This was written as a sort of extended live review of Machine Head at Wacken four years ago. They had yet to start work on The Blackening. It was a fucking amazing show. They play perfect hard rock that loosens the fillings and causes occasional nosebleeds.
This is what it must be like to be Jesus…or Hitler. We are onstage at Wacken in front of 40,000 German metalheads who are working themselves into a frenzy of adoration. As far as you can see in the ethereal twilight there are writhing bodies, horns in the air, girls on their boyfriends shoulders with their jugs out, and over there on the right there is a guy dressed as Santa Claus crowd-surfing his way to the front. Your Hammer reporter, having done this job for a few years now, doesn’t often stand onstage and when he does it tends to be at UK festivals where you usually look out onto a sea of bored faces and only a few enthusiasts at the front going through the motions. But this, to use a cliché popular among our Transatlantic cousins, is awesome! Even, dare one say, totally awesome.
Of course, they aren’t here to adore Hammer and a few record company bods; they are here to worship at the temple of Machine Head, headlining at Wacken Open Air for the first time, in the midst of playing an awesome – sorry but it’s really the only word that fits – career-high set. The band themselves seem hard pressed to deal with this reaction: Phil Demmel is grinning like a motherfucker, taking photos of his guitar tech standing against the crowd between songs. When he finally leaves the stage a good five minutes after the rest of the band, Rob Flynn can only shake his head and say “fuck!”
It’s impossible to wind them up any more but somehow this does. Even as a detached observer, the spectacle is overwhelming: it suddenly makes a lot of things make sense, like the mutual interaction of band and crowd and how this – standing here in front of a field full of people who are going crazy because you’ve helped to make them that way – must be a high that is more potent and more addictive than any drugs that money can buy.
If you were making a movie about Machine Head, this is where you’d freeze frame for that perfect feelgood-happy-ever-after ending. They’d make a great movie: their career follows the classic plot arc of a great beginning, a troubled cliff-hanger will-they-survive? second act and a cathartic ending where everything seems to have been put right. Not that they’re about to jack it in: far from it. 2005 has been a great year for Machine Head. But not so long ago a lot of pundits had written them off as dead men walking: releasing their album ‘Supercharger’ on September 11 2001 could be put down to unfortunate timing; calling the first single ‘Crashing Around You’ was even more unfortunate.
“Well here we are, it’s August 5 2005 and we’re four days off the 11th anniversary of ‘Burn My Eyes’ and we’re doing better than ever,” says Rob. “It’s a trip but we really shouldn’t be here. We got dropped and we should just be one of those bands that got dropped from Roadrunner that you never heard from them again.”
What is it, then, that made Machine Head different? Why are you here? we ask. Why keep going?
He pauses and shrugs: “I’m not good at anything else. I’m not good at sports, I was never gonna be a big sports star. I can’t be a nine to five guy…I’ve got good people skills but not the patience to deal with stupid people. But a big part of it was just wanting to prove a lot of people wrong. We got turned down by probably 25 labels, majors in the US, they were saying ‘you’re over, you should change your name, you should start a new thing’ and I think that the more we heard that the more we were like ’fuck you!’”
The band did consider all of these options but they were also taking inspiration from a hardcore fanbase who wrote letters, posted on message boards and came up to them at shows.
“We had been unsigned for a year and a half and it was not looking good but fans would come up to us in the street and say ‘You have to keep going. I love your music so much. You have to keep making music’. And you know we were thinking of changing our name and starting again, but especially at that time getting all this incredible feedback helped drive us to give it our best shot.”
The ‘best shot’ resulted in an upturn in their fortunes. First guitarist Ahrue Luster was replaced by Phil Demmel, then they released ‘Hellalive’, recorded at the Brixton Academy. In Autumn 2003 Machine Head released their fifth studio album ‘Through the Ashes of Empires’ which returned to a style closer to that of their classic debut ‘Burn My Eyes’ and also pivoted around the fantastic radio friendly metal classic ‘Imperium’. It wasn’t so much a rebirth as a rediscovery of what it was that made Machine Head one of the great post-thrash bands of the 90s: angry high powered guitar driven rock’n’roll. It also coincided with the rise of a new school of American metal bands who were clearly inspired by them.
“I definitely hear our influence in a lot of bands and most of them – not all of them – openly acknowledge it, which is incredibly flattering,” he says. “Like, I listen to a band like Disturbed and there’s a lot of Machine Head recycling going on there. They even stole one of my stage raps. But a lot of the newer bands like Killswitch Engage do acknowledge us. And they’re obviously influenced by other things as well and that’s what’s exciting about music for me.”
They are still a hungry band and they still have a lot to achieve, but the past 18 months has been like a well earned reward for their spell in the wilderness. Everyone in the band raves about their trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to play the annual Desert Rock festival with Soulfly and The Darkness.
“I had actually no idea what it was gonna be like,” laughs Rob. “I really had it in my mind that it would be a few guys with camels who lived in tents. Obviously it wasn’t. And they treated us like royalty. They asked us if we would like to go to the festival in limousines or on Harleys. And I was like…what? So there we were, riding through the desert on Harleys…”
Most of the images we have of the Middle East tend to over-emphasise the swivel-eyed bearded nutter contingent rending their breasts and railing against America, the Great Satan. The truth, according to Rob, is that you’re more likely to find kids in Machine Head or Metallica t-shirts as you are in suicide bomber vests.
“I think the only thing that was really different was that a lot of the bands had to take a break so that people could face Mecca to pray,” he says. ”Though they didn’t do it during our set.”
As well as things going right with the band, things are going right with Rob’s life: the image of him as some anger-consumed proto-nu metaller raging against his abandonment by his birth parents isn’t borne out by the calm thoughtful man we meet in Germany who is as happy to talk about putting his two year old son to bed as about the band’s music.
The lowpoint being, of course, the death of Dimebag.
“We had just played the Alrosa a few weeks before. A lot of those same kids would have been in the crowd, maybe even the killer. We got a lot of crossover from Pantera fans. We were devastated. We were crying. We played two tours with Pantera. We were playing that night in Belgrade, Serbia and I dedicated ‘Descend The Shades Of Night’ to him, got through the first verse and then just lost it. It sucked. He was one of the good guys…I mean, what the fuck?”
As well as his role as one of the ‘captains’ of the forthcoming Roadrunner 25th Anniversary album project the band are already planning the follow up to ‘Through The Ashes Of Empires’ though perhaps with a renewed sense of confidence in what they can achieve.
“I think a lot of the fear that we had when we recorded ‘Burn My Eyes’; has gone. There’s a lot less fear of being judged. We were scared of playing mellow stuff like ‘I’m Your God Now’. We didn’t even play it on that tour in case people thought that we were pussies. We got to a point though where we weren’t ashamed of that side of us and then we felt stupid.”
Afterwards, after their show, the band are hanging around backstage mixing up 100 per cent alcohol cocktails for friends and colleagues from other bands. Rob is still overcome with emotion after the set.
“Wacken is the only metal festival that matters back home,” he says. ”This is the one that gets reviewed in all the magazines.”
How do you feel? we ask as a parting shot.
It’s probably the only word there is that describes it.