Machine Head’s newest album, “Unto the Locust” is not an effort recommended for those succored by simplicity. Unlike the Deep Purple album that the band’s name invokes, this brand of American heavy metal is not for those looking for a hallucinogen-induced quadraphonic, two-four downbeat good time.
However, Machine Head continues to frustrate me for reasons I can’t totally put words to. I have given this band a chance on each of their studio albums since “The Burning Red” all the way back in the different world of 1999. Not only was the world a highly different place then (we collectively found it unbelievable that our President had been involved in sex acts in the White House a year before,) but I was very much a different person, a sixteen year old high school student packed with naivety (not so much teenage angst, that was never my scene.)
All these years later, after all the personal and global changes, I am giving Machine Head what feels like their one hundred thirty-third chance to impress me, and while “Unto the Locust” comes the closest of any of the band’s efforts, it still falls short.
Machine Head has always been represented in my life by those metal fans who are just discerning enough to realize that contemporary radio can’t cater to them, but not discerning enough to explain their rationale for fandom in cogent terms. As such, I’ve heard a lot of people, when referencing Machine Head, exclaim “Dood, the guitars are fuckin’ sick!” which isn’t terribly helpful.
Speaking in allegories, the band reminds me of the early 2000s’ Indianapolis Colts, or the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. Those teams were (are) excellent at running, throwing and catching, but bad at football, which is similar but not the same. Machine Head is good at all the elegant pieces of heavy metal, and laudably so; the guitars are, in fact, “fuckin’ sick.” Yet, some of the gritty, tedious but necessary elements of songcraft get overlooked.
Going through “Unto the Locust” exposes the listener to one top-notch six-string construction after another, whether the fragile, undulating scales of “Be Still And Know,” or the decadent, back and forth construction of “Locust” (which doubles at the album’s best track.) The album is additionally spiced up with off-filter signatures, stop and go cadences, and a demonstrated mastery of many of modern metal’s idiomatic qualities. Solos galore, shredding from end to end, guitar virtuosity, all readily evident.
Furthermore, I can respect “Unto the Locust” for its ability to let each song breathe, and leave nothing on the cutting room floor. Whether crafting an eight minute epic like “I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)” or letting some punk roots show through as in “This is the End,” each piece is allowed to be its own creation, which probably sounds redundant, but speaks to the artists confidence in their product and restraint in tinkering. These songs are pure, if nothing else.
Yet, where Machine Head is still missing the boat is in the enjoyability (which is a word I just made up.) There are no catchy hooks, no infectious grooves, no particular innovation that makes this creation remarkable. While “Unto the Locust” is thickly layered and ripe for in-depth exploration, there is little compelling reason to do so; the album doesn’t leave the listener with the desire to delve deeper. In essence it’s an album that is easy to hear without actually listening to it. It leaves no distinct marks and doesn’t burrow into the ear in that deliciously annoying way that fans crave.
“Unto the Locust” does a lot of things well, but it’s hard to recommend it beyond the two good cuts “Locust” and “Darkness Within.” It’s an album high on style and flair, but low on substance and stick-to-your-ribs satiation. Machine Head is good at running, throwing and catching, but bad at football.