The Blackening (Roadrunner)
An interview with guitarist Phil Demmel
By Tim Den
photos by Chris Casella
To say that the metal world has been hotly anticipating The Blackening would be an understatement. After the Hollywood-worthy resurrection of Through the Ashes of Empires, there wasn’t one headbanger who wasn’t waiting for the next chapter in the Machine Head story to unveil. After starting out of the gate as one of the genre’s brightest, only to descend into darkness and then miraculously reclaim the throne a decade later, who wasn’t cheering for these guys to succeed?
And so it is with such a colorful background that The Blackening is delivered, and all hopes realized. As the band have stated since writing began a year ago, it is Machine Head’s most ambitious, all-encompassing, true-to-self record yet. With eight songs totaling over an hour, The Blackening echoes …And Justice For All‘s scope and epicness (as well as a few other traits; more on that later), packing as much substance as it can into every small crack. But if you loved Through the Ashes of Empires, you’ll remember that Machine Head are veterans who can cram without becoming claustrophobic. Though everything from metalcore, classic thrash, NWOBHM, and nü metal show up on this platter, it is presented cohesively and as an absolutely riveting masterpiece.
Opener “Clenching the Fists of Dissent” is a perfect example of what The Blackening has in store for you. Starting with a Baroque-esque acoustic intro (the chord progression of which – and marching snare – again recalls …And Justice For All), it erupts into a thrashy, pull-offs heavy riff that contains tasty harmonics and hammering power chords, transitioning smoothly into a pummeling breakdown chorus that’s eventually broken down even more into a behemoth bridge. Chase that with a fast melodic riff paired with dueling solos, a massive war chant of “FIGHT!” and a reprise of the intro with harmony vocals, and you’ve got a 10-minute trip that’s got everything and the kitchen sink. Whew! And just wait ’til you hear it for yourself: The song never trips or fumbles, it simply glides in and out of each of its stages like a rollercoaster doing flips. You can barely hang onto the railings.
The rest of the album is just as intense, with almost every song living up to the standards set by “Clenching the Fists of Dissent.” “Beautiful Mourning” starts with a power drill riff that turns into piston-pumping verses (drummer Dave McClain’s ride work is a standout here), “Now I Lay Thee Down” opens with Tool-like hypnotism before a progressive chorus hits you with impressive bass runs, and “Aesthetics of Hate” puts a fast beat to a slow intro (clever!) before turning the intro into a fast riff (even more clever!) and following it up with a octave-sliding chorus that could’ve been by The Haunted. It’s clear that Machine Head played with every song’s compositional possibilities to make sure each decision would entice and surprise the listener, not to mention leave them breathless.
For me, the two highlights of the album are the harmony guitar hooks and guitarist/vocalist Robb Flynn’s melodic passages. The former appears on just about every song, with “Aesthetics of Hate”‘s grinding breakdown-into-dueling precision riffing (octave apart at first, harmonized the second time: Brilliant!) being the standout. The latter also appears on almost every song, and despite the fact that Flynn’s not the best of crooners, he makes his emotions felt through the likes of “Beautiful Mourning”‘s gorgeous bridge (though the background screaming is a bit too emocore), “Now I Lay Thee Down”‘s chorus, and especially “Halo.” In fact, I’d say that “Halo”‘s chorus is fast becoming the fans’ favorite part of the album, as Flynn’s harmonized vocal hook rides across the universe on the wings of the bending dueling guitars. If you thought power metal was supposed to be majestic, wait ’til you hear this shit. I can already see kids falling to their knees and crying when witnessing this live.
I’m not saying The Blackening is flawless: “Aesthetics of Hate” has an unnecessarily dragged out ending breakdown, and “Wolves” is patchy and awkwardly constructed, but if my ranting so far hasn’t at least piqued your interest, then you obviously don’t love metal’s ability to be acrobatic. Machine Head have managed to reference their past and harness modernity while bringing in large doses of melody: What else can you want from a metal album? Not even Through the Ashes of Empires dared as much. Hell, I’d even go as far as to say the band’s landmark debut Burn My Eyes sounds one-dimensional and safe in comparison. Yup, you heard me right. Now it’s time for you to listen for yourself. If you don’t come to the same conclusion, I suggest you get the fuck out of this genre and pick up emo instead.
First of all, congrats on all the success The Blackening has received so far. I know that it’s placing higher on the charts than any of your previous albums. How does it feel to once again prove the might of Machine Head?
It feels pretty cool. The band had been written off by the press, especially in America, for the past five or so years, with a lot of people calling us irrelevant and whatnot. But now we’ve proven that we are still popular and can draw almost as much, if not just as much, as a lot of the mainstream heavy acts. We feel like it’s a justification of sorts.
For you and guitarist/vocalist Robb Flynn, it must be extra special, since the two of you have been toiling away in bands together and separately since the mid-’80s.
Yeah, I joined the band at its lowest point, and it’s definitely nice to finally enjoy the spoils. (laughs)
Tell me how, after more than a decade apart, you found yourself in a band with Robb again (Phil and Robb steered late-’80s/early-’90s underrated thrash act Vio-lence).
I was initially brought in as a fill-in for a bunch of European festival dates. That was supposed to be it, because I was getting married, and getting ready to retire from music. But soon after I came home, the marriage dissolved (laughs) and I called them up and said, “Hey, I’m a single dude now! Let’s do this.”
Do you think they were kind of waiting for you to make that call?
Maybe. But I know they weren’t actively looking for a permanent replacement. They were writing as a three-piece and just kinda sitting tight for the moment. The two weeks that I filled in had so much chemistry that we all knew this could work for the long term. Robb and I go way back, and I was friends with Dave (McClain, drums) and Adam (Duce, bass/backup vocals) already.
But you never thought, “Things aren’t looking up for this band… why should I join?”
Well, when I joined, I didn’t know that the band was at its lowest point. I was told that they were looking for a new label and there were a lot of interested parties, so I still had delusions of grandeur. (laughs)
Most of Through the Ashes of Empires was already written when you joined, right?
Yeah, about 75%. I had some contributions on “In the Presence of My Enemies” and “Days Turn Blue to Gray.” Just a few riffs that Robb ended up incorporating.
But on The Blackening, you have credits everywhere, for music and lyrics.
Yeah, the songwriting process was very cool. There was no turmoil, no label problems, no member changes. Robb and I have been playing together since we were kids, so it felt very natural. The success of Through the Ashes of Empires was huge for this band. It gave us a clean slate to start over with.
Even at the end of writing Through the Ashes of Empires, we knew that the next one was gonna be the one: That it was gonna be our grand statement.
What was the timeline like during songwriting?
We wrote four pretty quickly, but then ended up playing them for three months without writing anything else. At the time, Robb was also doing Roadrunner United, so his workload was pretty heavy. Finally, I came up with the intro and verses of “Now I Lay Thee Down,” and after practice, Robb called me on his way home and we basically mapped out the song during the conversation. And that was it, that opened the floodgates. We already had “Halo,” “Aesthetics of Hate,” and “Beautiful Mourning,” after that “A Farewell to Arms” came, “Wolves” came, everything came out.
The eight-song format of the album, as well as some of the guitar harmonies and even liner notes filled with inside jokes and nicknames, reminded me of classic thrash albums such as …And Justice For All. Would you agree with such a comparison?
Sure, because that’s where we come from. We were there as kids when the Bay Area thrash scene was happening. It’s our language. I mean, we’re not trying to be Metallica or anything: No one will ever be Metallica again. We are not trying to top Master of Puppets because there’s only one Master of Puppets. They invented the playing field, we’re just playing on it. We’re just trying to do something timeless of our own.
Let’s talk a bit about Vio-lence, since I think Oppressing the Masses fucking rules and you guys never got the attention that you deserved. What can you tell me about being in Vio-lence?
Being in that band was amazing. I graduated high school in ’85 and joined this band called Death Penalty, which eventually changed its name to Vio-lence. We put out three full-lengths, signed to a major, and learned a lot from the entire experience. But around ’93/’94, things were winding down in terms of playing shows and there were label problems. Robb quit, Perry (Strickland, drums) quit, and then Sean (Killian, vocals) was getting married, so we said “that’s it, we’re done.” Robb formed Machine Head, Perry was supposed to start something with Billy Milano (M.O.D., S.O.D.) and Bobby Gustafson (ex-Overkill), and I started a band called Torque with Dean (Dell, Vio-lence bassist) that was basically a Machine Head wannabe. (laughs) We put out a record and played some shows, and then I stopped playing music for a while. Eventually, I joined a band called Technocracy, and that was when (the Chuck Billy benefit) Thrash of the Titans happened. So we got Vio-lence back together and fucking blew the doors off of that place. (laughs) We totally killed everybody. We looked at each other afterward and said “why not keep doing this?” So we got our original guitarist Troy Fua back in the band to replace Robb and kept going.
But when I joined Machine Head – which has a rule about not having side projects – I had to quit Vio-lence. The band decided to play some final shows with all our friends – and even Robb joining in on third guitar – everyone got hammered and had a blast. It’s not often that a band gets to decide how it wants to end and end on a great note, but we were able to.
No chance of Machine Head ever covering Vio-lence? Would Robb be able to sing and play those songs at the same time?
We want to put Vio-lence away and not talk about it much anymore. I think, though, that if Robb wanted to, he could totally do it. He’s amazing. Some of the shit that he plays and sings at the same time is insane!
What is life outside of the band like for Machine Head? Do you guys have to hold down regular jobs?
Robb’s job is Machine Head 24/7, dealing with management, labels, press, merch, everything. Dave handles a lot of the studio errands and anything else the band might need, but yes: Adam and I have jobs. Anyone who plays this kind of music and doesn’t have a regular job is gonna be hurting financially, cuz we’re not huge rockstars or anything. I like my job and I have a boss who lets me have time off whenever I want, plus I like owning things. I like having a house and going golfing. I’m conditioned to my life. (laughs)