No matter what you think of Machine Head vocalist/guitarist/mastermind Robb Flynn, it can’t be denied that he’s one ambitious motherfucker. Following his band’s unfortunate descent into the deepest, darkest gutters of the nu metal ghetto, Flynn has re-molded Machine Head back into a post-thrash/groove metal juggernaut, known for penning epic-length tunes that cram more riffs and moods into eight to ten minutes of music than most bands of similar ilk bring to the table over the course of entire albums. For those familiar with Flynn’s tendency to throw everything and the kitchen sink into his records, it should come as no surprise then that Bloodstone & Diamonds, Machine Head’s eighth full length release, is their most sprawling and wildly varied work to date.
Bloodstone & Diamonds throws things for a loop right out of the gate with “Now We Die,” which takes Machine Head’s now familiar arena metal and adds a string section for the intro and choruses. Granted, they aren’t exactly the first metal band to go symphonic, but this makes for a truly strange contrast with their straight outta 1995 groove metal stylings. It’s a bit of a shock to the system at first listen, but once one becomes acclimated, the focus shifts to the strength of the songwriting and riffs; it’s a harbinger of the mix of familiarity and curveballs that’s to come.
From there, we get three standard issue MH tracks in the form of “Killers & Kings” “Ghosts Will Haunt My Bones” and the Charles Manson-themed “Night of the Long Knives,” each one a barrage of catchy riffs and choruses. This trio of tracks represents Machine Head doing what they do best; making big, slick, explosive songs, the metal equivalent of a Michael Bay production. It appears that Flynn front-loaded the album with more conventional songs in an effort to ease listeners into the remainder of the record, which sometimes sees the band veering into previously uncharted musical waters.
Things really take a turn with “Sail into the Black;” a track that begins with what sounds like Tuvan throat-singing, followed by piano, acoustic guitar and synth. An industrial-sounding beat comes in around the two-minute-and-thirty-second mark, but there isn’t even a hint of real heaviness until roughly four minutes deep when distorted guitars, thundering double bass and Flynn’s aggressive vocals threaten to swallow up everything that came before. Although there are portions of their catalog that I’m not particularly familiar with, I have no doubt that this is one of the most dynamically interesting songs Machine Head has ever written, and displays a knack for subtlety and restraint that the band isn’t exactly known for.
If that isn’t off the beaten path enough for you, there’s “Beneath the Silt,” which features a sludgy tempo and a stuttering, down-tuned guitar riff that vaguely recalls the likes of Meshuggah albeit much more accessible. No matter how far Flynn deviates from the classic MH formula, he takes care to keep things catchy, and in spite of this track sounding like nothing else in the band’s oeuvre, it’s still loaded with infectious riffage and refrains. If would be interesting to see him stretching out even further in such an atmospheric direction, as “Beneath the Silt” hints at the notion that there’s even more to Flynn’s songwriting chops than meets the eye.
Symphonic elements, this time with a full-on choir in tow, return to introduce “In Comes the Flood,” which is a little too bombastic for its own good. On this track Machine Head aim for a politically charged anthem ala “Peace Sells”, and they are largely hit the mark thanks to some pummeling guitar work, but lyrically it comes off as a bit contrived. You have to give them credit, I can’t think of any current mainstream metal bands that are tackling the shitty state of affairs our country is in with such memorable results; however the whole thing could use a little more grit and a lot less arena metal sheen.
The home stretch of the record kicks off with the sparse voice/synth/clean guitar of “Damage Inside,” which although pretty doesn’t add much to the album and probably would’ve been best left as a b-side. Fortunately, Machine Head follow this dud up with “Game Over,” one of the album’s strongest tracks, bolstered by an impressively vitriolic vocal performance from Flynn and a killer chorus. Although the track harkens back MH’s nu metal dark ages, they pull it off by infusing it with a combination of palpable viciousness and revved up tempos. “Game Over would’ve been the perfect track to end things on, but for some reason the band chose to tack on “Imaginal Cells,” an instrumental that can best be described as riff salad with a side of samples, and “Take Me Through the Fire;” not a bad track by any means, but definitely a lesser one in comparison to what came before.
All in all, Bloodstone & Diamonds is a long and sometimes strange trip, yet in spite of its bloat and some very odd sequencing choices on the band’s part, I can’t help but find the album enjoyable. Perhaps it’s because Machine Head will always appeal to my inner fourteen-year-old, for which the groove was the all, or perhaps it’s because the level of craftsmanship and ambitiousness displayed by Flynn and Co. appeals to the older me; the more I listen, the more I’m beginning to think it’s a little bit of both. Whatever the case, it’s impressive to see Machine Head continuing to evolve and stretch out creatively over two decades into their career, especially when most of their peers wouldn’t dare to fuck with the formula.