Latest release: Unto the Locust (Roadrunner)
Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel is in a great mood when he takes the call. They have just come off an extremely successful tour with the Mayhem Festival and the band’s eagerly awaited new album Unto the Locust is already winning heavy plaudits. Coming a staggering four and a half years after their previous — and monstrous — album The Blackening, Demmel reckons the latest opus sees further maturation and expansion for the band.
“We’re pushing some different avenues, incorporating some different dynamics. We’ve got strings, more acoustics, lotsa harmonies going on… Robb is singing so well,” he says. “I think that Machine Head kinda grew up in the last few years. We’ve taken note of a lot of the bands that we’ve played with and learned from so it’s the next step for Machine Head.”
It’s a step that has seen them experimenting at will, apparently not afraid to try almost anything – emotional acoustic sections, elegant string arrangements, a capella chanting and even a child’s choir singing the intro to the closing cut “Who We Are”. The offspring belong to Demmel, mainman Robb Flynn and the recording engineer Juan Urteaga, and I can almost see the beams of pride coming off the guitarist’s face as he recounts the tale of his son’s first recording session.
“It was pretty cool. He got in there, and he’s a little shy”, he says with a laugh. “The other guys (Flynn’s son and Urteaga’s two daughters) are sitting on it pretty well, and I took him home and recorded him at home, put the headphones on him. I had to walk out the room, but I got his voice recorded. It’s quite a thrill to listen to the record and kinda hear his voice come through here and there, and just to know that I’ve recorded a record with my son on it. It’s pretty awesome.”
Unto the Locust has shorter songs overall than the previous album, but that isn’t to suggest it doesn’t possess epic qualities of its own. Flynn adds tremolo picking to his repertoire this time around to bring a further sense of grandeur, and the album kicks off with the eight and a half-minute, three-part “I Am Hell”.
“It starts off huge,” Demmel says, perhaps unnecessarily. “Vocal madness. Robb was singing this ‘Sangre Sani’ thing in the beginning and he didn’t really have a title… well he knew he wanted to call it ‘I Am Hell’, but he didn’t really have a concept yet. And I had this concept about a pyromaniac, an arsonist, reading through his journal and he finds out how sick he’s getting… and he thought that would be cool with the fire and the flames and so I sent him all the Latin words: fire and hell and suicide and warrior and stuff like that, and it just kinda took a life of its own.”
Demmel was also the catalyst of the central concept behind the first song released from the album, “Locust”, a vindictive tirade aimed at the human leeches, fakers and frauds we’ve all encountered in our lives.
“I came up with the locust concept over the course of my life. Everybody has,” the guitarist says. “People who just fly into your life under the false pretense of being something else, and they devour and lie and cheat and steal and take everything from you that they can. And once they’re discovered, they just hop and fly off to the next crop or harvest or unsuspecting person to rob them of all their humanity. It’s about someone who’s soulless and has no regard for anything other than themselves.”
Along with every song on the album, “Locust” demands one’s full concentration as it twists and turns, veers and swerves and clocks out well over seven minutes later. Like The Blackening and some of the classic metal albums that inspired them, Unto the Locust is neither for the faint of heart nor the attention-deficient.
“Yeah there’s songs within songs,” Demmel says. “I mean they’re the same songs within the structure, but it doesn’t get redundant. That’s for sure. It’s not …And Justice for All or anything where you’re riding the riff into the ground. It’s definitely an exciting record with a lot going on. Each song is a journey. It’s a ride. It’s a rollercoaster ride sometimes. You slow down, and go through the tunnel of love parts and sometimes you’re on the twister doing 360s. You definitely need to have at least six minutes to ride on this track.”
Demmel believes that part of what inspired the creation process of Unto the Locust was band leader Robb Flynn’s desire to improve himself as a musician. Even after 26 years as a recording and touring artist, Flynn is continuing to seek ways to develop his talent.
“He’s taken it upon himself to say, Hey, I wanna be better. How do I this? He’s had to unlearn a lot of ways he sings and plays guitar to be better,” Demmel says of Flynn. “There’s so many other things we wanna try and it shows on this record. Some of the high harmonies that are going on and the layered vocals, that’s a whole other step of melody and really opens up what we’re playing.”
Phil Demmel admits that he has changed the way he has approached his playing too.
“I’ve changed my solos now down to the Kirk Hammett school of memorable leads, trying to write a song within a song. We played with Metallica and watched the crowd singing his leads,” he says. “I mean they sing along with ‘Master of Puppets’ and all that, but they sing along with the solos. I think that’s the most amazing thing. So I wanna write solos that have more of a melody and something that sticks in your head.”
With the incredible praise and acclaim for The Blackening — Metal Hammer called it the Album of the Decade, Kerrang! gave it an extremely rare perfect score — one could be forgiven for thinking that Machine Head would be overawed by the prospect of recording a follow-up. But Demmel says they just did what was comfortable: make an album they themselves would like.
“We made [The Blackening] six years ago… five years ago. And we had the same pressure on us after [Through Ashes of Empires],” he explains. “Ashes was seen to be the big comeback record for us. I don’t think we felt any real pressure to make music, or that we have to make this one bigger or whatever. We knew what we liked, and we knew what we didn’t like. Dave (McClain, drums) came in with a ton of riffs, and Robb came in with this acoustic piece that I and Dave had written three or four years ago. He came in with that. We just weren’t scared to try anything. If we were feeling what was going on, we weren’t worried about anybody else. That kinda formula has worked for us. People just happen to like what we like.”
One of the things that people have always seemed to like about Machine Head is “Davidian”, the crushing first track from their 1994 debut Burn My Eyes, an album that was Roadrunner’s best selling release for almost five years. But on the Mayhem Festival run they were restricted to a thirty-five minute set. As Demmel points out, “35 minute set equals five Machine Head songs!” Needless to say, many tracks didn’t make the cut.
“We’ve gotten to the point where, on this last run we didn’t play ‘Davidian’. That’s the first time in the band’s career where we’ve done that”, Demmel says. “There’s been a very minor backlash, where a few people said, ‘They didn’t play anything off Burn My Eyes!’. They’re more interested in ‘Halo’ than ‘Davidian’ these days, anyway, and that’s a good thing.”
Something else that he sees as good is the health of metal music in the modern era compared to two decades ago when it looked like it was finally on its last legs and Demmel and Flynn’s previous band Vio-Lence was just about to splinter.
“I was watching metal die 20 years ago, in 1991,” he reflects. “The previous band I was in was coming to an end and I was watching Nirvana and Alice in Chains and Soundgarden and everybody else take over the world. I’d say that circle had come around: Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and all these bands getting back together again! Wondering if that grunge thing is going to come and the temple of the dog is going to come down and crush everything down again!”
He laughs ominously, but only for a moment. The world has changed a lot since those days, and the music industry is a vastly different thing than the beast that dropped everything to jump on the Seattle bandwagon. In light of the digital revolution, Phil Demmel is much more optimistic about metal’s longevity.
“Playing this long and being able to see it for this long, I see that with the Internet age and and MP3s and the downloading, there’s just so much more awareness of what’s going on, instead of the cassette trading and the fanzine age that I grew up in was so much different. I think metal has a better chance now.”
While bands like Machine Head can continue to pump out masterpieces like Unto the Locust, it’s hard to not feel the same way.