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I like Machine Head. Let's get that out of the way. They aren't my favourite band, they don't even play my favourite genre of music. But I do not understand why this album, nor any of Machine Head's albums (save for a couple) have got such poor review scores.
If you are an impartial listener, you should love this album. There's riffs, leads, hooks and actual songs. I admit some of those songs are overrated.
"Davidian" for example, gets way more praise than is due. Yeah, I like it when Robb Flynn shouts, "Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast" as much as the next guy, but it's not a classic moment. The riffs pound along very nicely and the outro riff is a touch of class in a genre where there isn’t a great deal, though some of the structuring and the solo fail to strike me as amazing as I write this.
What we do have on this album, though are several other classic moments. There's "Old" which has more exciting riffs than most bands manage in an album; there's "None But My Own" that has a solo that seems to push further and further into the beyond, exceeding itself with every note; there's real brutality on "Blood For Blood". It’s this last song particularly that sets Machine Head apart from everything else happening in 1994. Apart from a few bands, the real feeling in the music had started to wane: “Blood For Blood” has a solid opening, which gives the main riff even more venom and comparative speed. Flynn spits out the lyrics and the solo really hits home.
“Old” isn’t quite as vicious but there’s complexity and groove (not in the negative sense of the word) that makes me want to get to my feet and shout the words along with the band. The chorus is lacking in creativity and tune but really doesn’t detract from the onslaught of guitars.
Really, the so-called "classic" moments on this album are the weakest. The opener suffers from it a bit, "Block" isn't all it's cracked up to be, although I wouldn't argue with it in a mosh pit, since it has that sledgehammer riff and a great refrain. "A Thousand Lies" and "A Nation On Fire" are both slow to pick up, but really develop into good songs, the latter in particular comes to life as the chorus begins.
“Death Church” has a relatively slow start too, but is just creepy, with a repetitive melody and more emotive lyrics, touching on the alienation and hatred in the Bay Area that Flynn comes back to a couple of times in the album. “I’m Your God Now” has a similar aesthetic but is far more emotive, with the theme of drug addiction cropping up amid the choking grooves and thick sound.
The only weakness I can easily pick out on this album is the vocals which, along with the pacing, can just cause the fire to die a bit. Robb Flynn had a fairly good voice, but he's best when he's singing at pace in his gruff voice; really he didn't have the skill to carry a tune in the slow sections in 1994.
But I like it. The production causes the guitars to bite, which I don't believe happens enough in true thrash metal (not that I'm saying MH are true thrash, that's just something I feel) and the groove increase the catchiness factor quite a bit. To be honest, how many people who criticise this album today were aware of the shitty state of real thrash in the middle of the '90s? Machine Head didn't exactly save the day, but they certainly didn't ruin it either and they're still quickening my pulse with songs like "Old", "Blood For Blood" and "Death Church" 16 years on.