And so it begins... 18 tracks of a capella vocals sung by guitarist and lead vocalist Robb Flynn to a haunting, sombre melody sung completely in Latin. The words he's singing? "Sangre Sani" (Blood Saint), "Bellator Inferni" (Warrior of Fire), "Caede" (Murder), "Edemarde" (Suicide) and ending with the whispered "death", accentuating part one of a three-movement Sonata in C# entitled "I Am Hell". The narrative within the language is goosebump-worthy subject matter; the tale of a female arsonist is played out in three movements after fellow shredder-in-arms, lead guitarist Phil Demmel suggested writing a song about an arsonist to Flynn. As Flynn would discover in his research, "female arsonists are considered the monsters of the psychological field, because where man commits horrible acts out of anger or for control or domination, when a woman does so, the only explanation for this incomprehensible behavior... is love". As the eight-minute-plus opener fades out to the sounds of dual-classical guitar and cello one thing is very clear, Machine Head have every intention of carving their own path, marching forward with little concern for what other bands within their genre might be doing. With their seventh album Unto The Locust, Machine Head have fans and critics from around the globe swarming around them to witness the game-changing aural destruction that they are set to unleash.
"It's a natural progression from 2007's 'The Blackening', but make no mistake, we did not want to write 'The Blackening II'" explains lead singer and guitarist Robb Flynn. On its face not a bold statement, but given the high praise heaped upon the aforementioned album, many critics proclaiming it the Metal Album of the Year, and some going so far as to crown it Album of the Decade, or single out the Riff of the Decade, why change what's already a proven commodity? "We wanted to challenge ourselves. All we heard was 'How are you going to top The Blackening?'" explains Flynn of Unto The Locust's Grammy-nominated predecessor. "I just started writing on classical guitar, and when I had something I called Dave [McClain, drummer] in and we just jammed it. 'This Is The End' is one of the most technically brutal and fast songs we’ve ever done. It was a massive challenge that we weren't good enough to even play yet. That just set the whole thing at a really high bar and we went from there." Yet for all of the changes on Unto The Locust, the more things have also managed to stay the same. Flynn jokes, "We still can't seem to write a damn song under six minutes."
Regardless of their length however, the songs that comprise Unto The Locust are tight and expertly-crafted, honed with the deft touch of a rapier, yet replete with the thundering pummel of a ten ton hammer. Machine Head's patented harmonics are on display, but now they are offset by nimbly-plucked classical guitar and a string quartet, providing an extraordinary sonic interplay that produces a sort of simultaneous intellectual and guttural reaction. In other words, when you hear a blistering thrash track like "This Is The End", it is undeniably Machine Head, but even further refined and improved upon. "We wanted to keep the core Machine Head sound - thrashing, down-tuned guitars, psychedelic tones, and sad melodies" Flynn offers, "but we wanted to make it bigger, more epic. Our rule was, if we got goosebumps from it, we kept it."
The band sought to capture said goosebumps at Green Day's Oakland, CA. JingleTown Recording compound, with Flynn handling production duties for the third consecutive time, and mixing done at JingleTown by engineer Juan Urteaga and Flynn (who flew back to Oakland from the road on every day off during the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival), along with Colin Richardson and his UK-based team of Carl Bown and Martyn Ford. Unto The Locust would be recorded and mixed over the course of 4 months and would even see the band bring in a string quartet by the name of Quartet Rouge, who would end up on no less than three of the album's seven songs.
"Only seven songs?!" screamed A&R Svengali Monte Conner. Flynn laughs as he fondly recalls his longtime A&R man's reaction to the good news. As it turns out, this seven-song album is 50 minutes long, and while it boasts no ten-minute tracks a la The Blackening, "a few 7 and 8 minuters are on hand" laughs drummer / Riff of the Decade-winner Dave McClain, "most importantly it feels like an album." The tracks within veer from the introspective to the downright belligerent. "Be Still and Know", while taking it's name from Psalm 46 of the New Testament, is an unholy rollercoaster ride of a song, at times bludgeoning, at times beautiful, but ultimately hopeful. "It's about struggle, and overcoming struggle, and knowing that the light at the end of the tunnel is only there if that light shines inside of you", explains guitarist Phil Demmel. "Darkness Within" is as much of a ballad as Machine Head have ever composed and shows the band spreading its wings both sonically and lyrically. A song about the redemptive power of music, it's an open wound, at once dripping with emotion and keeping you at arm’s length. Closing with the anthemic "Who We Are", it features some of Flynn's most unapologetic lyrics to date and begins with a choir of children that features his own two sons, Phil's son, and engineer Juan Urteaga's two daughters singing the intro over a lonely acoustic guitar, marching snares and strings.
Unlike the titular insect which is prone to flying directionless, unable to control its flight, Machine Head has been on a steady and well-earned ascent for the better part of a decade. From their recent Grammy nomination to being hand-picked to open for Metallica in both the U.S. and Europe for a six month stretch, Machine Head's record sales and tour numbers continue to grow even in the face of a crumbling music business. It’s hard to nail down exactly why this is. As is so often the case, it is a culmination of a number of intangibles, the most prevalent of which is their unswerving integrity to stay true to themselves. Machine Head doesn't compromise. They write the music they love and love to play and deliver it live on an unparalleled level. Flynn chalks it up to the band's willingness to take risks. "People have respected all of the musical risks we have taken, maybe a little confusing at first, but each allowed us to expand our horizons. It’s not something every band does. People respect when you make courageous moves like that."
One can fully appreciate the band's current level of success by looking back on their less-than-glamorous beginnings in what was, at the time, a barren metal-less early 90's Bay Area in which a once-thriving metal scene had all but dried up. "It was such a weird time" remembers bassist Adam Duce, "everyone stopped wanting to be heavy and played radio metal or played this horrible funk metal that was getting popular, we were like 'what's wrong with playing heavy?'" And so they did, from beer- and vodka-fueled rehearsals in a small Emeryville, CA. warehouse that they shared with 4 punk rock bands, to stickering and flyering relentlessly to get the word out, to playing their first house and kegger parties, to local shows with the likes of Rancid, Deftones and Napalm Death. The band's first demo - recorded for $800 in a friend's bedroom, with their amps in the bathroom - was a very rough estimation of their burgeoning sound: a combination of the aggression of metal and punk, and the social anger of urban rap, intertwined with hypnotic Alice In Chains-esque vocal harmonies. It was this demo that eventually made it into the hands of Roadrunner Records, setting into motion the course of events that would lead to the 1994 release of their groundbreaking debut, Burn My Eyes.
Resplendent with some of the heaviest guitar tones ever heard in metal thanks to their pioneering use of what is known as "dropped tuning", a type of tuning that allowed them to have a heavy low string while maintaining higher tunings for the rest of the guitar and create harmonics that were in tune with the lowest string - something every metal band on the planet would soon emulate. Machine Head's sound would soon serve as the template for much of the 'metal' sound that dominates the aggressive music market today. But there was something different about Machine Head, something that wasn’t quite right. Never really fitting in with whatever musical trend happened to be the metal world's fancy at any given time garnered the band an intense devotion from their fans (affectionately dubbed "Head Cases”). For years Machine Head have existed on the outer fringes of the metal scene, never being fully understood, and as such never being truly accepted by the music media. But over the course of a staggering and often controversial seventeen-year career, the band have managed to maintain and expand a fanbase so large and rabidly loyal that the world at large had no choice but to take notice. With a 'fuck it all' mentality and a fierce determination to carve their own path, Machine Head blocked the outside world and forged over time what would become the defining sound of modern metal.
As with any band that stands strong through a near twenty-year career, there are always ups and downs, but as the beginning of the new millennium would prove, more than ever Machine Head would bow down to no one when it came to their musical output. With nary a radio single to be had, on either 2003's Through The Ashes Of Empires or 2007's The Blackening, they challenged themselves and each other to write records that would demolish all of their boundaries, and the result was the most structurally complex and technical material that Machine Head had recorded up to that point. Three-part guitar and bass harmonies, dueling solos and savage thrash intricacy were positioned alongside soaring three-part vocal harmonies that ultimately crashed head-first into bludgeoning, Neanderthal riffage. Machine Head created the blueprint for the modern metal masterpiece. But not all would see it that way. Like their controversial "Davidian" video that was banned by MTV in 1994, 2007 would find Machine Head's lyrics the focus of controversy, and this time the ramifications would be much farther reaching, as conservative forces in the U.S. would see them banned from certain venues citing their fans as "violent" and "the wrong element" with "inflammatory lyrics" as the reason, likely stemming from strong anti-war sentiment and the dark, at-times depressing lyrics found on each release. But in the end they could not be stopped, with the help of many they would clamor and find last minute venues so their die-hard fans could still see them, and in the end, publications worldwide rushed to heap accolades upon the band, with their peers both within (Metallica) and outside of the metal world (the Grammy board) voicing their clear and unanimous opinion that Machine Head heralded a whole new age.
Now, on the eve of the release of Unto The Locust, by far the most daring and complex album Machine Head have ever created, we await an album written by true music fans for true music fans. Not the mainstream pop world, or an internet hit here-today-gone-later-today world that seems so confusingly prevalent. But for the person who knows that music can save them, or those who it may have already saved... as the words bellowed from frontman Robb Flynn's soul scream out on the haunting acoustic track "Darkness Within", "pray to music build a shrine, worship in these desperate times, fill your heart with every note, cherish it and cast afloat, because God is in these clef and tone, salvation is found alone, haunted by its melody, music it will set you free... let it set you free." That is who Unto The Locust is for.