By Jeff Maki
Founded by vocalist/guitarist Robb Flynn (formerly of thrash metal band Vio-lence) and bassist Adam Duce in 1991, Bay Area thrash metal titans Machine Head will leave behind a surefire legacy as one of the only bands I can recall having two successful eras dominating the metal scene—one from 1994 to 1999 and then again from 2003 to the present day. The Machine Head we all know today—the one that is working on its yet-untitled eighth album—is not the same Machine Head that first broke on the scene. The band started as a formidable street metal act, eventually winning over audiences worldwide with its first two releases, only to ultimately hit a wall with two much-maligned albums, 1999’s The Burning Red (I’m sorry, but I think it’s damn good) and 2001’s Supercharger. After lineup changes and a battle with record labels, they came storming back with a trio of epic thrash metal albums, Through the Ashes of Empires (2003), the now-classic The Blackening (2007) and its most recent studio effort, Unto the Locust (2011). So as we wait for the next album and chapter in Machine Head’s long career, let us celebrate the 20th anniversary of its debut album, Burn My Eyes, by telling you the experience I had with the album and how it helped changed the face of metal for the future.
In 1994, there was no iTunes, no Spotify, Google Play or social media (and I had just had to verify it, but there wasn’t even YouTube.) Imagine a world and imagine a music world without all of this. It seems unrealistic in 2014. But that’s what our parents and many of us now in our 30s grew up with. We had to go out and buy our CDs or records the old-fashioned way, every now and then on nothing more than impulse and a hunch, and that’s what it was like in 1994 (the year I graduated from high school). 1994 saw some of the best releases in rock in my lifetime, like Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple and even Korn’s debut album. Despite Carcass’ Heartwork, Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven and others released that same year, Flynn (as you’ll see in the video below) felt metal had become “stagnant.” While I can’t say I totally agree, I get what he’s saying. Metal was due for a punch in the face, a wake-up call, something to change the landscape.
So how did I come across Burn My Eyes, just days after its release having not heard one note or reading a single thing about it? My friend and I were doing our thing on the weekend: record shopping, shootin’ the shit and finding things to do, when he came across this disc on sale at Tower Records in Annapolis, Md., for about $10 (which was extremely cheap compared to the usual $14 or 15.99 for CDs). “Machine Head, are you sure, man?” I asked. “Why the hell not?” he replied. The album cover looked cool enough and a sticker proudly proclaimed something like, “The heaviest debut release ever, from this new Bay area band!” So he picked it up, and we were on our way home. “I don’t know, man.” Still, to me, this seemed like a shot in the dark.
When we popped the disc in, we were absolutely blown the fuck away! It didn’t hurt one bit that we had two 12-inch kickers, mounted tweeters and a brand new CD player (remember those?) in his tricked-out Honda Civic. As the the opening drum roll started for “Davidian” and the guitar riff began, we looked at each other, jaws dropping. “How the hell did we not know about this?” I asked. The furious double bass was surrounding us, we could feel it thumping it our chests, and when Flynn’s vocals started, we were in awe. “Why the hell did you even think to buy it?” Thankfully, he did, and this release now goes down in my book as one of the top metal releases of all time.
Flynn’s vocals at the time of Burn My Eyes were very different for a metal band. They were almost like an angrier, louder, meaner James Hetfield. While most other bands of the time had high-pitched screamers or guttural growlers, his vocal style was clear but aggressive, a perfect fit for the music. By the time “Davidian” was over, I was sure it is without a doubt one of the heaviest and best metal songs ever recorded. How could it not be with a chorus of “Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast?” I’ve since found out its lyrics focus on the Waco Siege of 1993. Track No. 2, “Old,” later released as a single with remixes, will make you move to the groove-style riffing and contains the memorable shouted lyric “Jesus wept.” “A Thousand Lies” has a long acoustic introduction and build before launching into pure heaviness and groove with one of the album’s most memorable choruses. Guitar soloing wasn’t really the standard for Machine Head for Burn My Eyes as it is for the band today—and if it’s there in any doses, I don’t remember it well. The album was groove-laden and built on pummeling rhythm.
Where do I go from here? After these three songs alone, the purchase was an outstanding one. Anything after this point would be a bonus. Next up is “None But My Own,” a ballad-type song that builds to an exploding bridge, then a lightning-fast part, followed by a “New Level” Pantera-style chorus. The guitars combined with some of the best drumming I’ve ever heard and perfect production from now go-to producer Colin Richardson.
Other standout tracks are “Death Church,” (whose name tells all) a mid-paced riff-heavy anti-religious anthem; “Blood for Blood,” where the band just lets it fuckin’ rip in a Slayer speed metal fury; and “Block,” now a Machine Head live staple, with the crowd shout-out of “Fuck it all!” “Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies” is as “real” as its title, written about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. There are no fillers here and no bullshit, again something that was rare for metal albums during that period.
Flynn has talked about recording the album in Oakland, Calid., sharing a studio with a bunch of punk rock bands (also in the video below). They were in a predominately black neighborhood and attributes that to the “street vibe” of the record, also adding that the band members were all fans of hip-hop, as well. As far a musical influences, he cites the hardcore metal-rap pioneers Biohazard and experimental metallers Neurosis as influences. It seemed as if the surrounding environment created the perfect storm for this monster debut.
Burn My Eyes is an album that should be mentioned 50 years from now when someone is explaining the history of heavy metal. The album shipped more than 400,000 copies worldwide, becoming Roadrunner Records’s best selling debut album until Slipknot’s debut years later. It changed the landscape of metal, showing that you didn’t always have to have lyrics about fantasy, demons and wizards, instead focusing on real-life and the state of the world. Machine Head did for metal in 1994 what N.W.A. did for hip-hop years earlier: They brought the music and lyrics to the streets. It also opened eyes by showing a metal band could remain brutally heavy and be successful having something of a commercial appeal. Unknown at the time, Burn My Eyes eventually would lay the groundwork for a bulk of metal bands we hear today.