Album review

Machine Head :
Through The Ashes Of Empires

Roadrunner Records

Machine Head : Through The Ashes Of EmpiresHailed as the saviours of real hard rock, Machine Head blasted out of their Bay Area lair and onto the global metal scene in '94 with their ball-bustingly heavy debut, Burn My Eyes. Now on album number five, having briefly flirted with a more experimental sound, the band have come full circle.
    Through The Ashes Of Empires is a sonically huge, pure and ferocious shard of metal to rival their nascent anger and energy . . . or so the PR drivel accompanying the review copy goes. In reality (my reality) Through The Ashes Of Empires is an undeniably heavy, guitar-centric and rather angry sonic assault. But it is also a rather predictable thrash with limited sonic scope. The ten tracks tend to blur without any real distinction making the experience largely forgettable.

These tales of hatred, alienation, disaffection and "battles raging inside my head" are deeply personal to mainman Rob Flynn, and no doubt he has some issues to contend with. But the delivery is one of uncontained rage rather than notable creative depth or power. This may be how he feels, but the album seems like yet another angsty and shouty version of how, as four-eyed poet Philip Larkin would have it: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." In short, I've heard it all before.
    There are fleeting glimpses of creative talent within the band. Bite The Bullet harbours some delightful guitar quirkiness, resonant of System Of A Down. The disturbing musical box intro to Left Unfinished quickly dissolves into a meat-head riff, where it could have played so much more of a disquieting role. Elegy momentarily slips into Tool mode, but destroys the dark atmosphere by reverting to a laughable Behemoth vocal.

Further on down the line, some neat tribal drumming heralds In The Presence Of My Enemies, a song that holds together with a whispering demonic voice then falls apart with a comical Bad News-style solo that tries to force emotion where it doesn't exist. There is a naivety about some of the playing, particularly on the opening bars of Days Turn Blue To Gray where childishness is mistaken for simplicity.
    Throughout, the quick-fire double-kick drum of Dave McClain bludgeons the point that this is heavy stuff. Regrettably it is over-used to the point of exhaustion on Vim - wasn't that the name of Bad News' moron lead guitarist? And a brand of cleaning product, now I think of it!
    The creative juices get going again on All Falls Down. A Steve Hillage long-delay and auto-wah guitar exposes some subtlety before the Pantera attack rushes in and kicks your face off. Similarly, Wipe The Tears combines a Rollins-style diatribe with bone-crunching riffola, making it a clear winner - but when the competition is so sadly lacking, perhaps this is less than meaningful . . .

The real Spinal Tap moment is saved until last. Descend The Shades Of Night is a classic for all the wrong reasons. The sub-prog title and nigh on eight minute running time sets the alarm bells ringing. A faux-classical guitar intro comes across as the Machine Head variation on Nigel Tufnel's Lick My Love Pump theme. Ham-fisted military drums, indelicate vocal counterpoint and an almost desperate epic feel layer on the laughs. Redeemed briefly by a Jason Becker harmonised staccato guitar passage in the bridge section, the whole piece just disappears up its own fundament before finally imploding at the 7 minute 45 second mark. Good riddance!
    The high points are few and far enough between to make this album a non-starter. No doubt the hardcore fan base will lap it up, but there's other stuff out there that takes anger as its source and turns it into something valuable. Through The Ashes Of Empires is just a very heavy rant.

:: Tom Alford

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