We can still remember the sheer exhiliration of Machine Head's first foray into headlining arenas in the UK. It was winter 2007 and the band had released the masterpiece that was The Blackening earlier that year and their first (UK) gig in support of the record was played at Wembley Stadium, supporting Metallica no less. 16 years as a band and Machine Head were finally at the top of the totem pole, co-headlining arenas with rapidly rising upstarts Trivium and supported by Dragonforce, Arch Enemy and Shadows Fall.
It felt like an epic moment of triumph and while their ascent never quite reached Metallica peaks (who has?), there's no denying that in the 15 years since Machine Head have followed nobody's path but their own, turning their backs on the festival circuit in favour of playing their own gigs, sprawling three-hour epic events that were unlike just about anything else anyone was doing in metal.
And now, here we are: Machine Head are back in arenas for the first time in a little over a decade, an incredible new album in the bank and joined by a phenomenal bill of Amon Amarth and The Halo Effect. Expectations for this tour are, frankly, sky high and we're pleased to report: this bill is fucking fantastic.
Openers The Halo Effect might be a new name to most, but its members certainly shouldn't be. Having all served terms in Gothenburg icons In Flames at one time or another - and with Dark Tranquility's Mikael Stanne up front - The Halo Effect feel like the colossal ambition of Gothenburg's melodeath scene brought to fruition.
Guitar leads that could come straight from Iron Maiden mingle with snarls and howls from the bowels of hell, but its in the enormity of their choruses that The Halo Effect shine brightest. Their debut album Days Of The Lost has only been out for a few weeks, but the songs bypass appraisal to demand total attention, making the band a perfect warm-up for a night of enthusiastic crowd participation.
"Heathens of Nottingham, we want to have a massive battle with you!" Amon Amarth need no introduction, but singer Johan Hegg's opening statement is plenty to get the crowd fired up. A massive explosion marks their entrance to the stage and sure enough, before the first chorus of Guardians Of Asgaard hits we're being treated to an eyebrow singeing barrage of pyro.
Flanked by gigantic inflatible Viking warriors, Amon Amarth have one of the most involved stage set-ups this side of Iron Maiden and all the tricks are pulled out for their arena stint: on-stage battles, a glowing-eyed Loki, a Viking ship, a gigantic sea serpent (which Johan beats the ever-loving shit out of with a massive Mjolnir).
Even if you've seen Amon Amarth a million times before, this feels like a wonderful highlights reel of everything brilliant about the Swedish Viking obsessives. Hegg strides the stage with a confidence that makes it feel inconceivable that the band could ever have fit in a smaller room.
For all the stunning on-stage theatrics - and there's plenty to drink in - the simple fact is Amon Amarth have got to where they have with an incredible arsenal of anthems. Get In The Ring, First Kill, Shield Wall and Raise Your Horns are legitimate singalongs, bypassing the usual extreme metal tendency to avoid anything resembling melody in favour of crafting songs which have hooks you could reel in the Titanic with, but also the heft and nastiness of a headsman's axe.
Granted, Hegg doesn't seem to grasp that crowd participation is best kept simple. His command for the crowd to sing an entire verse of Pursuit Of Vikings soon falls to confused (and hilarious) mumbling after the first line, but the fact thousands of fans are willing to even try is testament to how beloved and exciting Amon Amarth are.
Live debuts of Heidrun and Put Your Back Into The Oar prove Amon Amarth aren't done building massive anthems into their set, either. The former ends with a spray of yellow confetti coating the crowd, while the latter provokes one of the most beloved traditions of any Amon Amarth show: the crowd get down and start rowing in time to the song. With a suitably apocalyptic Twilight Of The Thunder God finishing their set, Amon Amarth depart as the heavy metal conquerors we've always known them to be, more than worthy of the jump up to arena-sized venues.
After the sheer spectacle of Amon Amarth, it's hard to imagine how Machine Head will be able to match them. But Robb Flynn and co. haven't wracked up 30 years in this industry for nothing, and sure enough as soon as they hit the stage they deliver a masterclass in top-tier metal.
It doesn't hurt that Machine Head have some of the biggest grooves and choruses in metal anyway, but the band aren't taking prisoners for the opening night of the tour. Become The Firestorm is an utterly incendiary way to kick off the set, Robb's near-catchphrase of "are you ready for a fast one?" more a promise than a rhetorical question as the band take off like a nitro-fuelled rocket.
If there was any question as to how this new lineup of Machine Head would work together, it's quickly quashed as the band absolutely annihilate the opening run of Firestorm, Imperium and Now We Die. Even without all the stage adornments their top-shelf peers can bring to bear, Machine Head can hold court with just about any band on the planet when it comes to delivering an experience that is second to none.
Every element of their set is built around the notion of involving the crowd and whipping them up into a frenzy. Whether it's Robb's commands for circle pits, sing-alongs, headbanging or cheers, the sheer enormity of the riffs and choruses brought to bear or Robb's words of encouragement to introduce songs, there's a sense of community at the heart of a Machine Head show that makes the event truly feel like a scene coming together.
When the pyro does kick in again, its a towering wall of flame that covers the stage as the band play an explosive I Am Hell. But even then, things ocurring off-stage are just as exciting as what is going on up front, the floor literally opening as a cyclone of bodies hurtle around in an arena-sized circle pit. Further proof - as if we needed it - that Machine Head shows are all about a shared experience, a love that is vocalised in the persistent roars of "Machine Fucking Head" that puncutate every gap in the set.
Tributes to both Dimebag Darrel and Vinnie Paul are paid in Aesthetics Of Hate, and there are teething issues when Robb tries to break out the acoustic guitar for Locust, but the love for Machine Head prevails over all and Robb's dedication of Darkness Within to anyone suffering with mental health issues betrays the genuine love and gratitude the metal icon has for his fans after all this time. "We know shit's been hard," he says. "Shit's been hard for you guys too. You may have wanted to off yourself, but just know: right now you're in a room full of people that love you."
Its a beautiful sentiment, and a powerful statement of triumph from a man who's had more than his fair share of setbacks and tribulations in recent years. Still, Robb Flynn perserveres, and heavy metal is better for the fact - the closing double-hit of Davidian and Halo sending Nottingham off into the night with a ringing in the ears and grins that could make the Cheshire Cat look dour. Machine Fucking Head - accept no substitutes.
The Vikings and Lionhearts tour is in the UK and Europe from September 8 to October 22. For the full list of dates, visit Machine Head's official website (opens in new tab).
Machine Head are on the cover of this month's Metal Hammer - order your copy now (opens in new tab).
Alternatively, order your copy (opens in new tab) of Hammer's Amon Amarth bundle.
Amon Amarth setlist, Nottingham Motorpoint Arena 8/9/2022
Guardians of Asgaard
The Great Heathen Army
Deceiver Of The Gods
Get In The Ring
The Pursuit Of Vikings
The Way Of Vikings
Put Your Back Into The Oar
Raise Your Horns
Twilight Of The Thunder Gods
Machine Head setlist, Nottingham Motorpoint Arena 8/9/2022
Become The Firestorm
Now We Die
No Gods No Masters
I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)
Aesthetics Of Hate