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Consummate American Metallers Machine Head Give A Performance For The Ages In Worcester, Massachusetts

Photo of Machine Head

Band Photo: Machine Head (?)

September 29, 2007. The date of Machine Head’s gig at Montreal’s late and lamented Le Medley, holding the distinction of the most claustrophobic and brutally violent metal show I’ve ever attended. Now a few years older and wiser – and with a job to do – I had little intention of getting physical on February 4, 2012, but what this date of “The Eighth Plague” tour would surely lack in danger to my person, I expected it to make up enormously in scale, scope, and overall grandeur.

My photographer Tanya and I arrived early at the Palladium in Worcester, Massachusetts, for an interview on the band’s tour bus with longtime drummer Dave McClain. Among prominent metal musicians, Dave is about the humblest and softest-spoken gentleman I’ve met in quite a while. Following this success, we prepped for an evening of photos and extreme music, rendezvousing with some esteemed metal journalism colleagues in the process. It was barely a blink of an eye before the first round began with Virginia’s Darkest Hour.

Despite the band's hometown’s relative proximity to my own, I never fully hopped on the Darkest Hour train. I appreciated the Victory Records debut “So Sedated, So Secure” back in 2002, and caught snippets of “Hidden Hands Of A Sadist Nation” in 2003, but for inexplicable reasons, failed to keep up with the band's career since. As a result, I was woefully unfamiliar with Darkest Hour's rather brief set of aggressive, melodic American New Wave – or melodic metalcore, if you want to be that way – but nonetheless satisfied. A first opener’s job is a difficult one, especially for tonight’s particular headliner, and Darkest Hour got things off to a punchy and precise start. Making an early appearance in the pit, and upping the gymnastic fist-swinging “bro” factor, were several of the Xtreme Sports Punks featured in “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle,” but the more, the merrier.

Occupying the more enviable direct support slot was a real bone of contention if ever there was one. SoCal’s Suicide Silence boast no small following of its own, and the group's current pairing with Machine Head has fated the two bands’ occasionally… different fan bases to mingle. The mixed reaction to an admittedly impressive, grandiose entrance – rabid enthusiasm and lukewarm tolerance – made this apparent.

Frontman Mitch Lucker is quite friendly and good-natured in person, and possesses all the right stuff of a true crowd-pleaser, but I couldn’t help but chuckle as he emerged sporting a new short haircut and womanly V-neck shirt: “Hey, it’s K.D. Lang!” Fashion ribbing aside, Lucker’s caffeinated showmanship alone kept Suicide Silence’s entertainment value afloat. I gave their latest disc “The Black Crown” a good review last spring, but in a live setting, their downtuned brand of murderous slam-riffing devolved into droning, breakdown-based repetition. Plus, I’m no vocal coach, but I fear that one day, Lucker will really, really hurt himself. All told, I’m of two minds about Suicide Silence tonight, and on the positive side, they deserve points for delivering a sledge of brawny, undeniable heaviness worthy of their headlining elders.

What can I say about one of my favorite bands of all time; a band whose music and lyrics have helped me through some of my darkest periods; to whom I penned an honest-to-goodness snail mail fan letter in high school? It took me three whole days to process the words. Machine Head were downright monstrous. Occupying the stage to frontman Robb Flynn’s haunting a cappella strains of “Sangre Sani” (a personalized blend of Spanish and Latin meaning “Blood Saint”), the band launched an eight-plus minute opener “I Am Hell” to a crowd reaction normally reserved for Edinburgh’s soccer audiences… at least when their teams are victorious.

The tracklist of Machine Head’s career-topping 2011 masterwork “Unto The Locust” continued with “Be Still And Know.” The sheer length of the opening cut had given the venue’s staff a clever excuse to restrict official photography from the first three songs to a mere two, so from here on out, we took in the show from a ringside vantage point at the edge of the photo pit. Next came “Imperium,” “Beautiful Mourning,” and “The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears.” Or “the beers,” as Flynn is fond of substituting, except for during the final chorus round: “It’s all about the blood – the sweat – the WEED, motherfucker.”

Machine Head has always managed a robust reproduction of the band's recordings while playing live, and vice versa. McClain is rarely singled out as a “star” drummer the way folks such as Gene Hoglan or Hellhammer tend to be – likely due to monogamy in his main band and a resultant low profile – but his playing, whether tackling thrash or groove, is the very sound of utter dominance. Bassist Adam Duce chimed in with his trademark melodic backing vocals, complementing and harmonizing with Flynn’s, which I suspect is part of the secret to Machine Head’s constant live success. Flynn and lead guitarist Phil Demmel drenched the bloodthirsty crowd in riff after meaty riff, while periodically sweeping us away on extended lightning rides. The rest of the set was framed around nearly the entire remainder of “Unto The Locust” – starting back-to-back with “Locust” and “This Is The End” – while back catalogue selections were intermittently inserted.

The enraged “Aesthetics Of Hate” was dedicated, of course, “to our brother Dimebag.” Permanent live classic “Old” triggered a massive jumping contest, and Flynn took a couple minutes to address – and profusely thank – the crowd at length before his heartfelt ode to the power of music, “Darkness Within.” When the sirens of “The Declaration” rose through the P.A. system, my colleague Keith Chachkes of Metal Army America cheered, “All right! Some ‘Bulldozer’ action! Let’s bring out the shiny clothes and spiky hair, and hear ‘Desire To Fire’ next!” All with tongue in cheek, of course, but without a drop of disdain. As thorough fans, we agreed that even the controversial experimentation of “The Burning Red” [1999] and “Supercharger” [2001] deserved its due, for if nothing else, that period ultimately sent Machine Head on the uphill path to its current glory.

It was only a matter of time before the onomatopoeic “Ten Ton Hammer,” followed by “Unto The Locust” album closer “Who We Are.” I’ll say this now, and stand by it for good: if you know the words to this song’s chorus and don’t sing along, you have no soul. NO ONE could fail to be moved by the tremendous slideshow backdrop, displaying man-on-the-street photos of local fans proudly holding up crude testimonials. Tonight, among the chosen sentiments were “You gave me metal.” “So fucking heavy!” “Riffs like no other!” “What American metal should be.”

The final, heartrending photo revealed an infant with a sign that read, “I am here with you because you are here for me.” Eleven words worth a thousand, and I know from personal experience that the writer of that sign is not alone.

For bands with a catalogue as road-proven and time-tested as Machine Head’s, encores rarely hold much in the way of surprise, but the anticipation of what you know is inbound can equal the suspense of a great thriller. Tonight brought a double punch, starting with the colossal “Halo.” After a riveting ten minutes, Flynn didn’t even allow the ongoing wall of distorted feedback to subside before bellowing, in dramatic fashion, what will go down as Machine Head’s all-time battle cry: “LET… FREEDOM… RING…”

Perhaps no more appropriate incident speaks for the searing “Davidian” than what transpired in the chaotic circle pit less than two minutes into the performance. Nervous shouts erupted. Alert bouncers were summoned. Seconds later, they emerged from the maelstrom, dragging a not-so-tiny fellow out with them – shirt inexplicably Happy Gilmored over his head, hairy spare tire hanging out, and totally unconscious. With the unfortunate victim removed from further harm, the band concluded the signature song and took an extended, triumphant bow. Nearly two decades into their odyssey of a career, Machine Head are only now in their absolute prime.

This spectacular, memorable evening was capped with a bizarre coda as we were making our way to the parking lot outside. A breathless, anonymous fan caught up with me to get a better look at my face and ask me my name. As it turns out, he’d mistaken me for…

Mitch Lucker of Suicide Silence. The man whose questionable, androgynous fashion I’d been amusing myself with for a decent chunk of the evening.

I suppose I had that one coming.

OverkillExposure's avatar

Mike Smith is a Southern-born, New England-based writer and a diehard metal and hard rock fan. As a music journalist, he is a staffer with Metalunderground.com and Outburn Magazine. As a screenwriter/producer, he is currently working on his first film with director Jason Matzner ("Dreamland").

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