On one hand, it’s absolutely to Machine Head’s credit that you go into their 10th studio album with no idea what you’re going to get. On the other, there’s the sense that their various musical experiments and continually rolling cast of members have resulted in a fairly lopsided musical output in the last decade. Robb Flynn and co have proved they can dip their toes into other genres, and while they can be a decent rap metal band, an adequate radio rock outfit and a reasonable folk punk collective, it’s fair to say the only thing they are world-class at is groovy, tightly wound, tornadoes of riffs and fury, and classic, thrashing, heavy metal majesty.
Let’s make no apologies for hoping that Of Kingdom And Crown would see the band lean fully back into the celebrated style of The Blackening. It’s also worth mentioning that this is Machine Head’s first attempt at the notoriously tricky concept album, with an intertwining story of two men: a murderer, and the lover of one of his victims. Imagine the relief, then, when opener Slaughter The Martyr comes in over the 10-minute mark and sounds exactly like all the elements of prime Machine Head. Even better news is that it’s followed by Choke On The Ashes Of Your Hate, which recalls the most frantic bits of debut album Burn My Eyes, and features an unbelievable, face-melting solo from new guitarist Wacław ‘Vogg’ Kiełtyka. Both Vogg and session drummer Navene Koperweiss - formerly of Animals As Leaders – make impressive debuts here, the latter pummelling his kit relentlessly on the brutal Become The Firestorm. Having been written off by many in the aftermath of 2018’s divisive Catharsis, everything so far feels like the work of a band with a point to prove.
After that furious opening, the band go for a more epic and grandiose feel. My Hands Are Empty is a stirring, anguished statement and Kill Thy Enemies is an intense, mid-paced stomper, full of propulsive grooves. As good as all of that is, this isn’t quite a perfect return to form. A slight bit of trimming could have streamlined the album’s exhaustive running time, and the chorus of the otherwise excellent No Gods, No Masters is one of a couple of more anthemic moments that doesn’t grab you as firmly as Machine Head at their best. But, at this stage in their career, with songs such as the magnificently meaty, groove-ridden Bloodshot and Rotten more the norm than the exception on this record, it’s safe to say that Machine Fucking Head are back. Of Kingdom And Crown sounds like an essential part of their canon. Machine Head weren’t entirely broke, but they’ve been fixed all the same.