Machine Head: The Long, Hard Road to 'The Blackening' | Revolver

Machine Head: The Long, Hard Road to 'The Blackening'

Robb Flynn and Co. open up about the gang fights, drug-dealing and mental breakdowns that made them the band they are
MachineHead.png, Jeremy Harris
photograph by Jeremy Harris

San Francisco's financial and pharmaceutical industries may be booming, but when it comes to metal, the Bay Area ain't what it used to be. Not only is there a paucity of new bands, the city lacks the infrastructure to support a strong scene. The legendary venues that served as stomping grounds for Metallica, Exodus, and Testament are long gone, and local bands are relocating to Los Angeles or Orange County.

It makes sense, then, that Machine Head sometime feel as alone now as they did when they formed here in 1994, just as the city's thrash scene was withering on the vine. The band rose from the underground with their explosive debut, Burn My Eyes, which remains a landmark metal record from an era dominated by grunge and alternative rock. "There's a joke that goes we're the second-biggest Bay Area metal band after Metallica," says bassist Adam Duce, who coformed the group with frontman Robb Flynn in 1993. "That's because there aren't any other metal bands anymore."

Machine Head almost didn't last this long either. Despite the fact that all of their records have sold a minimum of 200,000 copies, they've been plagued by lineup changes, addled by booze and drugs, and often caved too easily to the commercial demands of their record label. By 2002, the negative effects were starting to show, and Machine Head's credibility—in fact, their very future together as a band—was in serious question. "There were negative things being said about the band," recalls Flynn. "We were watching other bands get accolades for doing Machine Head lite."

No one thought that they would regain their footing, but the adversity only made them stronger. And in 2003, fortified by a strong new lineup, the group delivered the thrashy, uncompromising comeback, Through the Ashes of Empires. But it's Machine Head's fifth and latest disc, The Blackening, that really resets the bar, combining taut, memorable riffs, complex arrangements, and superlative musicianship into a showcase of aggressive yet melodic songwriting that will likely stand as one of the best metal records of the year.

"We pushed ourselves to the limit," Flynn says from a sports bar blocks away from Sharkbite Studios, where the album was recorded. "We wanted to take the biggest risks and not pay attention to any conventional ideas of how long a song's supposed to be or what it's supposed to sound like."

Half of the tracks on The Blackening are more than nine minutes long and ebb and flow from mosh-ready thrash-outs to trippy, textural meditation; all are layered with clever counter-riffs, enticing guitar harmonies, and dueling solos. Amazingly, for all the complexity, the songs never become what Flynn calls "riff soup."

"We were geeking out on old Rush hella-hard when we were writing," explains Flynn. "And stuff like Hemispheres and 2112 are super-long, but they're still filled with songs and melodies."

As its title indicates, The Blackening was birthed from a dark time in Flynn's life. In September 2005, just as he started to write, he was overcome with crippling nightmares. In the first dream, he repeatedly stabbed himself in the stomach. The next night, he was downed in a hail of gunfire. In the days that followed, he jumped headfirst from buildings, hung himself, and slit his wrists. "I started to freak out," he says of the night terrors. "I was scared to go to sleep, but I was exhausted. I was fine during the day, then every night, the dreams returned, and I began to question my sanity."

To make sense of his nightmares, Flynn scribbled down memories of when he was 17 and nearly committed suicide. Those lines quickly became the song "Beautiful Mourning."

"I had been kicked out of my parents' house, and I was living at my friends', doing drugs and getting in trouble," Flynn recalls. "One night, a friend and I had taken hits of four-way windowpane acid and decided to watch The Omen, and I ended up in the bathroom staring at a mirror with a razor at my wrist. And I just started to cut. But before I got to the point where I caused too much damage, I stopped. Writing about that seemed to make the night terrors stop and gave me a starting point for the rest of the album." 

In an old building that looks like a dilapidated elementary school, Machine Head leads Revolver down a series of hallways. Located near touristy Berkeley, this is the rehearsal spot for dozens of bands, and as Flynn opens the door of Machine Head's practice room, the strains of AFI playing their hit "Miss Murder" filter down from upstairs. Inside, road crates and guitar cases are stacked like Legos. On one side of the room, there's a camouflage Pearl drum kit, and on the other, a marker board still contains the working titles for most of the songs on The Blackening.

"Yo, check this out," says Flynn, flipping open the latches of a hard-shell case to reveal a shiny custom guitar Dimebag Darrell gave him onstage the night after smashing one of Flynn's well-worn axes when Machine Head opened for Pantera. Flynn used the instrument to record his solo for "Aesthetics of Hate," a scathing new song about an anti-metal article by conservative columnist William Grim that ran after Darrell was killed. Other songs on The Blackening address the war in Iraq ("Clenching the Fists of Dissent"), murder/suicide ("Now I Lay Thee Down"), and the business of religion ("Halo").

The Blackening is not only thematically diverse but also one of Machine Head's most musically accomplished albums. This might have something to do with newcomer guitarist Phil Demmel, who played a major role in the writing. A seasoned veteran of the SF scene, Demmel's love of thrash and skill for soloing brings Machine Head into a new sonic realm. "I don't think his influence can be discounted in any way," Flynn says. "He has great ideas, and we've got a friendly competition going where we always try to outdo each other, which adds new color to the arrangements of the songs."

Flynn and Demmel's work together actually predates Machine Head by several years. The two played together in Vio-Lence, one of the best bands from the third wave of San Francisco thrash. The group recorded two memorable albums, 1988's Eternal Nightmare and 1990's Oppressing the Masses, as well as the largely forgettable 1993 disc, Nothing to Gain, before Flynn started working on a side project with his roommate, Duce. While the rest of Vio-Lence was pretty pissed about that, it was an actual act of violence that prompted Flynn to leave the group. The band was scheduled to play local club the Omni when Flynn, Duce, and a friend got into a fight in a convenience-store parking lot.

"At the time, our weekends consisted of getting totally tanked and either getting laid or getting into a fight with somebody for no particular reason," Flynn explains. "So we were at this store, and our friend gets into a fight with this big white dude. As we're watching, these two black girls come up. Then, all of a sudden, three carloads of dudes in a gang roll up and say, 'What are you doing fucking with our black girls?' I could tell there was no talking to these guys, so I swung my fist as hard as I could and felt this dude's nose break as he dropped. Then it was on."

While Flynn and Duce were on the ground getting their asses kicked by 14 guys, their friend pulled out a knife and stabbed numerous gang members, including a hemophiliac, who nearly bled to death. Since Flynn was something of a celebrity, the thugs were able to find out who he was and started calling him with death threats, claiming they would throw grenades onstage at the band's Omni show. Fearing for his life, Flynn refused to play the gig and left Vio-Lence. He and Duce spent much of the next month behind locked doors until the gangsters found other victims to harass. Then they hooked up with Duce's childhood friend, guitarist Logan Mader, and drummer Tony Costanza and recorded the first Machine Head demo, funded largely by money Duce made selling drugs.

"I started by panhandling to buy a $20 bag of speed, and then I cut that in half and sold both of them for $40," he says. "I did it again and again, and suddenly I was a drug dealer. Eventually, I rented a warehouse to grow weed in, and that was a huge job."

Machine Head wrote most of Burn My Eyes, then decided they needed a better drummer, so they hired ex–Attitude Adjustment skinsman Chris Kontos and entered the studio to record a more professional demo, which industry veteran and founder Borivoj Krgen heard and passed to his friend Roadrunner A&R man Monte Connor, who signed Machine Head to the label.

"I found Machine Head's early music to be an almost perfect mixture of Pantera and Biohazard, both of whom were doing extremely well at the time," Krgen says. "But they played with enough of a unique flavor so it didn't come across as a mere copy."

Released in 1994, Burn My Eyes rang out through the metal underground, as goes the chorus of its most famous song, "Davidian," "like a shotgun blast." And moving more than 400,000 copies worldwide, it became the top-selling debut on Roadrunner at the time.

"We wanted to hear real metal and we couldn't find it, so we wrote that [album] from a nothing-to-lose/probably-nothing-to-gain place," Duce says. "I was that pissed-off 19-year-old kid starving to death, deciding whether I should go down to the store and buy a sandwich or buy a pack of cigarettes, and choosing the cigarettes because they'd last me all day."

In 1996, Machine Head flew to Liverpool, England, to record their second album, The More Things Change…, with producer Colin Richardson and new drummer Dave McClain, formerly of Phoenix -based thrashers Sacred Reich. The disc took over where Burn My Eyes left off but lacked some of the vitality of its predecessor, coming across as competent and heavy, but somewhat predictable. In truth, the band's copious drug use may have contributed to their lack of originality, but for a while at least, their insatiable consumption of beer, liquor, pills, and coke didn't impair their ability to rock out live. It did hamper their ability to control their bladders, though—and with that in mind, the bandmates stocked their tour bus with Depends, allowing them to drink without taking bathroom breaks.

But the road wasn't all piss and giggles, and for every highlight, there was an obstacle—especially on Ozzfest 1997. During one show in Columbus, Ohio, Ozzy canceled but didn't tell the crowd, so Flynn, inebriants pumping through his veins, took the stage with members of Pantera, Type O Negative, and Fear Factory, among others, and performed an Ozzy tribute set. When the audience realized Osbourne wasn't going to show, they rebelled, tearing down fencing, overturning a car, and setting numerous bonfires on the lawn, but by playing, Flynn had probably helped prevent a full-scale riot. After the gig, he called his dad to share his accomplishment, only to be met with complete indifference. "He just said, 'Oh… I gotta go to bed right now.' Click," relates Flynn. It was the latest in a long series of thwarted pleas for praise, and perhaps because he was already teetering on the brink of a breakdown, it sent him over the edge. 

"I went into the bathroom to take a piss, and there's Robb looking like he's half dead," McClain says. "There's blood everywhere, he's got his shirt off, he's holding a knife, and he's got the word METAL carved into his chest."

Flynn's mental imbalance didn't immediately improve. Insecure about his weight, he started forcing himself to vomit after every meal and became a full-blown bulimic. At around the same time, Mader was going way overboard with drugs, which sometimes left him playing the wrong song onstage. One day after returning from the studio, Mader arrived late to practice and viciously insulted everyone else in the band. Then he quit. "The drugs had fucked him up so badly, he wasn't dealing with reality anymore," Flynn says. "In our last conversation, he was convinced the government had placed robot cats on the fence outside his window, and they had fiberoptic eyes that broadcast his every move back to the CIA."

 Seeking a more levelheaded bandmate, Machine Head hired ex–Manmade God guitarist Ahrue Luster, whose biggest vice was obsessively playing video games in the back lounge. The lineup change, along with pressure from Roadrunner to improve album sales, led Machine Head to shift musical direction on 1999's The Burning Red, a dark, gloomy, and more contemporary album produced by nu-metal Svengali Ross Robinson (Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot). While the album, which features rapped vocals and a cover of the Police song "Message in a Bottle," remains the band's best seller, Machine Head were criticized for trying too hard to keep up with the sounds of the times.

"I think it was pigeonholed from the start," grumbles McClain. "As soon as they found out Ross Robinson was producing it, everyone was like, 'Oh, they're trying to be the new Korn.' It wasn't about that at all. We just wanted to do something different."

Flynn's greatest complaint about the reaction to Burning Red isn't that critics stressed the sonic deviations but that they failed to recognize the desperate, confessional lyrics. The title track is about suicide; "The Blood, the Sweat, the Tears," addresses Flynn's battle with bulimia; and "Five" is a harrowing recollection of when he was molested by a neighbor at age 5. "It was a guy down the street, and I remember the whole thing," Flynn says. "Looking back, I had these crushing headaches from second grade to sixth grade, and I was extremely introverted as a kid. I think that might have something to do with being molested. By the end of [recording] the song, I was screaming in tears into the mic."

Produced by 3 Doors Down and Disturbed architect Johnny K, Machine Head's next album, Supercharger, took the experimentation of The Burning Red into truly commercial realms reminiscent of Rob Zombie and Korn. Supercharger hit on October 2, 2001, just two weeks after September 11, and the video for the first single, "Crashing Around You," depicted the group playing against a backdrop of a city in flames, something no one, including MTV, was willing to touch.

"Roadrunner was all about singles at the time, so they took that album out of the gate with a radio single and this big video," McClain says. "When that fell apart, they just let the album die."

Supercharger's failure took the greatest toll on Duce, who drank all day and typically woke up an hour before the band was due onstage, then chugged himself back into oblivion after the show. "Everything sucked, so I figured why stay sober," he says. "My last drink was a fifth of Captain Morgan in under two minutes. I was poisoned for a week and I had a four-hour hallucination where I thought I was in a high-rise building, arguing business with some fat guy in a suit that wasn't there. The next day I realized I could have done something in that state to land me in prison for the rest of my life. So I just stopped."

After the Supercharger tour, Machine Head severed ties with Roadrunner, and Ahrue, who wanted to make even less metallic music, quit the band, later resurfacing in Latin nu-metallers Ill Niño. For a while, everything was on hold, and Flynn even considered an offer to join Drowning Pool as their new frontman after the 2002 death of vocalist Dave Williams. But ultimately, he, McClain, and Duce persevered as a three-piece. Without a label to support them, they self-financed Through the Ashes of Empires, writing thrashy, multifaceted tunes that returned to their roots but wasn't retro. "We just had a general 'fuck you' attitude," says Flynn. "That was my real motivation."

Before finishing the album, the band was invited to play summer festivals in Europe, but they needed a second guitarist. So Duce, who had been in touch with Demmel via email, invited the guitarist along. "Machine Head was one of my favorite bands, and I was really influenced by them." Demmel says. "With my other band, Torque, I always had to play riff police, and go, 'No, that sounds too much like Machine Head.' And suddenly, it was okay to write like that."

Demmel came in at the tail end of the writing session for Through the Ashes and contributed to just three songs, but it soon became clear that the chemistry between him and Flynn would pay off big time on their next record. Not that Ashes was at all disappointing. The album, released in Europe in October 2003, was showered with praise, prompting Roadrunner U.S. to renegotiate with Machine Head. Despite being released in the U.S. four months after it came out in the rest of the world, Ashes debuted at No. 88 on the Billboard album chart, the group's highest chart position.

"That record just felt right because we listened to the inner voice that told us where to go," Duce says. "When you do that, you're gonna be successful because everybody in the world has the same set of ears inside, and when you're honest, people feel that and identify with it. And the same thing goes for The Blackening."

Retiring to a popular Berkeley burrito joint after the lengthy interview, the guys talk about family, politics—pretty much anything but their music. Finally, with stomachs full and spirits elevated, Demmel says, "We're in a great place, man. This is a new band. With this last album, we're not six albums deep, we're two albums deep, and we can't wait to see what the future brings."