Into The Archives: Machine Head – Burn My Eyes

Rediscover one of the best and most-imitated albums of the 1990s

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My first experience of Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes came with the Collector’s Edition of their 2007 barnstormer, The Blackening: a bonus DVD with some music videos and bits and bobs. Crucially, that DVD also contained video of four songs from the band’s Burn My Eyes 10th Anniversary gig. Four songs, none of which the band had touched for at least five of those years, performed in a beery state, but with more vitality than was present on the entirety of The Blackening itself. I got hold of the album in question, but it remained in the CD rack for a while. Upon realising that the album had turned 20 in 2014, I devoted my extra seven years of aural maturity to giving it another listen, and I heard in it the basis of so much of the current metal mainstream that it took an entirely new place in my mental musical timeline. I even treated myself to a vinyl copy for my birthday.

There is guitar work here to rival the best of Metallica’s or Iron Maiden’s

The magic of this album (like Appetite for Destruction or Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?) stems from one of those times where a band’s line up, later to prove unworkable, gels superlatively for just long enough to produce something cohesive and timeless. Robb Flynn (since 2013 the only remaining founding member) showcases from the opening track, “Davidian” (a live staple to this day) how he can rally the listener around his vocals, howling a mixture of political commentary and youthful aggression while also providing the bulk of the rhythmic guitar work. The riffs, courtesy of Flynn and Logan Mader, are the cornerstone of the band’s sound and the success of these songs, and they walk the line perfectly between melody, groove and brutality. There is guitar work here to rival the best of Metallica’s or Iron Maiden’s, but there is also a darker, more personal sensibility typical of the ‘90s and arguably more sophistication in the songwriting than most of the Bay Area’s early ‘80s efforts. Drummer Chris Kontos (who was to leave the band before their second album) and bassist Adam Duce provide a driving rhythm section that mixes the speed and power of thrash rhythm with the groove and dynamic interplay of Black Sabbath. This line up really was a perfect storm.

It is also a diverse album, despite its unity of sound and message. “A Thousand Lies” and “Old” showcase some more melody and punk-oriented elements, while “The Rage to Overcome” and “Block” are sonic assaults of the most powerful kind. “Death Church” and “A Nation On Fire” hark back to ‘80s thrash a little more, encompassing clean introductions, a little gothic aesthetic and, in the case of the latter, a double-time outro worthy of Slayer. “Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies” is, unusually for this kind of music, a compelling soundscape, containing chaotic samples of dialogue relating to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots laid over a positively filthy groove, before breaking into some of Flynn’s angriest screams.

Burn My Eyes sounds just enough like it was recorded in a lockup, and just enough like it was mastered in a proper studio

A mention must also go to the production, for so many debut albums are robbed of their longevity by dated studio work, the legacy of a non-existent recording budget. Courtesy of Colin Richardson, whose palmarès reads like a who’s-who of modern metal (from Behemoth and Sepultura to Slipknot and Trivium), Burn My Eyes sounds just enough like it was recorded in a lockup, and just enough like it was mastered in a proper studio. The drums have a little bit of Pantera about them without succumbing to that “clicky” aesthetic, and are clear and sharp enough to cut through the incredibly thick and low-register guitars. Said guitars were laid down with what still proves to be one of the heaviest tones ever and, tuned so low along with Duce’s rich and articulate bass, the listener is presented with a rhythmic unit that carries considerable punch and depth.

It’s staggering how a few concerted listens can fundamentally change how you hear an album. Burn My Eyes used to be to my ears the unpolished genesis of the thrash band that produced “Aesthetics of Hate” and were hailed by many as Metallica’s successors. Now it is my go-to album for crushing grooves and social dissatisfaction.

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