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Sunday, 20 May 2018

A View From The Back Of The Room: Machine Head (Live Review By Paul)

Machine Head, Catharsis Tour, Cardiff University & O2 Academy Bristol 2018

Cast your mind back to 2007. Oakland power house Machine Head released arguably the album of the decade, The Blackening. The band toured incessantly for nearly three years, filling arenas across Europe. Talk of them becoming the next Download headliners was rife. The band kicked things off with a slot supporting Metallica at Wembley, one of the most astonishing gigs I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. Their appearance at Sonisphere in 2009 wasn’t without controversy, but the sight of 21 circle pits across that field was amazing. The Machine Head sun was in the ascendency. The Black Crusade rolled into Cardiff and the Motorpoint was filled with circle pits and headbanging as the band raged. 2011’s Unto The Locust was followed by a smaller venue tour and the subsequent departure of founder Adam Duce, after which MFH dipped from sight. 2014’s Bloodstone And Diamonds, with the arrival of Jared MacEachern, saw the band embark on the Killer And Kings tour, once again hitting smaller places across the country including a frenzied night at The Great Hall in Cardiff University which was full to bursting.

And then Catharsis arrived earlier this year. The social media response was astonishing with its vitriol towards the band. I didn’t enjoy it on first listen, as you will be able to confirm by review in this August journal, but repeated listens have unearthed some decent tracks over time. So, when the band announced their European tour, albeit prior to the release of their latest album, it seemed reasonable to snap up tickets for consecutive dates on the tour as MFH hit Cardiff and Bristol, and to notch up gigs 13 and 14 in the Machine Head inventory.

First up was the Great Hall at Cardiff University on 14th May. Upgraded from Y Plas due to demand, but just as likely because of poor planning in the first place, the Head Cases descended in good numbers for a Monday night. The gig was not sold out which was quite welcome as a Machine Head gigs tends to generate substantial heat from the constant action in front of the stage, so a bit of space on the floor was more comfortable. As Diary Of A Madman concluded, Robb Flynn and co arrived on stage to the opening strains of nothing less than Imperium, a track that is guaranteed to get the crowd moving. And so it proved, with Cardiff demonstrating that the Welsh can pit as well as any other nation throughout the evening. Standing well back from the intense action, there was a constant stream of bodies emerging from the pit in various states, whilst old school pit beasts contended themselves with the occasional foray to the front lines for the likes of Bulldozer, Ten Ton Hammer and From This Day.

By the time Machine Head arrived on our shores they had already completed over a month through Europe and it was evident in their sharpness on stage. Robb Flynn kept the patter to a minimum, although for those of us playing Machine Head Bingo, there was sufficient to claim a full house as the words “stoked”, “circle pit”, “head bang muthafucker” and “show me what you’ve got” all duly arrived. Whilst Flynn maintains the centre ground, focus switched across to stage left and right as trusty lieutenant and lead guitarist Phil Demmell cut some mean lead guitar work whilst MacEachern now looks significantly more comfortable with his place in this cutting machine. Demmell’s lead work was slightly marred by a fuzzy sound which meant that towards the right of the stage it was Flynn’s guitar work that dominated. Behind the front men, powerhouse drummer Dave McClain continued to make everything look incredibly easy.

One of the main reasons to see MFH on this tour was to hear how the new material stood against the hardcore old school material. Placing Volatile straight after Imperium worked well, feeding off the crowd energy. Kaleidoscope remains an enigma to me with its Slipknot feel, whilst Triple Beam, buried in Cardiff between None But My Own and Aesthetics Of Hate remains a real challenge. However, in the title track of the album, the band have unleashed an absolute monster. Both nights saw the crowds losing their minds to this track, which was superbly delivered. The subtle combination of melody and aggression, with the harmonies of MacEachern and Demmell enhancing the tune substantially, and I would wager that this will become a staple for years to come.

Dripping with emotion, it was fabulous to see the huge reaction it received. In addition to these newies, Cardiff’s crowd were treated to a blistering Beyond The Pale which also worked fantastically well. Meanwhile in Bristol, the band slipped in Bastards instead of Beyond The Pale. Cardiff’s gain I would say as Bastards was one of the few tracks that went down like a fart in a space suit, the momentum noticeably slowing. It’s also just not that good as a song. However, that aside, as the night progressed it was clear that the band were intent on giving the middle finger to all the doubters and delivering a show which provided almost too much value for money. Guitar and drum solos provided some valuable recovery time for the crowd, which was probably just as well as the remainder of the set list, apart from Darkness Within, was designed and delivered to crush all before it.

A welcome return to the set, Clenching The Fists Of Dissent was one of four from The Blackening which arrived in Cardiff and was stunning. Sometimes you forget what a great song it is and remains as cutting edge in its political observation today as it did back 11 years ago. Meanwhile, the reception for the two tracks from The Burning Red, The Blood The Sweat The Tears and From This Day completely belied its reputation. The latter got Cardiff bouncing ferociously and that was repeated with even greater intensity the following night. In an evening of numerous highlights, the inclusion of Old probably received the biggest Welsh cheer and the choruses of “Jesus Wept” must have cracked the girders holding the roof on. With the band visibly slicker and tighter than for many years, the Machine Head show remains a steam roller of power and visceral energy. Whatever your views on this band, they work damn hard and give 100% night after night.

In Bristol the following night, with the advantage of the balcony to obtain a better vantage point, and with a superior sound, Machine Head were if anything, even better. Possibly the crammed mass meant there was little opportunity for getting to the bar, unlike Cardiff where a good few punters were going for it like it was a Saturday night, not a Monday. That’s Wales though; heavy drinking as standard. In Bristol, it was gruesome on the floor and the heaving mass of bodies in the sold-out venue meant there was little room for the constantly demanded circle pits. Kudos to the pit warriors who demonstrated admirable pit etiquette, even before Flynn’s reminder about what had happened in Southampton two nights earlier. The pit was, in Flynn’s words, “raging”.

A confident assured speech about the negative response to Catharsis was well delivered and received, although it was hard not to have a wry smile as one recalled the reaction of Flynn to one particularly negative review at the time. Still, the band and many of the fans are past all that now and the bone crunching pit action didn’t let up throughout the evening. Demmell seemed more at ease, smiling broadly at the crowd, and with his sound crystal clear, it was a joy to watch the ease at which he and Flynn shredded through another mighty set list. With the inclusion of old school tracks A Nation On Fire and Blood For Blood replacing the previous night’s None But My Own and Old, it was also pleasing to see that even with such a mammoth set, Machine Head were willing to mix it up a bit. Full marks to a band that have drawn more than their fair share of critics in recent months. Where they go in the next few years is open to debate, but in the live arena, Machine Head remain a magnificent metal force. 10/10

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