Unto The Locust
posted on 10/2011 By:
If you're a 'head of a certain age—the first wave of Generation Y—there was a trifecta of post-thrash bands that led the recovery effort in the wake of the Nevermind / Black Album carnage: Sepultura, Fear Factory, and Machine Head. For those graduating from Steve’s Older Brother's Pantera hand-me-downs, the mid-90's albums from these acts were the first stepping stones on a path to subterranean bliss.
Of course, all three bands devolved after a mid-decade peak, each experiencing different degrees of creative failure. After the polarizing yet fiercely original Roots, Sepultura split up at the height of their viability. (Sorry, Brazilian readers, but when the story is told outside of your country, that's how it ends.) Fear Factory found commercial success after the seminal--and utterly destructive--Demanufacture, but it came at a price. Subsequently, they threw some bones to the current trends of the times, employing cringe-worthy faux hip-hop on "Edgecrusher" and gunning for rock radio acceptance on the sterile Digimortal. For teens struggling with the last throes of Favorite Band Syndrome, this decay was tough to take, but even as these bands lost the plot, their creative slides were somewhat gradual and—unlike their interpersonal dramas—handled with some semblance of tact.
Not so with Machine Head.
Burn My Eyes' place in history is well-documented; it's basically the groove metal / half-thrash blueprint. But the collective memory seems to be hazy in regards to the band's legacy. The title of the band's lackluster sophomore effort, The More Things Change..., was a stab at the commercialization of unnamed contemporaries—a statement of supposed stalwart intent.
Almost immediately afterward, they did a philosophical one-eighty. The Burning Red was a blatant attempt at commercial viability, combining practically every bad idea that had seeped its way into hard rock consciousness circa 1999: Static-X disco beats ("The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears"). piss-poor shit-hop (the embarrassingly titled "Desire to Fire"), the requisite 80s cover ("Message In A Bottle"), and the shiny orange track jacket (the promo video for "From This Day"). They even squeezed Adam Duce into a t-shirt that would make David Vincent blush.
Most bands will eke out a single misstep before backtracking, a la Cold Lake. Machine Head strapped the blinders on and took it a step further, releasing the insipid Supercharger to an indifferent audience a scant two years later. (The album is microcosm'd by the 9/11-insipred, teenage nu-drama "Crashing Around You." For a contrast between Machine Head and its contemporaries, consider the fact that Fear Factory's token 9/11 song is called "Controlled Demolition.")
The dredging of this dirty laundry is not without purpose; these albums frame the context of every subsequent MH release. In fact, they undermine them to a significant degree, no matter how many times Flynn name-drops Skeletonwitch and All Shall Perish in order to bolster his credibility. If Through The Ashes of Empires was a tentative step into the "hey, guys, can we be metal again..?" waters, The Blackening was akin to donning water wings, stripping naked from the waist down, and whipping their dicks against the faces of beachgoers.
Aside from giving a slanderous web article more attention than it would've gotten on its own via the misguided "Aesthetics of Hate," The Blackening brought Machine Head back to legitimacy, mostly by the way of overlong songs (they’re more metal that way, right?) and shitloads of guitar solos. (To the band's credit, recruiting Phil Demmel to replace ousted scapegoat Ahrue Luster was a phenomenal move.) The trouble is, both of these efforts rang hollow. After all of this shape-shifting—and we’re talking subtlety-free, shotgun-to-the-face metamorphosis here—Machine Head seems like a band that simply swaps skins when convenient. It’s hard to take all these newfound, by-the-numbers, metal-as-fuck affectations seriously, especially if you’re one of the unfortunate few that saw Flynn turn “Old” into a rap song back in 2001.
But on the other hand, everyone loves a redemption story, One doesn’t have to try very hard to conjure up a sticker-ready blurb: “After digging themselves up from the depths, Machine Head has found a devastating new voice to match their darker, heavier worldview.” (Not bad, eh?) So, in 2011, with the release of Unto The Locust, we’re supposed to continue to sing the praises of a changed Machine Head. By golly, they deserve a pat on the back for a song like “I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)”, which basically sounds like something off Testament’s Low. (An album, for those keeping track, that came out back in 1994. While we’re on the topic, The Gathering came out in 1999, the same year as The Burning Red. Just another example of how Machine Head stacks up against their contemporaries.)
Should we give Flynn and Demmel bro-hugs for the sugary melodies and pinch harmonics that have been strewn across “Be Still and Know” and “Locust”? Do we give them backslaps and handshakes for ticking all the right boxes? For incorporating all the tropes that will lodge this record into the hearts and minds of the arena-mongers that troll Trivium records for glimmers of sleeveless inspiration?
In a word, no. Functionality doesn't merit fawning, and predicatibilty is heavy metal's mortal enemy. Unto the Locust suffers from a dire lack of spontaneity, and it fails to make up for it with intelligent songwriting. These compositions are easily the most intricate of the band’s career, but hackneyed cut-and-pasting too often derails the album’s momentum. “This is the End” vaguely recalls the aggression of “Bay of Pigs” before losing its way on a creaking, threadbare bridge; it’s only rescued—with talons carved from toscanello—by a deus ex machina solo littered with egregious divebombs.
Later, the ballad “Darkness Within” succumbs to the weight of its earnestness, much like Machine Head as a whole. They’re trying, man…they’re trying real fuckin’ hard. And that’s the problem. Nothing about Unto The Locust seems natural; it’s a work of heavy metal manufacturing, built for an established audience that has already been cultivated by the likes of Arch Enemy and All That Remains. Machine Head has no shortage of anthemic choruses and big leads, and Unto The Locust comes factory-lacquered with melodramatic transparency and primed for indiscriminate human consumption.
As such, Machine Head is once again coasting through another sea of teenage ‘heads, cashing in on their numerous adequacies while riding the winds of trends they didn’t forge. It’s telling that the seven-minute closer, “Who We Are,” is one the most vapid compositions of their career; as Flynn chants “This is who we are!”, one has to wonder whether he could truly define “this.” The song’s vague lyrics (of solidarity and perseverance amidst general societal hardship) are easily relatable; any angry kid could slide himself into the role of “we” and be whisked away into a frenzy of fist-pumping abandon. From that standpoint, it’s a phenomenal turn of for-the-masses writing plucked directly from the Twilight playbook.
However, it’s been fifteen years since Burn My Eyes, and disenfranchised kids no longer comprise the entirety of MH's audience. Some of us have been along for the entire ride, and as we’ve moved into adulthood, we’ve discovered who we are.
We still don’t know who Robb Flynn is, even when he’s trying to tell us.
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3/27/2007 Machine Head
Through the Ashes of Empires
10/28/2003 Machine Head