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There has been this long enduring cliché among many fans of this band, and other bands that have allegedly declined musically, that their early work is where one ought to go to get the proper listening experience. Generally speaking, while this sentiment holds true to an extent for Machine Head ( if you discount their 2007 offering “The Blackening” ), the sad truth is that there wasn’t really much to this band from the beginning. In many other cases where the sentiment is that the early works are superior, this consequential lack of an actual greatness in the band’s origin also tends to hold true. But “Burn My Eyes” holds a unique position as being one of the most blatant testimonies of a band’s inherent inability to break away from mediocrity even when at their best.
One could probably assert that the problem lays in the groove metal style itself, as it tends to lend itself to a very monotonous mixture of hypnotic riff fragments, nearly redundant restatements of said fragments guising as points of contrast, and a really pedestrian pseudo-tough guy vocal approach that became cliché a year before this came out. Robb Flynn seems all too happy not only to embrace every aspect of this trend, which was very well established circa 1994, but to exaggerate them well beyond what even Anthrax and Pantera were seemingly willing to at the time. His vocal presentation here definitely tends much closer to John Bush than Phil Anselmo, though some obvious allusions to the latter are on full display when he tries to dirty up his voice in an attempt to sound as heavy as Hetfield did on “And Justice For All”. Likewise, the building blocks of the grungy rock character of “Sound Of White Noise” and the hyper-repetitive 3 note chug lines with the frequent and very annoying guitar screams of “Vulgar Display Of Power” are littered all over most of these songs.
But in spite of Flynn’s wildly unoriginal incorporation of the flavors of the post-thrash 90s, the collective strength and metallic nature of “Burn My Eyes” slightly edges out the 2 chief aforementioned influences on it. Flynn actually manages to craft a few solid songs here and there that come somewhat close to an “I Hear Black” sound, taking care both not to over-indulge in lead guitar work to compensate for the watered down riffs as Dimebag Darrel did, nor become a slouch at soloing as Dan Spitz did at the behest of the grunge loving media and promotion whores. The principle winner in the lot is the album’s opener “Davidian”, which listens like a heavily down-tuned and slower progression from Vio-lence’s sound on “Nothing To Gain”. There’s just enough differing riffs and attitude to the vocal delivery without becoming either Grungy or goofy, meshed with a tasteful mix of groovy and double bass happy drumming to make this flirt enough with thrash to actually earn a title such as half-thrash.
Sadly, not long after the close of the lone Machine Head classic, things start to slip away from any semblance of true aggression. “Old” does contain a similar set of simple yet hard hitting and animated riffs as that of “Davidian”, but Flynn’s infamous Bush-inspired clean voice destroys the mood set by the guitars every time the chorus sets in. “A Thousand Lies” also starts off somewhat promising, but deteriorates into a semi-rapped precursor to Limp Bizkit during the verses, though it redeems itself during the solo section where a ratcheted up speed metal section comes seemingly out of nowhere. Basically after this the album deteriorates into a night of the living half-ballads for much of the remaining duration, as the clean guitars and clean vocals usher in a really bland attempt at Alice In Chains worship. There are a couple of fairly decent songs such as the mid-tempo crusher “The Rage To Overcome” and the speed fest “Blood For Blood”, but they generally tend to either overindulge on guitar screams or bad clean vocals.
To recap my initial point, there is no mysteriously great beginning point for Machine Head, just a displaced member of the Bay Area scene who decided to turn with the winds of media opinion. What he brings to the table contains elements of what would later become nu-metal, including the addiction to down tuning to compensate for a lack of inherent heaviness in the riff work, something which even Pantera didn’t delve too heavily into at this point. Though it does carry remnants of the older style, it is easy to see where bands like DevilDriver and Slipknot got their influences from. Many may protest this assertion, but the comparison becomes pretty obvious upon closer review. Speaking for myself, at it’s best, “Burn My Eyes” is a continuing reminder as to why this style of metal bores the hell out of me, and while I can’t quite hate it as I do their later releases, there isn’t really enough for me to like in order to put it on any kind of a pedestal, let alone the one that many have put it on.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on March 18, 2010.