Command & Conquer: The Return Of Machine Head

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No one ever said being in a metal band was meant to be easy. You only have to observe the number of bands from the genre’s most recent upsurge from just over a decade ago who are either calling it quits or battling with the law of diminishing returns to realise that achieving longevity and the longterm respect of a fickle world is much, much harder than it looks. And these are undoubtedly strange times for heavy music.

Despite an often overwhelming surfeit of great music emerging from the underground and the fringes of the metal mainstream, there are precious few bands that look like hanging around long enough to earn legendary status, and even fewer that sound capable of making albums that’ll be revered for decades. But then, of course, there’s Machine Head.

Twenty years on from releasing a debut album that defied the odds and injected much-needed vitality into a metal scene that was relying almost entirely on Pantera to retain any kind of momentum, Robb Flynn and his Bay Area-bred bruisers are still here, still making great music and still giving their fans fistfuls of reasons to give a shit. There will always be naysayers, cynics and haters poised to argue otherwise, but the reality is that Machine Head still matter, perhaps more now than ever before.

That said, the last few years have been a little turbulent and arduous for Robb and co. The extraordinary success they enjoyed after the release of 2007’s universally praised The Blackening was never going to be easy to repeat, and although 2011’s Unto The Locust was a worthy follow-up (the tour cycle saw them headlining Bloodstock and Wembley Arena), a widespread perception that Machine Head’s moment of glory has been and gone still hangs in the air as they prepare to unveil their eighth studio album, Bloodstone & Diamonds.

Throw the acrimonious departure of bassist Adam Duce into the mix and, if you were inclined to believe what you hear amid the sneering blather of the internet, the tough road to longevity and legend seems even tougher and more hazardous than ever. But as with so much of our popular discourse these days, the incessant snark-fest of the online world only tells one, predictably idiotic side of the story. Speak to Robb Flynn directly, as we are always happy to do, and it soon becomes apparent that not only are Machine Head coming back stronger, harder and brighter than ever in 2014, but that they are also beginning to exhibit an air of invincibility.

“We knew we couldn’t top what happened after The Blackening,” he says with a wry smile. “I jammed with [Machine Head drummer] Dave McClain as we started writing Unto The Locust and we said, ‘It doesn’t matter what we write at this point! If we can get on an equal footing and have a record that can just stand next to The Blackening then we’ve done our job.’ No matter what, everything was going to be overshadowed by The Blackening. It was album of the decade and album of the year and all these crazy accolades. We tried not to let it get to us. We just made a record that felt good and I believe time has shown that those songs are good. Darkness Within and_ Locust_ are huge songs for us. People go fucking bananas for them.”

Robb shrugs and smiles. He’s been doing this for a long time now. Twenty-two years with Machine Head and a good few years kicking up dust in various Bay Area thrash metal bandsbefore that and it’s safe to say that he can see a backlash coming long before the thought has even entered the heads of Machine Head’s fiercest critics. Similarly, when asked about that much-heralded debut show at Wembley back in December 2011 – a gig that was far from sold out and somewhat spoiled by an undeniably peculiar decision to book Bring Me The Horizon as main support – Robb simply smiles serenely and shrugs once again.

“Even just driving in there, we were like, ‘Oh, so this what the parking garage for… [shouts] WEMBLEY ARENA looks like! This is what the dressing room at… [shouts] WEMBLEY ARENA looks like!’ You know? Ha ha! We were so excited. It was our biggest show to date. There could’ve been 700 people there, but if those people were going out of their minds, it was a success. To me, the number has never been relevant. I’ve played shows to 110,000 people that were the biggest duds ever. And then when we played to 400 people in Nottingham recently, it was like a religious experience, and you feel so high and so amazing that it makes life worth living. So the show at Wembley wasawesome. It was killer, it was a fun time, people went crazy. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Chatting with Robb – and he does love a chat, bless him – it’s obvious that despite yet more ups and downs over the last few years, things could hardly be more positive or exciting in the Machine Head camp right now. The band’s recent run of intimate gigs in the US and Europe were an unequivocal triumph that plainly thrilled the band more than they could ever have hoped. As you will soon discover, Bloodstone & Diamonds is yet another monstrous and life-affirming slab of utterly distinctive and subtly inventive heaviness. New boy Jared MacEachern has clearly slotted into his new role as the band’s bassist with enviable ease. Far from finding themselves in some inexorable post-Blackening downward spiral, Machine Head are on fire and loving every minute.

“Fuck yeah, man. It’s the best it’s ever been in the States, for a start!” Robb beams. “That connection and the frothing fanbase over there? It’s just really passionate now. America was a tough nut to crack. It took us a while, man. But we did it. We’ve toured there more than we have in any other country. If you add up the number of shows we’ve done in America and the number we’ve done in Europe, it’s almost two to one. We did eight tours of the US on The Blackening! We did three or four on Unto The Locust, and now it’s finally clicking and it feels good.”

It’s hard to deny that stripping things down and getting up close and personal with the fans on that recent club tour was an inspired idea. One of the things that has long defined Machine Head is the wonderfully robust relationship the band have with their most devoted acolytes, and it’s difficult to imagine any other band of their stature seeming so at home in, for instance, the sweaty confines of Brighton’s Concorde 2.

In America too, embarking on the campaign trail for the new album clearly put a massive smile on the faces of all four ’Head members and provided them with a timely reminder that what Machine Head do continues to truly resonate with a whole shitload of people. “The Killers & Kings tour we did in the US, we played in places I’d never heard of!” Robb laughs.

“I’d never heard the name Minot, North Dakota, until my booking agent said, ‘You wanna play Minot?’ It was all out-of-the-way places, four or five hours away from any major city, and it was so fucking awesome, man! Just small rooms, slammed to the hilt, sweat dripping off the walls and people going crazy. And they were so grateful, like, ‘Fuck, thank you for coming here! Thank you for not making us drive for four or five hours…’ It felt different, man. There’s something happening and it was so rad to be playing in these really small places and know that people had completely connected. Some of the singalongs at the end of _Darkness Within _would just go on and on and on and it was just… goosebumps. In the UK, too; Brighton was ridiculous! That was the hottest goddamn show. It was brutal. We fuckin’ loved it.”

Although there are clearly many reasons why Robb Flynn is in a happy and ebullient mood right now, there is no escaping the bassist-shaped elephant in the room. A permanent fixture in Machine Head from day one, Adam Duce was unceremoniously ejected from the band in 2013 – an event that was oddly shocking, even in light of much well-publicised friction between the bassist and Robb over the last decade or so. Today, Robb is disinclined to go into details about the whole affair, not least because Machine Head have only recently dealt with a two million dollar lawsuit that was dropped in their lap shortly after Adam’s departure, but also because everything that needs to be said can be found in the lyrics to one of the new album’s most insanely thrilling songs, Game Over. Delivered with the same kind of intensity that made Aesthetics Of Hate such a startling riposte to the spineless dickwad that disrespected Dimebag after his tragic death, lines like ‘For as long as you’re alive, I’ll curse your worthless name…’ make it fairly obvious how Robb feels about his former bandmate and the events that led up to his sacking. Eighteen months on, this latest, emotionally draining episode in the Machine Head story clearly still stings.

“It was a long time coming,” Robb quietly notes, before emitting a huge, melancholy sigh. “It sucked and it was difficult, but the truth is that we were gonna break up. It was gonna be over. So we made a change. We can’t really talk about it, but that’s the way it went. So yeah, Game Over is a bittersweet song for me. Splitting up was a real consideration for everybody. It was that bad. If anything, being able to sit here a year and a half later and talk to you about making a new record is something I couldn’t see back then. I couldn’t even imagine writing new music at that point. So it makes us appreciate this moment even more, and it makes us know how lucky we are to do what we do and to still be here and to have the record that we have now. This is a milestone for us. We’re all lucky to be able to live in this moment.”

Make no mistake, Machine Head is Robb Flynn’s band and it wouldn’t exist without him. Depending on who you speak to, he can often be portrayed as either a monumental control freak or a giant pain in the arse, but one thing that is beyond dispute is that Machine Head is a band, not some arrogant solo project. Being in a band and being a band are things that Robb believes in to the point of obsession, and so it makes sense that shedding a member and having to claw back a sense of unity were tasks that caused him a lot of distress, and yet it’s also unquestionably true that any pain endured during those experiences was considerably lessened as a result of the consistent and enduring support of drummer Dave McClain and guitarist Phil Demmel. If you need another reason to love Machine Head at this point, the fact that these three veterans – now bolstered by new, fourth brother Jared MacEachern – very obviously have each other’s backs in times of crisis is hugely cheering.

“Yeah, Jesus Christ, I’ve known those guys forever,” Robb smiles. “I was in a band with Phil before Machine Head even existed. I’ve known him for 26 years or so, and that’s a fuckin’ long time. That’s older than most of our fans! I’ve known Dave for 19 years. They’re my brothers. I was talking to Kerry King about this, the last time we hung out, and we were saying that no one knows how goddamn complicated it is to be in a band! Unless you’ve lived it, you can never really explain it to somebody. What people don’t always realise is that so much of being in a band is not the music writing part, it’s the living on a bus for two years part, which is 10 people living in a studio apartment on wheels for months at a time! When you meet some people you can just tell whether they’re gonna be around for a long time or not. With Jared, we did the dinner test. You go out to dinner and you can tell if you’re gonna hit it off with them. He was cool and mellow and kinda dorky and funny. We thought, ‘This guy’s awesome!’ and we were right. This band is in a great place right now.”

Seventy minutes long and bulging with musical ideas, lyrical depth and dark imagery, all of which goes proudly against the contemporary metal grain, Bloodstone & Diamonds is not just another top-notch Machine Head album. As with everything this band have released since Burn My Eyes, the new songs provide a frequently revealing snapshot of what has been rattling around in Robb’s restless mind in the years since Unto The Locust. There are the expected moments of grim, depressive reflection, not least on the hypnotic funeral march of Sail Into The Black and the crushing, low-slung grooves of Beneath The Silt.

There is the aforementioned diatribe aimed squarely at a certain former colleague. And yes, there are some very pointed, powerful real-world rants, most notably on the epic In Comes The Flood, which shines a light on the craven dismantling of the American Dream and the dollar-obsessed and warmongering monuments to bullshit that have been erected in its place. Once again, if you need to be reminded why Machine Head are such an important and vital force in modern metal, therein lies a great deal of evidence that Robb and his brethren are one of the few bands in our world with something worthwhile to say and a laudable disdain for diluting that message to keep record labels or corporate sponsors happy.

Of course, if you follow Robb on Facebook, his ongoing refusal to be meek, acquiescent or silent will come as no surprise. Via the increasingly unmissable medium of his regular blogs, he’s spent the last few years ruffling feathers and sounding alarm bells, railing against the state of the music industry, bemoaning the fading power of the live music experience and, most mischievously, having a purposeful pop at A7X’s shameless plundering of Metallica’s songbook, to name but three of his most controversial tirades. Cynical observers may posit that Robb should probably shut up and stop foisting his unsolicited opinions on the world, and yet there’s something enormously refreshing about the unfettered honesty and directness of the blogs. In a modern scene primarily populated by young, media-savvy lightweights with too much interest in pandering to demographics to risk upsetting the industry applecart, the fact that Robb has chosen to use his online platform to tell the fans exactly what he thinks and, quite frankly, fuck the consequences… well, it’s more than just a breath of fresh air. It’s punk as fuck and as unerringly honest as we surely wish all our heroes would be.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Don’t you ever think you’re gonna run into some band at a festival and they’re gonna kick your ass?’ Ha ha!” he says, bemused. “The thing is, I used to be a drug dealer. I had people who had been up for fuckin’ nine days on speed coming to my house and tweakin’ and carrying guns. I had to deal with gnarly biker dudes buying speed. I ran with a crazy crew. The impetus for me starting Machine Head was me getting jumped and my friend stabbed the guys that did it, and I had 12 dudes who wanted to fuckin’ murder me. I didn’t walk a split second outside of my house without a .45 in my belt. I remember those times. They wanted me dead and bad, for six or seven months. That was fear. When I write a blog, I’m just calling it how I see it and that’s it. They’re just words. If people can’t take my opinions, don’t read ’em.”

It’s a fair point, yet it’s still hard to deny that in this age of music business turmoil, hearing someone from a major metal band actively expressing disinterest in the concept of buying CDs, as Robb did in one particularly verbose blog recently, is always going to shock people and provoke an intense response.

“Dude, our new album is a fuckin’ long album, and if people don’t want to listen to the whole thing? That’s cool!” he insists. “You can Spotify it and get your favourite songs. Just stream it on YouTube, man. If it makes your life better for two weeks, then that’s fucking awesome and I did my job. This isn’t so important, this format thing. Who fucking cares? As you know, I grew up in the thrash scene and that music changed my life. That’s what music’s about and that’s all it should be about. I know I shouldn’t be saying this and my record company’s going to kill me, but the balance between commerce and art is weird, and sometimes I just think, ‘Whatever… listen to it however you want to listen to it, and if you enjoy it, fuck, that’s awesome!’”

And what about the Avenged Sevenfold blog? For every person who agreed with him, there were plenty who inferred that Robb was just jealous of their success and lashing out at a soft target…

“Oh man, I just feel that bands should be accountable to each other and if someone’s not pulling their weight, say it! What’s wrong with that?” He pauses, looking incredulous. “It’s not out of hatred. It’s out of love! Try harder, motherfucker! Sometimes I think, ‘Should I even put this out? Am I just adding to the chatter of the world? Who the fuck would read this?’ But I just feel like doing it and I enjoy it. I get a high from it. It’s a way to connect and I guess it’s for the same reason that I make music and play in a band – to feel connected. Most of the time, the majority of reactions I get aren’t negative, they’re super-positive and people thank me for saying that shit. And that means a lot to me.”

Therein lies the key to understanding why Robb and his band are still very much worth giving a shit about. Heavy music routinely expresses notions of rebellion, rooting for the underdog and rejecting mindless conformity, and yet so many of today’s bands are as tame and timid as can be, both creatively and in their interaction with the wider world.

Robb knows that sharing his opinions will inevitably prompt a great number of people to lazily dismiss him as an arrogant prick, but he simply doesn’t care. What he does care about is Machine Head – his bandmates, his songs, his fans and upholding basic values like integrity, honesty and creative endeavour. Despite all the trials and tribulations of the last 22 years of leading the charge, he’s looking enviably lean and healthy at 47 years of age and, more significantly, pretty damn happy with his lot.

He calls himself ‘The General’ because keeping it real and being true to one’s self feels like a never-ending war, but he also knows that the buck stops with him and there are a lot of people out there depending on him to deliver the goods and to stay on a righteous path, and that’s a lot of pressure and responsibility to cope with. But it’s a job he relishes and accepts with good grace, because the cause is just and the outcome is always worth the pain and effort it takes to get there.

“You ever watched Game Of Thrones? They have got a throne that the king sits on and it’s got a bunch of swords and metal and fuckin’ bolts stuck in it,” he says. “It’s the most uncomfortable throne in the world and it’s made that way to remind the king that it’s not meant to be comfortable, and I can relate to that. Everybody in the band is important. Everybody contributes, for sure, and I couldn’t do it without them. A band is an eco-system and it’s better because of that. But is it my vision? Yeah, it is. It’s been my vision for 22 years. But I’m proud to be in a band with these guys, and that they put their trust in me. I’m not gonna say I don’t go down some crazy roads, but that isn’t a bad thing. It just means that we’re moving forward and we’re trying to do something that matters. I’m proud of this album and I think it’s a high watermark for us. If people agree, cool. If they don’t, I don’t need people to agree. I’ve got enough of my own damn self-respect to feel good about it.”

Bloodstone & Diamonds is out November 7 via Nuclear Blast

The Bloodstone & Diamonds artwork

In keeping with the darkly dramatic and semantically malleable songs on the new MH album, its artwork brims with arcane symbols and a tangible sense of mischief.

As Robb explains, hidden depths await those bold enough to dig deep. “The theme of the artwork is meant to be like an alchemy book from the 1800s,” he says. “So much of that symbolism, in alchemy, Masonic stuff and in the Tarot, there’s a duality to it. There’s a face value image, but when you look deeper you realise that it means something totally different. I love that in lyrics too.”

MH fans will already have inferred that Killers & Kings – the song the band released in demo form earlier this year – draws its lyrical inspiration from Tarot, the 15th century card deck cherished by occultists and mystics to this day.

“To many people, if you get the death card in the Tarot, they think you’re gonna die, but it means change,” Robb states. “And the Devil card doesn’t mean you’re going to Hell; it means bondage. If you look at the card, it’s the Devil holding two chains and there’s a naked man and a naked woman and the chains are around their necks, but if you look real close, the chains are loose – they choose to remain in bondage. So that duality immerses people in all that cool stuff that they can see in their heads.”

BASS-IC INSTINCT

New kid Jared MacEachern on joining the bay area bruisers.

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HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING IN MACHINE HEAD SO FAR?

“Meh… it’s OK. Just kidding, ha ha ha! It’s been really amazing. Good times!”

HAVE THE MH FANS BEEN WELCOMING?

“The fans have been so welcoming and gracious. I had a longtime fan tell me, ‘I’ve been listening to MH since day one, and I just wanna say… welcome to the family!’ Then he gave me a big sweaty hug! It’s nice to feel accepted like that.”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BLOODSTONE & DIAMONDS, NOW THAT IT’S ON THE VERGE OF BEING RELEASED?

“I’m beyond stoked to unleash it upon the masses! I’ve been listening to the demo tracks and I have to catch my breath when it’s fi nished… it’s a powerful record with lots of dynamic ups and downs. It’s a badass MH record, but unlike any others before it.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES ROBB SUCH A FORMIDABLE FRONTMAN?

“I think Robb is such a great frontman because he lives every note, every lyric. He demands a connection to the music, and that really comes across in our shows. Plus, as he’ll tell you, he’s terribly unqualified to do anything else!”

WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO OVER THE NEXT YEAR OR SO?

“I’m looking forward to playing some of the new tunes, dusting off some deep cuts, and taking over the world!”