As Machine Head’s Robb Flynn flickers into view on our now obligatory Zoom call (plain, white background, nothing else on screen), he looks happier and healthier than he has in years. Despite losing half of his band back in 2018, when long-time members Dave McClain and Phil Demmel departed on largely amicable terms, Robb has never been more optimistic about the future – and for one reason in particular.
As a follow-up to 2018’s diverse but divisive Catharsis, Machine Head are about to release a new album that, at the very least, is their best since 2007’s The Blackening. The band’s first concept album, Of Kingdom And Crown, is lean, mean, focused and ferociously heavy. If the initial and overwhelmingly positive online response to new songs Choke On The Ashes Of Your Hate and Unhallowed is any indication, Machine Head fans are about to lose their goddamn minds.
“I’ve got really thick skin, especially after the Catharsis cycle,” Robb grins. “My skin is three inches thick. The Catharsis cycle was like nothing I’ve ever dealt with from the metal media. It was really un-fucking-believable. But at this point, I’m just doing my thing. I’ve got a couple of buddies, close friends of mine, and I’ll ask them to give me the pulse, you know? Is there a good vibe? With this album, they were like, ‘Dude! Oh my god, people are freaking out!’ Everybody seems stoked. That’s a first in three decades! Ha ha ha!”
The departure of Dave McClain and Phil Demmel from Machine Head in 2018 could easily have spelled the end for the band. Or at least it could have done, if Robb Flynn wasn’t one of the most fiercely driven, intense and passionate musicians in the entire metal world. Anyone that predicted Machine Head would fizzle out, or perhaps that Robb would embark on a solo career, is guilty of underestimating the man.
“Well, literally on the day that they quit, I started writing [2020 single] Bulletproof! Ha ha ha! You know, I was crying in my hot tub and sad about things, and I just started coming up with riffs.”
Before the two halves of Machine Head went their separate ways, they had the small matter of a major US tour to complete. As Robb explains, the subsequent shows gave him and the fans the chance to give Dave and Phil a fitting send-off, while also bringing in a much-needed chunk of change for all concerned. What could have been awkward and fractious turned out to be a solidly rewarding experience.
“We went on tour for nine weeks, lived on a bus together, ate dinner together, hung out at bars and drank together,” says Robb. “It was different, but it also wasn’t. Many of the shows were great. I know there’s been a bunch of stuff said after the fact, not from my part but from other people [Phil Demmel has made disparaging comments about Robb in several interviews], but for me, we ended it in a very classy way. I got the audience every night to give it up for Phil and Dave and for everything they’ve brought to the band – all the good times, all the good shows, all the great music. We ended it on a classy note and that’s all you can really ask for.”
Machine Head played their final show with the departing duo in Santa Cruz on November 24, 2018. Many people in Robb’s position would have then taken some time to regroup and plan a next move. But as he reveals, Machine Head’s next move was well underway long before the bus wheels stopped rolling.
“Halfway through that tour, Jared [MacEachern] and I went into a studio in North Carolina, because we had a couple days off. It was like, ‘Let’s just write. Let’s just go into the studio and see what comes up.’ We ended up coming up with the music for My Hands Are Empty [another 2020 single and also on Of Kingdom And Crown]. So it was as early as that. I just wanted to stay busy, I just wanted to focus on work and writing music. I didn’t need to think about the future.”
In fact, the next thing Machine Head did was to think about the past. Kicking off in Freiburg, Germany, in October 2019, the Burn My Eyes 25th Anniversary Tour reunited Robb with former members guitarist Logan Mader and drummer Chris Kontos, for a nightly, front-to-back run-through of the band’s classic debut.
At this stage, via their An Evening With… format, Machine Head were routinely playing for in excess of three hours each night. Consequently, Robb had to assemble a second line-up to play a couple of hours of non-Burn My Eyes bangers, this time featuring himself and Jared alongside guitarist Vogg of Polish death metal heavyweights Decapitated, and drummer Matt Alston, formerly of UK black metallers Eastern Front. A potential logistical nightmare, the twin-line-up shows turned out to be a roaring success, and the new Machine Head line-up was road-tested and ready for action.
“Yeah, it was a very unusual situation, and it was awesome! Jamming with Logan and Kontos again for the first time was so cool, and there were literally magical nights with them onstage. Getting to reconnect with them was amazing. When it came to Matt and Vogg, it comes down to personalities a lot. You know, it’s ‘Can I live with this person for 20 months on a bus, which is basically an apartment on wheels?’ I already knew I could live with Matt because I’d already done it for a year and a half when he was my drum tech. For the first year I didn’t even know he played drums! Ha ha ha! But he was always super-mellow and easy.”
Robb goes on to explain that Vogg had been in his thoughts after being bombarded with Decapitated’s music at the gym (“I call it the death metal gym, it’s super-hardcore!”). After exchanging a few emails and attending each other’s shows over the years, the two guitarists eventually had a conversation that led to Vogg asking if Robb would consider him for the new Machine Head line-up. Not surprisingly, the audition process quickly clicked into gear and, one song later, Robb knew he had his man.
“Vogg sent over this test of [him playing] Imperium, and my guy sent it to me, saying, ‘Dude, holy shit!’ I watched it and, oh my god, never has anybody played a Machine Head song better than me, but here I am watching Vogg playing Imperium better than I can, just killing it. So we gave him the rest of the tracks and he just killed those too. I knew he was a road dog. He’s been on the road since he was young. So I basically hired him without even having jammed with him. Eventually I am jamming with him, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I feel like I’ve been playing with this dude for my whole life.’”
The Burn My Eyes tour came to an abrupt halt in February 2020. Exhilarated by the experience, Robb continued work on new material that would emerge as a flurry of standalone singles and EPs during the rest of that year. Robb notes that those songs – Circle The Drain, the aforementioned Bulletproof, Stop The Bleeding (featuring Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach), My Hands Are Empty and Do Or Die – were all about sustaining momentum and keeping the creative juices flowing.
“At first, all I wanted to do was put out songs. I didn’t want to focus on a record,” he states. “I felt a record would take too much time. I love that we’re in an age where I can record a song today and everyone can hear it tomorrow. I wanted to have a constant stream of music coming out – one song, two songs, whatever the case may be. Yes, I guess it’s unconventional and weird, and it was confusing to some people, but I thought it was awesome. It did exactly what I wanted it to do, which was to keep people engaged with Machine Head, instead of waiting four years for an album.”
As much as it was lovely of Robb to keep us occupied over the last few years, the wait for a full-length Machine Head album is over at last. The even better news is that Of Kingdom And Crown is an absolute beast and a nailed-on album of the year contender. A brutal and bruising hour of some of the heaviest and most anthemic songs the band have ever released, it tells the story of two troubled protagonists in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and how their lives collide with bloody, morally complex consequences. If Catharsis was too much of a disparate splurge of ideas for some, Of Kingdom And Crown is the cohesive and compelling antidote.
“I’ve talked about doing a concept album for years,” Robb admits. “To me, most of the time they’re done not very well, but when they are done well, magical. I was crazy about The Wall [by Pink Floyd] when I was a kid. I loved Operation: Mindcrime by Queensrÿche. I’m a huge My Chemical Romance fan and I loved The Black Parade. That’s a desert island record for me. My wife Genevra is really into the story of The Black Parade, and she kept saying ‘You should do a concept record, it’d be killer!’ I said, ‘Well it’s a big undertaking but I’ll give it a shot!’ and it was such a cool experience.”
Initial reports about Of Kingdom And Crown seemed to imply that the record was directly inspired by an anime TV series called Attack On Titan. Robb is at pains to correct the record, noting that while he shares his teenage sons’ enthusiasm for anime and sci-fi in general (“Oh, I’m a total nerd!” he beams), the new Machine Head album tells its own story, with just a hint of …Titan’s morally ambiguous narrative thrown in.
“The thing that was fascinating to me in Attack On Titan is that unlike the traditional American story arc, which is a good guy and a bad guy, good versus bad, there was no good guy and no bad guy. Both sides believed they were doing the right thing, but both sides were committing evil atrocities, and that was fascinating to me.”
For clarity’s sake, Robb provides us with a brief summary of the story behind Of Kingdom And Crown. “There’s character number one, named Ares [pronounced Aries]. He loses the love of his life, Amethyst, and goes on a murderous rampage against the perpetrators who killed her. Character number two, named Eros [pronounced Arrows], he is the perpetrator, the one who killed Amethyst. He loses his mother to a drug overdose, and in his downward spiral, he becomes radicalised by this charismatic leader and he goes on his own murderous rampage. The lyrics detail how their lives intertwine.”
This is new territory for Machine Head and for their chief lyricist in particular. According to Robb, the only song that Machine Head have ever recorded that was written from someone else’s perspective was Days Turn Blue To Gray, from 2003’s Through The Ashes Of Empires, which “was through Genevra’s eyes, and it was about her father”.
“So I’ve written nine albums now, through my eyes and through the lens that I view society,” he states. “This time, I’m not writing as Robb Flynn. I’m writing in this futuristic wasteland, through these two different character’s eyes, who are polar opposites to each other. It was such a fascinating way to write, because now I had to step into this other person’s mindset. It was really cool. I’ve never done anything like it.”
He has a point. Machine Head have never made a record like Of Kingdom And Crown before. From audacious, 10-minute opening metal symphony Slaughter The Martyr and the blistering, Bay Area brutality of Choke On The Ashes Of Your Hate, to the crushing chug-fest of Kill Thy Enemies and insanely catchy, instant anthem No Gods, No Masters, Machine Head’s 10th album amounts to a wholesale upgrade of their trademark sound, with bigger riffs, bigger melodies and a sense of tight-knit destructiveness (props to studio drummer Navene Koperweis, who stood in for a locked-down Matt Alston) that’s pointedly and ruthlessly contemporary. Meanwhile, despite telling a fictional tale, these songs are as emotionally potent and relatable as anything Robb has ever written, and deliberately so.
“I wanted to make it a human story. I didn’t want it to be about robots in the future!” Robb grins. “I can’t connect to that. I wanted it to be about human emotions and that’s what allowed me to connect, through these characters I’m singing about. It has to tap into something that I feel inside of me. It could tap into emotions of sadness, joy or rage, or the murderous impulses that people have. It’s a really dark record. It’s fucking black at times. But then again, a song like Arrows [In Words From The Sky] is maybe the most hopeful song we’ve ever written… even though it’s totally sad and depressing! Ha ha ha!”
Aside from recording a new album, Machine Head have spent the last few years maintaining a vital and relentless online presence. Often seeming to bypass the usual metal media channels, Robb and Jared have been performing weekly shows from Machine Head’s Oakland HQ, streaming it all live and imposing no limits on which songs they play at any given time. Known as Electric Happy Hour, the shows began when Robb started playing acoustic sets as a means to maintain a connection with fans. They proved an immediate hit with Machine Head’s diehard supporters, and have grown in popularity ever since.
“Dude, it’s crazy,” says Robb, looking genuinely bemused. “We’ve done 120 Happy Hours at this point, acoustic and electric, every Friday. We get an average of 1,000 to 1,500 people. On the big ones, the album playthroughs of The Blackening and Burn My Eyes, we’re getting four or five thousand people, and that’s just live. A ton of people who missed it live go and watch it, and that’ll be more like 60-70,000. We’ve found a way to monetise it, because they do cost money, and I’ve got a crew now. But people chip in money and that’s great. It can’t float the band but it can keep the lights on.”
In contrast with many of the costly looking livestream events that took place during the height of Covid, Machine Head’s Happy Hours are knowingly rough around the edges, as Robb and Jared play (and drink) their way through all manner of MH originals and unexpected cover versions. Four years ago, Machine Head seemed to be crumbling. In 2022, they’ve been visibly having more fun than ever before.
“I know a lot of people think I’m a fucking idiot, like ‘What are you doing, playing online? What a loser!’” laughs Robb. “But it’s awesome. I’ve played more over the two years of the pandemic than ever before. I’ve learned more songs than ever before, my fucking chops are ridiculous, I started taking vocal lessons and my clean vocals have improved. Plus, at this point, Jared and I know every single Machine Head song we ever put out.”
With a tour coming up, is that fact making Vogg and Matt a bit nervous?
“Oh yeah, totally. They’re like, ‘Dude, that’s a lot of songs!’ Ha ha ha!”
After Robb declared he was done with festival slots and package tours, the prospect of Machine Head co-headlining any kind of live event seemed remote at best. He notes that there will definitely be more An Evening With… shows in the future, but that the forthcoming Vikings And Lionhearts tour with Amon Amarth was simply too good an opportunity to miss.
“I said no, originally,” he deadpans. “I just wanted to do my own thing. But the more I thought about it, it was a pretty strong package and the Amon Amarth guys are fucking awesome dudes. I felt like it was a great chance to take it to another level. The two of us together could go into arenas, throughout all of Europe and the UK, and that was exciting to me. Machine Head can deliver an arena show. We’ve done it before.”
With the added excitement of a run of Electric Happy Hour Live shows in Scotland, prior to the full arena jaunt, Robb is looking forward to road-testing his new line-up and notching up some new shared experiences.
“Those guys have got to know their shit,” he warns, eyes twinkling. “They’ve got to be ready! I don’t know what the future holds, but I like that framework of a loose, jammy thing, and not doing the same songs every night in a new city. I feel it’s going to take more of that kind of direction in future. I love the freeness of it. I love that you’ve got to constantly think! Touring can be a grind, so having that kind of spontaneity is a blessing.”
Robb leans back in his chair and grins broadly. After our conversation, he is due to head to the lake for some well-earned rest’n’wakeboarding with his family: a rare opportunity to switch off from the band he has led for the last 31 years. But if history teaches us anything, it is that Robb Flynn never stays switched off for long. The past is dead. Machine Head are back, rejuvenated by new blood, inspired by new ways of writing and as unique and undeniable as they ever were. Make way for the new, improved bulldozer that still crushes all.
“I’ll say this: I’m unbelievably proud of this record,” Robb avows. “I felt like we absolutely did everything we could to put in our best performances and our best efforts. All of us are super-proud of what we did. I’m super-proud of all my guys. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. It makes me whole, playing music, and that’s all I want to do.”
Machine Head’s Of Kingdom And Crown album is out now