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Better Than: Thinking about what you dressed like, and how you styled your hair, in 1999.
Machine Head are a Bay Area band, but they’ve always had a strong bond with New York; their label of twenty years, Roadrunner Records, was based here, and they’ve been a solid and consistent draw any time they came to town. So when they announced their current tour, “An Evening With Machine Head” (extended set, no opening act), it was pretty much a guarantee that the New York show would be packed. Throughout the night, frontman Robb Flynn repeatedly expressed his love for the crowd, breaking into a wide grin as they sang his songs back to him.
When they debuted in the early 1990s, Machine Head’s sound was extremely heavy, a post-thrash chug with Flynn’s full-throated roar at its center. They were one of a few bands (Sepultura was another) that were taking metal in an interesting new direction, without conceding anything to commercialism. They made two albums — 1994’s Burn My Eyes and 1997’s The More Things Change… — that won them a sizable following in the underground, but then tacked hard toward what seemed, at the time, like the commercial promised land with 1999’s nü-metal-indebted The Burning Red (which did, indeed, become their best-selling release) and 2001’s equally groovy Supercharger, seriously harming both their cred and their prospects at the same time.
Starting with 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires, though, and continuing on 2007’s The Blackening, 2011’s Unto the Locust, and the brand-new Bloodstone & Diamonds, they’ve embraced a more classically metal look and sound: They dress like unfrozen caveman bikers, all long hair and beards and black jeans and denim vests and tattoos, tattoos, tattoos; the songs are long, with moody intros and tempo changes and epic guitar solos; and they’ve completely rebuilt their reputation, to the point where they’re now seen as both elder statesmen and conquering heroes.
The love Machine Head have earned over the last dozen years was evident from the moment they took the stage. The first six songs played were like a fast-forward through that last decade-plus: two from Through the Ashes…, one each from The Blackening and Unto the Locust, and two from the new album.
Flynn and lead guitarist Phil Demmel are a riveting, all-business team, working separate sections of the stage in their own ways. Flynn is a born frontman, with a style that’s somewhere between Metallica’s James Hetfield and Macho Man Randy Savage; his repeated exhortations to the crowd to scream, to sing along, to get a circle pit going, are pitched at an even higher energy level than his singing. Demmel, meanwhile, lumbers back and forth at stage right, cranking away on his polka-dotted Jackson guitar and adding the occasional background vocal. The latest addition to the band is bassist Jared MacEachern, formerly a frontman himself with North Carolina’s Sanctity, and another guy who knows how to work a crowd. Dave McClain is one of metal’s most admired and well-liked drummers; he’s not a particularly showy player, but can shift seamlessly between the more complex recent material and the head-down, slamming beats of the earlier stuff.
The band didn’t ignore their awkward middle period. They performed “From This Day,” the most overtly rap-metal track from The Burning Red, and started the second half of the set with “Bulldozer,” from 2001’s frequently maligned — even by the band — Supercharger. After that brief digression, though, it was back to the ultra-heavy. At top volume, and with the older material only slightly retooled, it all blended into one massive, anthemic roar.
Machine Head have never been a band happy to stay underground. They’ve always gone big, always seen the value of creating a larger-than-life presence, always challenged themselves to win over the broadest audience possible through the force of Flynn’s personality and songs that are, in their thrashy, bludgeoning way, extremely hooky. And with a genuinely great new record and a big enough, and loyal enough, fan base that they can play for without the aid of an opening act, they’re more than justified in reveling in it a little bit.
Critic’s Notebook: At most Machine Head shows, you can get pretty hammered if you drink every time Robb Flynn says “motherfucker.” But he was fairly restrained last night. On the other hand, if you’d taken a shot every time he shouted “New York,” you’d be dead of alcohol poisoning right now.
Random Notebook Dump: The upstairs VIP balcony was a reunion of ex-employees of Roadrunner Records — a list that includes me, and the band members themselves; their latest album marks their debut for Nuclear Blast. One such veteran, industry legend Monte Conner, who signed Machine Head in 1993 and still works with them today, was repeatedly hailed from the stage by Flynn.
Critical Bias: The first time I saw Machine Head live was at Roseland in 1999, supporting Coal Chamber; Robb Flynn was wearing a tracksuit and had his hair in cornrows. Meanwhile, the first band on the bill was some nine-piece from Iowa nobody’d ever heard of called Slipknot.
Now We Die
Bite the Bullet
Beneath the Silt
From This Day
Ten Ton Hammer
This is the End
Killers & Kings
Sail Into the Black
Now I Lay Thee Down
Aesthetics of Hate