Machine Head: how we made Unto The Locust

Robb Flynn (L) and Phil Demmel of Machine Head perform as part of the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festivals at Shoreline Amphitheatre on July 10, 2011
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer Presents: Unto The Locust By Machine Head.


Robb Flynn: “We needed one song that was an absolutely fucking crushing hateful menace. Sometimes I write poetry and it’s completely fucked, like twisted murder fantasies. I just write dark shit. I’d written this thing called I Am Hell and so the title came from that. Originally I’d thought ‘If I ever use these lyrics, what would the music underneath them be?’ I already had the crushing intro part, but then one day later I came up with that super-heavy breakdown, started geeking out on the classical bit and I fi nished it all in an hour. I was totally stoked. It was one of those killer moments when everything came together. Dave hated me when I showed him that song. ‘You want me to play what? Ha ha ha!”

Phil Demmel: “I had this idea about this pyromaniac and what it would be like if you took pages out of his journal as he was discovering what he was at the beginning, and going through to when he’s killed everybody! I had some lyrics written for that, and Robb did some research on pyromaniacs and found that males usually do it for destruction and the pleasure of that, but the females usually do it as crimes of passion, for love. It was interesting to write it from a female point of view. It turned out really great. The lyrics are awesome.”

Adam Duce: “It’s such a cool-sounding title and the intro is heavy as fuck. We’ve learned that dumbing things down and making things easier on the ear is just shooting yourself in the foot.”

Dave McClain: “It’s fucking insane years ago I would have said ‘You’re crazy if you think I’m gonna play that fast!’ It’s easily the most brutal song we’ve done. To me it’s like Aesthetics Of Hate on steroids. It’s also a great representation of where we are as far as writing and constructing songs goes. It became this three-part sonata thing. Robb called me and said ‘When Rush does this, what do they call it?’ Well, they call it a sonata. The way it was written, it’s the exact definition of a sonata, so we’re classical music geniuses now!”


Robb Flynn: “I was coming out of a pretty dark place when I wrote this one. I’d been down for a while but I was coming out of it and I was watching the news on TV when that horrible thing in Japan happened with the tidal waves. I was watching all this suffering taking place. One day soon after I woke up and started writing some new lyrics, looking out of the window in my kitchen, and it had been raining for ages and then the sun came out, so I just wrote, ‘The sun will rise… and then I wrote ‘Dawn will break through blackest night…’ I just wrote a bunch of stuff, just following that vibe and not knowing if I was ever gonna use them. It was weird to write a metal song from such a positive standpoint. It’s about struggle Everyone has a struggle. It’s saying ‘Don’t be consumed by the struggle, don’t let it get the better of you’.”

Dave McClain: “It’s super brutal with some total Iron Maiden worship going on. It’s got a super catchy chorus too. The song was already heavy as shit, but when it gets to the chorus, man, it’s amazing. That’s one of the things I love about Robb right now. He’s really concentrating on the melody and a real hook, even if it’s a fuckin’ brutal song. Sometimes it takes him two days to find that hook and sometimes it takes ten months, but once he had that chorus it turned the whole thing into this great song. Robb’s completely on fire right now.”

Adam Duce: “The title comes from a Bible verse. ‘Jesus wept’ [the vocal hook from classic Machine Head tune Old] is actually a Bible verse too, the shortest one in there. Look it up, it’s John 11:35! This song makes me think about following that guidance from inside yourself. My great aunt said to me ‘Your mind is like a wild horse and you need to learn how to ride it’. If you can keep all the stupid shit out of your mind enough, that voice will start to take over.”


Phil Demmel: “It happens to everyone, where people come into your life under false pretences, and they creep in and become part of your life and they don’t just grab material things, they infiltrate your family and they slowly suck you of your resources and your humanity and your soul and then when they’re discovered they up and fl y off to the next crop or unsuspecting harvest. It’s happened to me over the years. It’s happened to everybody, and I thought it would be a good idea for a song, with all that imagery. Writing the lyrics was really emotionally charged. My sister, she married this guy and we all loved him. He comes into our home and over the years it turns out that he was just a liar. He lied and he stole from us. All these little things were happening and it was like ‘Who the fuck are you?’ We loved him and he was like a brother to me, so that happens and you feel violated and sick, and that’s what that song is about. It’s about people like him. There’s a line, ‘Tear the veil/The lies derail/Purity will always prevail’, and every time I play that I sing it. Do right and justice will be served, you know? Good will win. Good has to fucking win. Robb really latched onto the whole idea. When we were writing those lyrics there were tears and anger and there’s a lot of that on this record and in that song in particular.”

Robb Flynn: “It may sound straightforward, but Locust is really hard to play! It’s a very challenging song to play right. Musically, it’s a journey. I like taking people on a journey. I love that. I go jogging a lot when I’m on the road and I love it because I never know where I’m at. It’s an adventure. I never know where I’m gonna end up or if I’m gonna get lost or forget my way home. I love that feeling of uncertainty, and then at some point you get that certainty back and it’s like ‘Oh right, I’m here!’”

Adam Duce: “It’s been going over great when we’ve played it live so far. There was a guy out on the Mayhem tour, making a movie for the [extreme motocross crew] Metal Mulisha guys, and he was gonna put us in it and make a video of us within the movie and they’re gonna use Locust. I’ve seen a ton of motocross videos and I’m totally stoked to be involved in one of those things. I’ve been turned onto so many killer bands just from watching motocross videos. Every time I hear Megadeth playing Symphony Of Destruction, I see fuckin’ dirt bikes flying through the sky!”

Dave McClain: “Locust is almost like a straight rock song. I felt we were writing Enter Sandman or something. For me, it was the grower on the record. While we were doing it, before Robb was singing anything, I wasn’t sure about it. Then one day Robb started singing on it. Now I know to hold back my opinion until Robb starts putting vocals down, because that could either turn it into the biggest pile of turd or the greatest song ever! Ha ha! He started singing the hook in the chorus and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was driving to practice thinking ‘I can’t wait to play that song!’”


Robb Flynn: “I have had people in my life that I let get into my head and get the better of me, and so much of that song was just a giant ‘fuck you!’ to those people. It’s very much about me reaching a point where I wasn’t going to hear what those people were going to say anymore. I wasn’t going to let them affect me. It was goodbye, forever, like ‘You’re never gonna have that effect on my life again!’ The title kind of sums it up. Part of it’s about my personal life. Part of it’s about Machine Head haters. There’s a lot of them out there! Ha ha!”

Dave McClain: “The first day we played this, Robb couldn’t even play the beginning part. He was stumbling all over it with his sausage fingers. He said ‘It’s gonna be this classical thing and it’ll be killer!’ and he started taking classical guitar lessons, which is fucking awesome. To do that because he wants to play this part right? That’s so killer. Right off the bat, playing this song was about brutality. My right arm was just killing me! It was a great way to start the writing process. Nobody knew where it was gonna go. We hadn’t really talked about it, so getting in and doing that brought a big feeling of relief and a feeling of ‘Yeah, here we go! Let’s do this!’”

Adam Duce: “It feels like Robb’s big ‘fuck you!’ to the naysayers. All those people who say ‘Well, I liked what you used to do!’ and blah blah blah. It’s basically saying ‘fuck you, if you don’t like what we’re doing now! You may or may not have liked anything we’ve done before now, but fuck off! We don’t owe you anything!’ If you don’t have a good ‘You can go fuck yourself!’ song in metal, then you’re not doing it right. Ha ha ha!”


Robb Flynn: “Dave wrote that riff and I loved it, that whole Pink Floyd kind of vibe. I sat there, the day before I wrote all the lyrics, just playing that riff over and over, almost hypnotising myself, sitting on my bed. I’d just watched that movie Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges, which is an amazing movie. There’s one song that he sings in this croaky, cigarette-smoking voice, like he just drank half a bottle of vodka, and I was thinking ‘I want to write a song like that!’ So I was playing that riff and humming these cadences in this croaky, alcohol-drenched voice – although I was sober but in my head I was alcohol-drenched – and then the next day I wrote the lyrics and wrote them to that original cadence. It was really slow. I showed it to Dave and I think I was very emotional about the song at the time, I was almost crying. I was thinking that we couldn’t pull it off live with that long, slow intro, so I rewrote it. The others preferred the original version and thought it was way cooler, but I kept on with it and said ‘Let me demo it, so you can hear all this shit that I’ve got in my head, because you’re not hearing any of it!’ When it was done they were like ‘Holy fuck, this is fucking killer!’”

Dave McClain: “The lyrics to that song are so from the heart. It’s so heartfelt. Even from the beginning when it was a different type of song, it was so different for us. It’s a real rock song to me. It’s a super dark song but it’s got this chorus that’s quite Foo Fighter-ish and then it goes into this crazy Led Zeppelin thing. It’s one of the best songs we’ve ever written.”

Phil Demmel: “Robb threw this funky tuning in, where we drop the first string a half step, but I had to write a solo and he’s fucking that string up so it takes me out of the geometrical box that I’ve lived in my entire life! I was pissed at him, like ‘What the fuck are you doing to me?’ He did that on Halo too and I had to play the solo this different way, but Halo wound up being my best solo on The Blackening. What I love about Metallica and Kirk Hammett is that you can hum the solos. They’re so memorable. That’s what I wanted to incorporate on this record, the idea of writing a song within a song. I’m not the fastest player in the world, or the most technical, but I can write a solo that you’re gonna remember. I think you can definitely feel the emotion in it.”

Adam Duce: “Contrast is good, especially in metal, because when you have fast and loud and hard and heavy all the time, it just starts to blend into itself because there’s no diversity. If you don’t have up, you can’t have down. So if you have mellow and melodic, it makes heavy, hardcore and badass so much more heavy, hardcore and badass! That’s essential, I think.”

Phil Demmel, "I’m not the fastest player in the world, but I can write a solo that you’re gonna remember"

Phil Demmel, "I’m not the fastest player in the world, but I can write a solo that you’re gonna remember" (Image credit: Getty Images)


Robb Flynn: “Again, it’s a journey. It has a bunch of cool parts and it ends crushingly. That end riff’s so fucking heavy. You can’t do anything after that. You’re bludgeoned and that’s it… bye! Lyrically, that was the biggest challenge for me out of all the songs. I’ve got three binders full of lyrics for this record and tons of them were for that song. Phil brought the idea of addiction to me, so we started writing about that – not necessarily any one addiction, but addiction as a whole and the addictive mind and obsession. There’s some rich, metaphorical lyrics in there.”

Phil Demmel: “I think Pearls was the first thing I brought in. We were writing and it was new to me again and I wanted to bring something fucking killer in, and that’s what Pearls was. It’s honest, it’s true and it’s genuine, lyrically and musically. Doing this is therapy, man. We’re purging these emotions. We’re sharing the experiences that Robb’s had and that we’ve had. It’s real and it helps us to get up there and share and to see the connections with people. It’s reciprocal. It comes back to us from the fans.”

Dave McClain: “It felt like two separate songs, with a first half and second half. Phil had a lot of the riffs for the first part, and then it kicks in with the fast guitar work in the second half and those were my riffs. We didn’t want to remove it from the record, but we knew it was the one where we felt like ‘We don’t know if we like you or not, but we’re gonna keep you around anyway!’ It’s the hindsight song! When you first hear it, it’s really weird. There’s nothing about it that sucks, but it has a such a weird structure. It might be one of those songs that no one ever wants to hear again or it might be one of those obscure songs that make people say ‘Please play that song!’”


Robb Flynn: “Musically, that song originally started out with the I Am Hell intro riff, and then it went into the opening riff and then it went into a horrible chorus that I fired after a week, saying ‘This sucks!’ I have no problem firing songs or firing big chunks of songs to get something else out of it and then keep the good parts. Then one day my kids were watching TV and I was messing around on my acoustic. My kids were singing along with something and I was just playing some chords and thinking about this lyric I’d written and suddenly there it was, the chorus! This Is The End and Who We Are were written back to back, so I was very much in this mindset of ‘I’m going to be my own man’ and ‘This is who I am and fuck you if you don’t like it!’ I came up with the chorus, fired the whole rest of the song and then worked on this grandiose, symphonic ending with melodies and strings and vocals and harmonies. It’s epic. I almost laughed when I wrote the ‘Into glory we will ride!’ part, because it was so over-the-top. It’s so ridiculously victorious but I decided that it’s killer and I should just fuckin’ sing it! It sounds fucking awesome. It’s one hell of a fucking thought. Dream, believe, into glory we will ride! We all need to believe, man.”

Dave McClain: “I love this song, but it’s a weird one! When we did the first demo it was Who We Are and This Is The End. It was so different when we were writing it because everything was in a major key and really anthemic. It was like ‘Really? Are we doing this?’ and then Robb came in with the hooks and it was such an anthem, and with the kids singing on it too. I don’t have kids and I don’t ever want kids and I never thought I’d have kids singing on a record, but it worked out really good! This isn’t The Blackening part two and there’s no formula going on. If anything we’re trying out more new things than we’ve ever done. It’s fucking awesome.”

Adam Duce: “Who We Are is one of those songs that can mean a lot of different things. That’s something that’s so beautiful and amazing about music, that it can mean something different to everyone. I can equate this song to how we are within the band, but I can just as easily equate it to the fans or to nationalities. It’s really far-reaching. And when I first heard the intro, with the kids singing on it, I totally thought I was gonna cry! I got all steamy and shit. Ha ha! Fuck yeah. It’s just amazing.”

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Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.