Splat! Prog thought we knew what to expect from Brighton. Arcades and elegant regency architecture. Hipsters, baristas, DJs and graphic designers. But to our deep regret, as we arrive at the Palace Pier to meet Brit proggers Maschine, we forget to look out for one group of local inhabitants. Within around 10 seconds, one of the region’s infamous cat-sized killer seagulls greets us by depositing a fleck of its bowel contents across our right spectacle lens and down the side of our nose.
Given our coastal location, we should have expected to encounter such creatures. But if you were in search of the lesser-spotted Homo Progrockus, you’d probably look elsewhere for their natural habitat. Leafier pockets of the Home Counties perhaps. Possibly the West Country. Oxford? Cambridge? Is the Canterbury scene still a thing?
No, the musical associations Brighton conjures up tend to relate to the mod revivalism of Quadrophenia or the big beats of Fatboy Slim and his deck-fondling friends. So what drew teenage Cheshire proghead Luke Machin and metal-loving Croydon kid Elliott Fuller to lug their guitar cases all the way down to this neck of the woods?
The answer was the Brighton Institute Of Modern Music, a college for budding rock and pop performers that has spent the last decade and a half nurturing young talent. It’s where Machin and Fuller formed the first incarnation of Maschine seven years ago, around the same time the likes of Tom Odell and James Bay were learning their trade at the same establishment.
Now renamed the British & Irish Modern Music Institute, with sister branches in Bristol, London, Dublin, Manchester and even Berlin, BIMM throws together talent from varying musical and cultural backgrounds and strongly encourages them to jam together. So while Machin and Fuller benefited from the progressively minded tutelage of erstwhile Steven Wilson guitarist Guthrie Govan, among others, they gained just as much from the company of musicians cut from different cultural cloths.
“They take you out of your comfort zone and get you playing with people you wouldn’t normally play with,” Fuller explains, “so you appreciate all different kinds of music. Me and Luke were into Pain Of Salvation and Dream Theater, but they don’t let you just stay in your little musical ghetto. Playing lots of different genres is kind of ideal grounding for making progressive music. It opens up the possibilities of your sound.”
It’s that broad church of influence that can be heard on Maschine’s long-awaited second album Naturalis, an album loosely rooted in prog metal textures but which takes impressive excursions into gently jazzy guitar pop, anthemic goth rock and brooding, impressionistic soundscapes, either side of some short, sharp pulses of dazzling instrumental electricity.
Aided by the warm vocal tones of new keyboard player Marie-Eve de Gaultier, Dan Mash’s fluid bass grooves and James Stewart’s versatile percussion, it firmly establishes Maschine as one of British prog’s brightest prospects. And yet it took them three years to follow up their acclaimed 2013 debut Rubidium, and for some of that time, songwriter and frontman Machin was scared it might not even see the light of day.
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The wiry guitar prodigy has been no stranger to health problems over the years. In his first year at BIMM, he came down with a pneumothorax – in layman’s terms, his lung tore open and he had to have an operation that meant several weeks spent out of action. He recovered from it, however, to complete his studies and win an award for student of the year, and he duly looked after his health thereafter – giving up smoking being one non-negotiable necessity.
For a while, at least, he regarded all this as “a blessing in disguise… it helped focus me a lot more. When something like that happens, you want to focus on the things you really want to do in life.”
In the spring of last year, though, he was knocked for six by another affliction, one not entirely dissimilar.
“I ended up in hospital again, properly ill, as something was bleeding from my throat and I had congealed blood gathering in my chest.”
It was at this point that dark clouds understandably hovered over Machin’s previously positive outlook on life.
“I was thinking, ‘Am I going to ever finish this album?’ I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should make arrangements so one of the other band members can access all my files if I don’t make it out of here…’ I didn’t really believe it would come to that, but you start to worry that it might.”
Thankfully, he recovered, but was advised by doctors to rest, particularly when it came to his voice. That meant the release of the second Maschine album, which was awaiting his vocals, would have to be delayed by label InsideOut until his lungs were fit for the task in hand.
Once again, though, he made the most of the other opportunities the delay provided: “Deadlines got pushed back, but it worked in our favour because we got to really fine-tune the sound and make sure we got everything right.”
As the producer of Maschine, as well as the singer, songwriter and lead guitarist, Machin had given himself a hefty workload. And the last of the jobs on his agenda he tackled with the help of one of Brighton’s other celebrated selling points: sea air.
“I heard you have to get physically fit to get your voice in shape. I spent weeks running up and down the beach, and I managed to gradually build up my lung capacity. It really worked: I find I have a clearer voice now, and I can also sustain notes better, and I have better control of my voice as an instrument.”
In some ways, that scary experience chimes with the central lyrical theme of Naturalis, which takes as its overarching concept the power of nature to brutally remind us of our species’ relatively insignificant place in the universal scheme of things.
Inspired by shocking images of the Japanese earthquake tsunami in 2011, the album’s final track Megacyma puts the listener in the head of a survivor of that cataclysmic event, exploring their feelings of disorientation, terror and finally relief and gratitude.
Night And Day, meanwhile, takes its inspiration from the story of Major Robert Kane, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery after destroying several German tanks at the battle of Arnhem with a PIAT gun, despite having burst eardrums, temporary blindness and a face full of shrapnel. “What struck me was the natural instinct to fight on against overwhelming odds,” says Machin.
Hidden In Plain Sight also takes its inspiration from military history. “It’s about soldiers in World War I who fought in the Alps and the Dolomites, who would be dodging enemy fire on the one hand, but many more were killed in avalanches, from the enemy hidden in plain sight.”
When we meet, Machin and Fuller are preparing for that weekend’s Summer’s End festival, where Machin is guesting with Guy Manning’s Damanek, alongside Maschine bassist Dan Mash. While at BIMM, Machin was already making a name for his fretboard skills, guesting with the likes of Jeff Beck, joining The Tangent and playing as part of Francis Dunnery’s New Progressives project.
Dunnery in particular is a major hero of Machin’s. He grew up with It Bites fans as parents, and learned the guitar by watching VHS videos of the Cumbrian maestro. And as Machin confesses that he and Fuller are “itching” to get back on stage, he also admits that he takes inspiration from Dunnery’s on-stage style.
“He’s such a great performer, letting his emotions show and sharing the performance as if it were personal to every single individual in the audience. There’s almost a theatrical aspect to it – it makes everyone in the audience feel that they’re witnessing something special.”
While we can expect to get our money’s worth of fretboard pyrotechnics and jaw-dropping instrumental excursions, Machin admits that he has strived to make Maschine a more song-centric proposition on this second album.
“That comes with growing up, I think. When I was a teenager I was all about the guitar, but now I want to create good songs and strong, powerful compositions. Even the two 12-minute pieces on this album are essentially good songs, I think, fused with technical ability, rather than focusing on that. I felt the first album was a bit too much about: ‘Look at me showing off and… oh, incidentally, there’s a bit of a tune there too!’”
He’s being a bit harsh on Maschine’s debut to these ears, but if that was the plan for Naturalis then they’ve achieved it with some elan. The startling squawks of guitar noise and blitzkrieg soloing that pierce through Megacyma punctuate a piece that begins with a gorgeous keyboard-led instrumental reverie, then catches fire with a machine-gun riff before turning into a prog‑meets‑symphonic metal epic that’s almost a mini‑album in itself.
They do the simpler stuff exceptionally well too, something you can’t always say about instrumental specialists for whom technical challenges are a raison d’etre. Make Believe’s breathy power ballad would be the envy of a Nightwish or Within Temptation.
Once again, your ears will be pricked up by the beguiling liquid lines that close out A New Reality, but only after the main body of the song has recalled the soft-focus pop of Prefab Sprout.
As such, Maschine are a shining example of young prog musicians pushing the genre forwards in all corners of the country, and using their environment – be that cultural, physical or educational – to their advantage.
Let’s just hope the seagulls don’t get them before they make it to a town near you.
Naturalis is out on November 18 via InsideOut. See Maschine’s website for more information.