Though he tries to limit his walks through the ashes of empires to once in a lifetime, Judge Bill Gibron found this stellar concert by metal heavyweights Machine Head to be a readily repeatable entertainment.
Head-banging at its best
Metal has been mired in an everchanging genre redefinition as of late. Everything, from the pro-God pop pounders P.O.D. to the usual death thrash drone from Europe has been cast into the quagmire, with all factions fighting it out for sonic dominance. Where once a basic blues riff, or a propensity for glam-slam styling got you the hefty hard-rock moniker, it seems every act that piles on the power chords or relies on the double-bass blitzkrieg of their drummer to drive the sound gets lumped into the mix. Rap even stakes its claim to part of the metal mantle, making its case in sharp, staccato tones. Considered one of the last "pure" outfits in this mix, Machine Head almost didn't have a future in the scene. In 2002, they left their long-time label Roadrunner with the promise of greener mainstream—and monetary—pastures. What they ended up with is a lesson in PR promises and a self-financed EPK filled with fallacies.
Determined to be true to themselves, they recorded and released Through the Ashes of Empires (2003) to overwhelming acclaim worldwide (though it took a while before a U.S. distribution deal was found). Embarking on a typically titanic touring schedule, the group decided to document their Brixton Academy show of December 2004. The resulting concert DVD, entitled Elegies, finds the band in bad-ass shape, creating a chaotic cacophony of nuanced noise that blends speed, thrash, death, and prog into a heady brew of blistering bombast. Over the course of 90 amazing minutes, the four- piece band digs into their catalog of classics to overwhelm and enthuse the 5,000 frantic fans who seem to know every lyric by heart. Such devotion is eye opening, considering that the band has had a few personnel changes in its hard-nosed run and was playing with new guitarist Phil Demmel.
Over the course of the show, we hear the following sonic booms:
• "Imperium"—from the 2003 album, Through the
Ashes of Empires
The easiest way to describe Machine Head for the uninformed is to think of a death-mired Genesis laced with genocide, or a merging of Slipknot and Anthrax on amphetamines. This group literally grinds its music out, working complex time signatures and unusual songwriting into a riot of reverb. David McClain has only one drumming mode - foot-pedal frenzied—and lead singer Robert Flynn is more croak than crooner. Yet the interplay between the instruments, the intensity sparked by a simple guitar/guitar/bass combo is incredible. Certainly, many of the songs sound the same, and the untrained ear without insight into the intricacies of the band will be bellyaching on how dissonant and disjointed it all seems. But there's no denying the power in throttling tunes such as "The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears" or "Take My Scars." The Through the Ashes of Empires tunes are tight, uniformly powerful, and pulsating with a maturity that's missing from some of the early bash and bleed numbers. Machine Head are not beyond an occasional acoustic interlude, yet for the most part, this is a great introduction to an about to be mainstream act, as well as a souvenir for fans already sold on this band's bravado.
If there is one disconcerting aspect to this entire production, it's the rampant use of the "F"-word. Now, this critic is not the kind of old fogey that thinks cursing is crass or just plain pointless, but Machine Head uses said fornication epithet like part of the basics of language. No conversation can occur—either backstage or in front of the crowd—without "F-ing" and "F-Ya" pouring out like mindless mantras. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't sound so forced. Indeed, the members of Machine Head (whose fans call them 'Machine F-ing Head', by the way) sound like grade-schoolers giving swearing its first run-through. It is not natural, appears obvious and gratuitous most of the time, and actually diminishes the potency of their performance. Kind of like a throwback to the booze and broads days of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, the surplus of swearing will give people who aren't prepared—and more than a few parents—a real shock. Again, it's not the words; it's the way they are being used.
>From a production standpoint, the concert is mired in a kind of music video mania. The camera never settles on any one aspect of the show—the musicians, the venue, the crowd—for longer than a scant few seconds. The visuals are constantly fighting each other for prominence and the series of mediums used (film, video, HD) renders the image anarchic and just a tad optically oppressive. While it all looks perfectly professional and the 1.33:1 picture presents a great amount of color and contrast, one can't help but imagine what this show would have been like had the editor not suffered from some manner of attention deficit disorder.
The sonic side is even more of a letdown. One of the reasons this show sounds so perfunctory from a performance standpoint is that all we witness is a muddy, mashed-up Dolby Digital Stereo mix. What should be offered here is a full blown 5.1 Surround showcase. Live music needs the spatial ambiance that a multi-channel offering brings. Without it, everything is cramped and crowded. The audience is mostly muffled (though they do get a couple of breakout moments) and the separation between the instruments is almost non-existent. Still, from a purely technical standpoint, this is a decent DVD package.
Without a doubt, the best thing about this release is the fascinating featurette on the making of Through the Ashes of Empires. For 30 minutes, we hear the story of departing band members, unrealistic commercial aspirations, phony promises from misguided major labels, and an overall feeling amongst the group that the album was, in essence, "do or die." Machine Head comes across as thoughtful, genial, and very committed here, giving us insight into their philosophy and goals. Along with a collection of videos (three, with a minor making-of offered for each) and some random behind-the-scenes snippets, we have an interesting and engaging career overview.
Machine Head seems destined for a Billboard chart breakthrough, taking over the well-worn throne recently rejected by many of the big name (Metallica, Korn) international superstars. As long as they stay true to themselves, they seem ordained to triumph. Elegies offers a chance to see Machine Head's ascendance, even though there's more to the story than shredding guitars and screeching vocals. This is a band that takes its metal very seriously. This DVD sort of does the very same thing.
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