Flynn decided to leave Roadrunner, maybe it was mutual. Either way I don't recall Nuclear Blast pushing Bloodstone & Diamonds with a lot of force either, which is a shame because it feels like the singles album that should have followed The Blackening. The melodic hard rock bits that I don't like on The Blackening really work on Bloodstone & Diamonds. "Game Over" might be their best song full stop. Machine Head promoted that record with a two-set no-support tour sort of reminiscent of what Metallica had done before (Amon Amarth did the same thing), which felt at the time like a victory lap, so I think Bloodstone & Diamonds both recovered the band's footing and at the same time showed some humility. The Blackening, though, was the pinnacle of that band's ambition. They did something great and they knew it. Watching them play right after it came out was intoxicating. I haven't seen them since Bloodstone came out. I wonder if they still have that electric power now. They're about due for a new record so maybe I'll have a chance to see soon.
The arc you're describing confirms a lot of what I've suspected about The Blackening's place in history. The record is a product of incredible timing. Mainstream metal taste shifted towards the band's direction right when Machine Head were ready to swing with everything they had. I don't think it's too outrageous to say that this is the record that Machine Head will be remembered by, and it's written in a way that anticipated the album's reputation as a magnum opus. Even their choice of bonus tracks broadcasts the desire to make a canonized classic. Machine Head wanted to make an album that could sit comfortably next to the biggest names in heavy metal. Personally, hearing a song as brilliant as "Hallowed Be Thy Name" doesn't do the material prior many favors (see also: Cruelty & The Beast). I don't think that The Blackening earns its place among that company, but it does serve as a common point of reference for an era. I'm not unhappy to have it around, even if it does little for me personally.