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Feeding the Machine is the second and (to date) last solo recording by guitarist and studio wizard James Murphy. Murphy's credentials as a guitarist speak for themselves; tenures with death metal legends Death and Obituary and thrash metal masters Testament as well as several quality studio guest appearances, production jobs, and a turned down request to be Dave Mustaine's six string wing-man in Megadeth, have made Murphy's a well known and highly respected name in the world of heavy metal guitar playing. With a resume like his, it is easy to suspect that any solo album done by this Floridian metal master would be a masterpiece. But as is the case with all solo albums put out by metal musicians, I was wary when finding this album and buying it.
What really makes "Feeding the Machine" special is the all star musical cast that Murphy assembled behind himself. These guys are far from being background musicians, they actually make huge contributions to the overall sound of the album. Keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij and Matt Guillory lace each track with a variety of pleasing synths and samples that only further the futuristic atmosphere. Drummers Dean Castonovo, Chris Kontos, and Jeremy Colson provide powerful percussion work with tempos of laser-esque precision. Bassists Steve DiGiorgio and Stu Hamm provide wonderful fretless bass lines that slither viciously through each song. To top it off, the vocal lineup of Chuck Billy, Clark Brown, John West, and Chris Long all function perfectly within their selected songs. Their vocals are similar enough to hold a level of consistency to the album and its atmosphere, but they are also uniquely distinct and add enough flavor to the songs to make one stand out from the other.
However, this poses an interesting question? When one listens to Feeding the Machine, it is not a question of what is being listened to, but who is being listened to. Should this really be considered a James Murphy solo album, or a James Murphy and company album? Would this album have been of the same quality is now if Murphy had not bothered to recruit all the session musicians and had forsaken their contributions?
I'm inclined to say no. Great instrumental solo albums by prominent guitarists such as Joe Satriani's "Surfing with the Alien" and Steve Vai's "Passion and Warfare" put the guitar at the center of the music and make the guitar an extension of their creative process. The guitar to them becomes like a well trained circus dog riding a skateboard. It connects with the listener because electric guitar music is familiar to us yet wows us because virtuosos like Vai and Satriani do things with the guitar the listener did not think was possible through technique and theoretical understanding and make the guitar sound ways it could not sound, just as the dog connects to us with it's familiarity as a friendly pet but wows us with an ability we did not know it could master or even possess.
Murphy does not do this on Feeding the Machine. Unlike Vai and Satriani, Murphy does not really put his guitar work on all that big of a display. Yes, the solos are absolutely face melting at moments and I love Murphy's economy picking and jazz like legato runs, but most of the time the guitar just sort of fades into the background when it should be out front. Too often Murphy is more then content to simply play guitar like he's in another band, merely being a piece to the musical puzzle on an album where he should be the centerpiece. The instrumental tracks (discarding the Al Di Meola cover "Race with the Devil on Spanish Highway") show that Murphy can make very strong riffs and execute extremely technical progressions seamlessly along with brilliantly composed technical masterpieces of solos, but on the other tracks the guitar kind of takes a back seat to everything else. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I actually wish Murphy's guitar work to dominate Feeding the Machine the way Kobe Bryant dominates a Lakers game.
But what if you are like me and abhor solo guitar albums seem as pretentious as Kobe Bryant's ball hogging isolation moves? Well then maybe you will appreciate Feeding the Machine. Credit must be given where it is due for Murphy's ability to integrate himself with a great band of virtuoso level musicians, something I cannot say more well known contemporaries such as Rusty Cooley and David Shankle are capable of. Where those guys are more then content to produce an endless stream of shreded notes, Murphy is more then content to use his guitar to augment the overall sound of the music. And there is something to say about being a compatible team player who sacrifices individual notice for the greater good of the band. If you are the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, then maybe you will love Feeding Machine. And by those standards, I should love it as well. But I do not. This is an album where I want Murphy to shine above everyone and everything else present, but he does not.
One could look at Feeding the Machine then as being somewhat similar Control Denied's album The Fragile Art of Existence. The Fragile Art of Existence, while being different in that it is not a solo album but the work of a band, is similar in that it is the result of a musical vision by guitarist Chuck Schuldiner (one of Murphy's more famous ex bandmates). The Fragile Art of Existence is the culmination of all of Chuck's ideas into a final creation that represents what Chuck thought was his perfect musical creation. I tend to believe that Murphy had a similar vision when he created Feeding the Machine. It is not so much an album designed to put Murphy and his guitar skills on a musical pedestal, but it is what Murphy thinks is the ultimate result of his quest to produce his ideal and perfect metal album. But the key difference between Feeding the Machine and The Fragile Art of Existence is the fact that Chuck Schuldiner let it be known both by word and musically that The Fragile Art of Existence was the result of a band creating music together. Feeding the Machine on the other hand is deceptive in that we think Murphy is the driving force behind the music, but in reality he is more then content to be a team player on an album where we except him to take charge and wow us with his lead guitar work the same way Vai, Satriani, and even Schuldiner do. Those guys show us what they have accomplished with a guitar in their music. James Murphy is more then content however to just be a member of the band on Feeding the Machine, a misleading album should not be called a James Murphy album.