Justify Your Shitty Taste: Machine Head “The Burning Red”

Okay, before we step into the ring, fair warning: This is going to be some bare-knuckles shit. Go ahead and tighten up your gut.

Simply put, it’s disconcerting and borderline infuriating to me that anyone might be “called to the defense” of Machine Head‘s The Burning Red. It doesn’t need it; given its arsenal of bulletproof riffs and intrepid songcraft buttoned up by the tactical precision of the performances it documents, it’s fortified enough already. Machine Head’s third go ’round bristles with fast-paced rabbit and liver punches rather than the clumsy haymakers of their previous output. The Burning Red is both light and sure on its feet. The fucker will blindside you. It’s devastating. In case I’m just not being clear enough for you , allow me to fucking spell it out. Point blank, The Burning Red is a better album than either Burn My Eyes or The More Things Change… I said that shit; I meant that shit.

Yes, I’ve seen the “From This Day” video and, yes, I recall The Burning Red‘s promo pics and, yes, those fuckers looked like grown men dressing up as Coal Chamber for Halloween. Absolutely shameless and grotesque. Certainly. But here’s the thing: That sort of posturing was nothing remotely new for Machine Head. I know you’ve seen the video for “Davidian” off of their debut. Recall the parading around of the pit bull on that thick-ass chain? Remember the cornrows and the clearly superfluous toboggans? The teased-out goatees? Sure you do. Was that shit dope? No sir, it was not dope. In fact, it couldn’t have been more contrived. Robb Flynn, a leading architect of Bay Area thrash’s third and last viable wave before the long drought that spanned from The Black Album to the early aughts, affected his very best Evan Seinfeld wardrobe change and masqueraded his way right into your non-discriminating little heart, and you didn’t say shit. Fine by me. I don’t give a fuck. But fast forward five years later to a head full of liberty spikes and some gaudy jump suits, and suddenly you wake up and start wagging your finger like that sort of bullshit was out of character. Let me ask you this: What the fuck were you doing watching MTV in 1999 anyway? Were you expecting to catch something worthwhile? Everybody knows that the music video format peaked with Kreator’s “Betrayer” video back in ’89. If you carved out time in your day for MTV in the late ’90s, you absolutely earned the kick in the nuts that you no doubt received.

Am I saying that the “From This Day” track is even remotely enjoyable? No, quite obviously, it’s horrific. It sounds like DC motherfucking Talk got hold of the Judgment Night soundtrack and said to themselves, “Hey guys, why should the devil have all the good music?” The song unequivocally sucks. Almost equally as bad is the retread of the Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” which is sappy, unfocused and almost weirdly superfluous given that Machine Head must have been aware of Excel’s far superior cover of the same song back in 1989. While we’re at it, the “Silver” track lumbers into some relatively lackluster Creed territory. Though the song’s not especially offensive, considered in context with the two aforementioned tracks, all situated smack in the middle of The Burning Red, its impact may seem especially discouraging.

So, what’s the upshot here? Why am I bothering to speak up for this fucker? Well, I’ll fucking tell you why: It’s because of the edification I received from a little band called Celtic Frost. Said edification I shall now share with you. You’ll need to grab your copies of To Mega Therion and Cold Lake. Oh, you don’t have copies of one or both albums? Well, you’re fucked, shithead. Get thee to the back of the fucking line for having either horrible taste or not being a Frost completist. Now, for all you good-hearted people who’ve dutifully outfitted yourselves with physical copies of both albums, I want you to study the band photo accompanying To Mega Therion. It’s forgivable to get swept up in diverting thoughts regarding “Circle of the Tyrants” or “Jewel Throne” and just how fucking boss they are, but keep your eyes on that photo. Notice anything? No? That’s okay. Switch to the Cold Lake band photo for as long as you can stand it.

Wait… wait… wait… now! Return your gaze to the first picture and take note of the teased hair, the fucking fingerless gloves, the softcore porn lighting, the tasteless over-accessorization, and let the realization pelt you like a cleansing rain. These heroes, these honest to god pathfinders, basically looked like cock rock hacks well before Cold Lake, even during their most broadly venerated moments, i.e., To Mega Motherfucking Therion.

“Yeah? Well what about that Curt Victor Bryant guy with his stupid ass suspenders and his jeans unzipped down to his hairless motherfucking bag? That’s way fucking worse.” Perhaps so, therefore I counter with the accompanying photo to the “I Won’t Dance” single off of Into the Pandemonium. Take a gander at Ron Marks in that picture and tell me how that’s any better. You simply can’t. What’s my point? My point is this: the men and women who produce the music that we admire or revile go through silly-ass phases just like you or me or anybody else. Those phases are inevitably captured in one way or another, and then pinioned to whatever auditory document they happened to have concurrently produced, at which point, we, the listening public, draw up our own myopic and frequently intractable associations. Thanks to the excellent tutelage of Celtic Frost, I’ve learned to look past such utter frippery so as not to miss out on the To Mega Therions of the world. The fault lies not in our stars, but in our motherfucking selves. You more than likely overlooked the tackiness inveterate to early Frost because you arrived late to the party and that shit had long been grandfathered in. Essentially, the scene told you it was okay to overlook it in the same way that it was deemed okay to overlook the laughable “thug life” tropes of “Davidian.”

Now don’t get me wrong: if the rest of The Burning Red came even close to the vapid errors of “From This Day” or “Message in a Bottle,” (’cause that’s what they are), you wouldn’t be reading this piece. But even though those particular tracks leer out from the middle of the album, they’re not its heart. Its heart is liberally incorporated into the intensity of “Nothing Left,” juxtaposed against its smart, Cave In-like melodic asides. Its in the emphatic, forced march grimness of “I Defy” and “Exhale the Vile,” as well as in the Mindrot-esque neo-doom of “Devil With the King’s Card.”  It pulses hard as fuck in “Five” (which, by the way isn’t conveying some Hell Awaits style play-pretend. That’s actual misery you’re hearing there, wrung painstakingly from traumatic life experience.) It’s in the goddamned riffs, man! Fuck! Machine Head didn’t abandon a single thing that you loved about their first two albums on The Burning Red except for those dumbass toboggans. All the good shit’s still there; i’s simply been elaborated upon, and largely for the better.

As I said before, I don’t really feel that this album needs me to defend it. It stands unflinchingly, even smugly on the same foundation that it was hoisted upon over 15 (!) years ago. It’s a foundation of genuine intensity, inventiveness, craftsmanship and appalling taste in clothing. I can forgive that last bit because it just doesn’t fucking matter. You go hanging your hat on a weak ass nail like that and you’re going to lose it. Everyone goes through a dumbass phase or two from which they generally emerge unscathed, and sometimes all the better for having the experience. Here’s hoping that shortsightedness is nothing more than one of your dumbass phases.

Revisit The Burning Red with an open mind, and when at last the valedictory strains of the closing track have fully ebbed and the air hangs shockingly silent around you, I invite you to take a deep breath and then to congratulate yourself for taking a laudable step towards growing the fuck up. Thank you, Thomas Gabriel Warrior, for always showing us the way.