Machine Head’s The Blackening wasn’t just a comeback album. It wasn’t just a fantastic slab of modern heavy metal. It was the career-revitalising sort of knockout punch that just about any band or artist of any genre would dearly love to conjure up: almost a metal answer to Green Day’s American Idiot in terms of revitalisation.
Having circled the drain of irrelevance for years, mocked for throwing themselves in with nu-metal trappings and abandoning ‘proper’ metal, Machine Head were granted a window of opportunity with the comeback leg-up that 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires brought. They didn’t so much as build upon it as erase all previous sins and false steps from history altogether: all of a sudden, there was only celebrated debut Burn My Eyes and The Blackening – nothing else mattered.
With no shortage of ideas, the band initially struggled to contain their fresh burst of creative energy and turn it into an album, with opener Clenching the Fists of Dissent’s 10 minutes-plus running time prompting concerns from label Roadrunner.
Bravely allowing the songs to exist as they are instead of conducting militant trimming and neutering, The Blackening’s ballsy running times – two at ten minutes and another two at nine minutes – may have prompted fears of wankery and indulgence to begin with, but the execution is carried out with nous and never fully allowing a song to spiral out into something uninteresting.
Said frontman Rob Flynn at the time: So we thought, “You know what? Fuck it, man.” We’re just going to keep on writing these long songs, we’re not going to keep a time on these things; as long as it’s interesting and the song is going somewhere, as long as it’s not turning into Metallica’s St. Anger where it’s 3 riffs for 8 minutes!
While Flynn’s vocal BWWOOOOOOAAARRRR-ing can grate and almost feel one-dimensional, it never holds centre stage long enough to do so, augmented by clean singing, angsty whispering (better than it sounds), and, of course, the music.
Rather than too few ideas being made to dance around in open space, the following Beautiful Mourning and Aesthetics of Hate do the opposite, with more coherence and memory-sticking stuff. The balance isn’t quite always there, and those wishing for far more experimentation, range and dynamics would find the album a hard slog. There is still enough to hold the listener’s attention, however, even with longer songs.
Crucially, Machine Head – consciously or otherwise – ensured that The Blackening would carry a clarity in its production that pricked the ears of wider audiences. This is not to diminish Halo, Now I Lay Thee Down and Slanderous as deliberately aimed at metal radio (evident in Halo’s original nine-minute running time), rather, they so happened to pack thrilling and expertly judged combinations of fuck-you riffs, lightning solos and sufficient memorable hooks to ensure a wider commercial audience for the album and the band’s second coming.
Wolves manages to outmatch all three, mixing urgency and excellent groove. It somehow manages this without the overt hooks of the aforementioned, but is carried along by tasty seismic riffing that retains a hand around the throat for the duration.
Closer A Farewell to Arms, bookending the album as another 10-minute monster to pair with Clenching…, sees impassioned lyrical pleas about I-wonder-which-war-that-could-be and more of the same. Not one-dimensional, but perhaps one-flavour. Either that or the band’s sound is/was so inherently unnervingly brutal and standoffish that hoping for slightly proggy or adventurous breathing space (more than the carefully-deployed clean intros and passages here and there) is pathetically futile.
Retrospectively, however, this is a large shadow that looms over the entire album: a crucial soul element, that extra something that, successfully interwound with the music, gives it more personality and ensures repeat listens, staving off accusations of being bland, and saving the album from simply being a load of well-executed shouty thrash widdle groove stuff.
The album is meaty as fuck and great fun to chew on, but a little balladry seasoning or vocal-variety barbecue sauce would make it truly enjoyable to eat. While this observation naturally has no real bearing on the album’s very apparent success and the part it played in Machine Head’s return to relevance, it is difficult to avoid. It is most likely a completely subjective opinion brainfart.
So: while perfectly enjoyable and competent, the production is rather cold and unfriendly – admittedly a strange term to employ when discussing an album brimming with white-hot fury like The Blackening, but it repositions the record as one employed for a particular mood, e.g. when you feel like levelling a city, rather than one you’d plop on during a rainy day. It is with no small degree of regret that the author never experienced the album in a live setting, however, as The Blackening is probably best understood when kicking the living shit out of someone, such is its unrelenting anger.