Difficult to fathom
Of every album in Machine Head’s catalogue this is the most forgotten, and with good reason. The band manages to write some of their most confused and unfocused material for this album, and as a result this is their least consistent and most uneven work. On top of that, given the band in question it’s naturally a grating, 4th tier exercise in amplifying the worst aspects of whatever sound they’re playing this time round – in this case the band stopped being an imitator of Pantera with a penchant for half-ballads and down-tuning and instead started moving towards playing nu-metal.
In truth the sound on this album isn’t really nu-metal, but the alternative rock influences present on Burn My Eyes are now consistently pushed to the forefront of the music. The grooves are simpler and muddier than before, and there is an increased reliance on two note drones and more percussive chugging. None of the riffs or guitar lines on this album are really memorable or interesting – at no point are any real hard-hitting, massive grooves or any kind of thrash-influenced riffing attempted at all and any grooves on the album amount to nothing more than rejected Chaos A.D. material. There is some usage of the alternative rock chord strum for more melodic material, particularly when clean vocals are used. Another feature of the music is the heavy usage of guitar squeals, which are supposed to create a tense atmosphere of sorts but simply grate on the ears and make songs like ‘Ten Ton Hammer’ truly painful to listen to. This mish-mash of techniques and confused sound makes for an uneven listen, because it’s never clear what the band is going for in any one song – are they trying to be percussive or atmospheric? Melodic or atonal? Driving or droning? It’s very confused music that has no clear objective or focus.
From the guitar tone lacking the same bite it had on Burn My Eyes to the the reduced presence of the riffs in favour of guitar noise, the bass or silence, the band are obviously trying to make their music more atmospheric in a nu-metal sort of way, and then marry that to their heavier groove metal sound but it falls very flat, as the way the band go about it here makes for a dreadful compromise. They haven’t fully taken the plunge into nu-metal territory so the music is more guitar driven than you’d expect; the guitar tone is more percussive and has more impact than most nu-metal and yet the reduced presence of the riffs means the guitarists play very static, uninteresting material. As a result of this the band spends most of any given song trying to be heavy and aggressive but not having the riffs to do so, resulting in a lot of the album being very bland. Because the guitars are the focus of the music, any time they drop out of the music it completely breaks the flow of the song and any time they start squealing it becomes unbearable because the noise is too loud. This is the result of the indecisiveness on the band’s part; a set of musically confused songs that fail at everything they attempt to do.
Complicating matters further is Robb’s vocal performance, which serves to completely ruin any semi-decent moments the band might stumble into once in a while. His hardcore influenced shout lacks punch and impact much like the music behind him, and as a result he doesn’t actually sound all that aggressive. This further robs any power from the album’s heavier moments as he doesn’t have the commanding, powerful voice needed for this kind of music; contrast this performance with Phil Anselmo on Far Beyond Driven and decide who does the better job of being aggressive. His clean vocals are even worse – used during the quiet and melodic moments of the music, they are particularly whiny and weak and ruin the mood. It doesn’t help that they are far more exposed than the shouting, so they are the only focus of the music. His distorted whispering to the sound of guitar squealing is perhaps the worst though, as at these points the music stops being grating and actually becomes painful to listen to.
The songwriting makes matters even worse, as the band see fit to try and be ‘progressive’. While they don’t hover around the 7-10 minute mark for the entire album like they would later on, every song on the album is still too long and contains only a handful of ideas, each largely unrelated to one another. They tend to dwell on a given idea for most of the song while sticking to verse-hook structures with poorly placed ‘atmospheric’ sections and other assorted nonsense for good measure. None of the songs really flow, rather every track feels like a grab bag of assorted ideas as the band meander from one hook to the next. None of the songs are terribly catchy despite their attempts at accessible hooks, mostly due to bad singing and lacklustre vocal lines.
There’s no real reason to listen to this album. Everything the band tries to do falls flat due to numerous deficiencies in performance, production and songwriting, every song manages to be grating and boring, nothing really sticks out for a positive reason and the whole thing just lacks focus. It’s a mess, one which makes The Blackening look positively cohesive and properly written.