The total opposite to rock and pop, in which either dying young, losing your mind, or spending half your days in rehab are virtually part of the rulebook, metal bands are getting oddly better as they age, putting fire back in their hearts and challenging themselves, stretching out over lengths which allow them to fully display their strengths. Iron Maiden and Slayer both have recent works which testify to this, Megadeth’s decision to re-record “A Tout Le Monde” with Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil for their upcoming set sounds mighty promising, and with The Blackening, Machine Head can rightfully join them.
It’s little secret among the metal community that after their career landmark Burn My Eyes was released, the band rapidly slid into a slump, and eventually ceased functioning altogether. It was 2004 before someone involved realized that the former’s raw fury could not be replicated by any back-to-basics approaches, and that only writing real music had any validity, resulting in Through the Ashes of Empires. Hailed by some as a return-to-form, it was really only a warm-up for The Blackening, the comeback album Machine Head have been waiting to unleash on the world, and their best yet.
They also share common ground with Maiden and Slayer as headbangers standing against the war. The record starts somberly with wispy Middle-Eastern harmonies and is chock full of tight artillery-style drumming that announces its whole intent and purpose. A definite Sepultura groove is also thrown in for good measure, supplying The Blackening a demonic, politically charged backbone. And mouthpiece Rob Flynn is the most volatile ingredient of them all, holding his own over the thrashing mix with a melodic shout, but cunningly surprising us with an amazing “clean” attack that just doesn’t let up.
There are no less than four mega-songs here, but none of them seem to occupy more than half of the ten minutes they run for—yes, they’re that good. You’d swear, during the desolate first minute and a half of one such number, “Clenching the Fists of Dissent”, that Machine Head were really Radiohead. The song reaches its peak in its bridge, when it starts exchanging multi-tracked vocal lines that evoke Trivium or All That Remains at their most brutal. Several twisted, screeching sidewinders prove that the two guitarists are shredding in better shape than ever before, setting the stage for the guitar-based epic “Halo” later on, but hands down the most “pure metal” moment of “Dissent” is when the group erupt into defiant chants of “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”.
Every song charges in with the lumbering, almost mechanical power of newer bands like Lamb of God—even “Slanderous”, while ordinary by the rest of the album’s standards, has a great groove running through its veins. The Blackening’s trump card, though, is that it allows for emotion over the brutal choruses, courtesy of Flynn. His death-whisper in “Aesthetics of Hate” is bone-chilling ... “May the hand of God strike them down”.
The last three tracks are all eight-minutes-plus—nearly half an hour of razorblade war protest. “Beautiful Mourning”, possibly the highlight of the entire thing, treads the line expertly between two halves. One is devoted to sludgy riffs, rhythmic drive, and a heavily Max Cavalera-influenced delivery; the other, uneasy chorus harmonies at dissonant odds with a gritty industrial-sounding slug. On the other hand, finale act “A Farewell to Arms” is more of an experimental chapter, uncovering extraordinary falsetto work by Flynn and a swirly riff a la Tool, decelerating slowly but surely down its last two minutes from breakneck speed to almost doom-like proportions, modulating through different keys, leaving itself hanging on a moan.
From “calling up the arms” in “Halo” to laying them to rest in “A Farewell to Arms”, this hour-long behemoth is the album Machine Head should be proud they made, and chances are metal fans are going to eat it up like nothing else. Make no mistake: the technical surge in their music and the melody is welcoming, but it’s the band’s dirty hard drive which gives them the grounds to go to war on The Blackening. If you don’t believe that, look at the lyrics: hostile as anything, the backdrop appropriately pummeling. Regardless, the cover art perhaps sums up Machine Head’s social commentary best: a stamp from the fifteenth-century, depicting a corpse in a king’s robe, putting his feet on the world and holding up a mirror.
The reflection in the glass reads, “the mirror which flatters not”.