OF KINGDOM AND CROWN
10 / 10
POUND FOR POUND THE GREATEST RECORD MACHINE HEAD HAVE EVER MADE.
Every album in the MACHINE HEAD catalogue has its merits and charms, but there is a fairly broad consensus that two albums stand out as particularly significant. Released in 1994, "Burn My Eyes" was an epoch-wrecking debut that noisily established Robb Flynn's band as standard bearers for a new breed of heaviness. Released in 2007, "The Blackening" was another serendipitous moment in time, wherein a surge of creativity pushed MACHINE HEAD to new heights, a new level of popularity and the most exhaustive world tour(s) of their career.
Both are certified classics, with the obvious drawback that everything released subsequently has been unfavorably compared to one or both of them. In particular, MACHINE HEAD's last album was a straightforwardly divisive affair, but the persistent narrative that it was some woeful, career-threatening folly doesn't withstand a great deal of scrutiny. Released in 2018, "Catharsis" was a deliberately diverse and unwieldy concoction.
Like its title suggested, it offered a sustained splurge of ideas and a clearing of the emotional decks. Yes, a few tracks incurred the wrath of the overly sensitive by daring to stray a bit too far off the beaten track, but judging by those same tracks' streaming figures — not to mention the almost entirely sold out tour(s) that followed its release, during which those songs were performed to a positive reception — "Catharsis" was perfectly popular enough, at least with MACHINE HEAD's distinctly diehard fan base.
Nonetheless, the perception that Flynn's crew are in desperate need of a comeback persists, and so "Of Kingdom And Crown" arrives under the weight of great expectations. The first MACHINE HEAD album to feature DECAPITATED founder Vogg on guitar, this hour-long tour de force could hardly be a more robust and inarguable response to that external pressure. If people whine about this one, they are going to look extremely fucking silly.
Ferociously focused, bursting at the seams with brilliant songs and ruthlessly contemporary on a sonic level, "Of Kingdom And Crown" showcases the upgrade MACHINE HEAD have undergone over the last few years. Those who saw the band on the ill-fated "Burn My Eyes" reunion tour witnessed both the partial reconvening of the original MH lineup, but also the birth of a newer incarnation, featuring Vogg and drummer Matt Alston, alongside Flynn and bassist Jared McEachern. Those shows demonstrated what fresh blood and a sharper perspective can do, even for a veteran band.
Thrillingly, MACHINE HEAD sounded more precise and destructive than they ever had, and it's that crushing, pointedly hyper-modern approach that defines "Of Kingdom And Crown" too. Here, the drums are performed by noted badass Navene Koperweis (ex-ANIMALS AS LEADERS), but the principle and performance remain the same — tight, brutal, precise — throughout what is easily this band's most vicious and punishing album yet.
The backdrop to all of this is that "Of Kingdom And Crown" is MACHINE HEAD's first concept record. A dystopian tale of existential torment and horrifying violence, it tells the tumultuous tale of two troubled protagonists whose lives entwine, with (as one might hope) deeply unpleasant consequences. For the first time ever, Robb Flynn has written songs from someone's perspective other than his own, and his delight in that freedom is writ large through what is arguably his strongest and most vividly poetic collection of lyrics to date. Manifestly open to endless interpretation, the story has a beginning, middle and somewhat nebulous end, and gives "Of Kingdom And Crown" a level of pre-release intrigue that it might not have otherwise had. Thankfully, what the conceptual conceit doesn't do is distract from the real story here: that is that MACHINE HEAD have crafted a stone-cold masterpiece, and an album that at least deserves to be held in the same high esteem as those two earlier benchmarks.
Frankly, this is an audacious piece of work. "Of Kingdom And Crown" begins with "Slaughter The Martyr", a ten-minute epic with multiple movements, it begins as an elegiac, acoustic hymn that ebbs and flows in an ambient haze for a full three minutes before any drum is struck in anger. MACHINE HEAD have written ten-minute songs before, and some really fucking good ones, but "Slaughter…" is on another level. With numerous exhilarating twists and turns and a final crescendo that ties the melodic threads together in a perfect, bloody bow, it contains every definitive element of the band's sound, but used in a much more imaginative way. In its overpowering entirety, "Slaughter The Martyr" feels momentous: an important line drawn in the creative sand.
Remarkably, everything that follows hits the same heights. Thanks to the drip-drip way that MACHINE HEAD have shared this album with the world, most of these songs will be familiar to dedicated fans, but it is worth repeating how fucking good they are. From the skull-shattering Bay Area snot of "Choke On The Ashes Of Your Hate" and the blastbeat-fuelled euphoria of "Become The Firestorm", to the immersive, prog-tinged pummeling of "Unhallowed" and the crestfallen crunch of "My Hands Are Empty", these were, and are, instantly identifiable as MACHINE HEAD classics. For those craving a dose of old-school Oakland ignorance, "Rotten" has a good dose of "Burn My Eyes" in its veins, but with the heaviness notched up even further. For those that regard "The Blackening" as MACHINE HEAD's undisputed peak, "Arrows In Words From The Sky" is this album's "Halo": a truly beautiful and poignant song, but one that still crushes skulls with a shit-eating grin on its face. To those we can add "Kill Thy Enemies" — a monstrously heavy and belligerent Bay Area throwdown with absurd amounts of singalong potential — and "Bloodshot", an all-out, thuggish riff-riot with zero clean vocals and a bad attitude. Both are likely to cause traffic accidents.
Perhaps even more significant than the self-evident quality of these songs is the fact that every one of them is composed of exquisitely satisfying individual moments. Songwriting is an inexact art, but everything here feels refined to the point of perfection, with each change of tempo or tricky transition making perfect sense, and every moving part humming in perfect synchronicity with those around it. The bug-eyed juggernaut breakdown midway through "Become The Firestorm"; "Unhallowed"'s joyously old-school, fists-in-the-air middle-eight-cum-second-chorus; Flynn and McEachern's clean vocal harmonies, which often border on magical; countless glorious drum fills that will have MACHINE HEAD acolytes frantically battering the air with flailing limbs in sweaty solidarity; the sheer filthiness of the main riff in "Kill Thy Enemies"; the choking enormity of "No Gods, No Masters"' arena-size chorus; the obvious, fizzing, lead guitar chemistry between Flynn and Vogg: on and on it goes, a gluttonous feast of dynamic and timeless metal detonations, built upon the most impressive armory of riffs that Robb Flynn has assembled since any album you care to mention. As an added bonus, "Of Kingdom And Crown" boasts several fiendishly inventive new uses for MACHINE HEAD's trademark harmonic squeals (just in case anyone was thinking of moaning about that).
Listening to this extraordinary hour of music, it's hard to believe that anyone ever doubted that MACHINE HEAD would live to fight another day. A murderous musical rampage that brings passion, technicality and a million great ideas together in a cyclone of massive riffs and even bigger hooks, "Of Kingdom And Crown" is a flawless show of strength: the kind of life-affirming metal album that bands rarely seem to make these days. Pound for pound, it's the greatest record MACHINE HEAD have ever made.
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