From the inside there is a pure, honest glory; the glory of release; halfway between catharsis and sheer abandon; dervishes driven by power chords; minds set ablaze by lyricism and borderline lycanthropy. Inside the Ulster Hall on May 28th the glory, the power and the unbridled joy that is heavy metal landed like a tow ton hammer determined to smash the venerable old building’s foundations into submission.
Machine Head – better known as Machine Fucking Head to those in the know – are ironing out any kinks in their set after the Eighth Plaque tour of the US and the festival circuit across Europe. As declared from the stage Machine Head have a special affinity with the island of Ireland and Belfast in particular.
That they keep coming back is a tribute to promoters and the band’s sheer bloody mindedness.
Kicking off the show were Dublin hopefuls Dead Label, who warmed up the slowly filling hall with their full on approach. Definitely a band with prospects, they however, were at times one dimensional, and the precussion while precise relied too much on crash and ride cymbals rather than using these as punctuation. This experience will help hone their skills, but we have to ask why a Dublin band was given this slot when so many Northern Ireland bands that gig constantly, produce solid releases and, we would contend, are more experienced are not given these opening slots?
Evile were the filling in the sandwich between openers and the main attraction. With Evile you know what you get. Straight forward (well as far as thrash can be straightforward technically speaking!) thrash that lays it down as if grunge and hair metal never happened.
In a quick, frenetic blast through old and new releases Evile brought a simmering Ulster Hall close to boiling point, with new song ‘Cult’ being notable together with ‘…Pit’ in provoking the first half serious moshing.
They may not be everyone’s cup of thrash tea – and some damn them unfairly for apparently not being born when thrash was at its height – but Evile have developed a skill level and dexterity that trounces the naysayers. And announcing a headline slot at The Limelight on October 20th was one sure way to endear themselves to the crowd even if a good percentage of their fans won’t be old enough to get in let alone take a refreshing sherbert.
But when it comes to a band that crosses generational boundaries its Machine Head; not because they’ve been around for almost 20 years and not because they deliver crushing riffs, hummable solos and choruses right out of the 80s metal playbook. No, it is because they touch at the sheer unadulterated delight of metal; the delight that sees strangers roar in each others’ faces, not in anger, but in primal howls of pleasure.
New(ish) album Unto the Locust was given most airplay, but after all that’s only fair. And they were equally fair to diehard fans with older songs and an impressive stage show.
Full-on crowd participation was the order of the night, and there was little need for the call to arms from the stage, although the banter about trying to be louder than Dublin is a little old for even Machine Head.
Flynn commended Belfast for its intensity, but this is a reciprocal arrangement. The more intense the performance, the more intense of the crowd response, which feeds off the band’s intensity and so on, creating a virtuous heavy metal feedback loop.
With faultless performances of Sonata and Be Still and Know pushing already boiling temperatures that bit higher by the time Imperium was pounding out febrile fans down the front were rabidly calling out the songs.
Literacy is a hurdle that many bands fall over as they attempt to construct songs and the lyric. Clichés too often abound. But Machine Head – and Rob Flynn in particular know that the two are wed. As he outlined onstage Locust is an allegory for a certain type of doomed relationship, but Darkness Within is on another level.
It is an ode to the power of heavy metal. In what felt like a genuinely heartfelt tribute to Belfast, Flynn recalled the band’s 94 support tour with Slayer, saying that Belfast was the second date on a tour that saw four young Californians first trip outside the States, to be greeted by armed police and soldiers and fans with an intense love of heavy metal. He spoke of how metal touches at the hearts, reaches its dark fist into your soul to bring light and how background mainstream and dance ‘music’ can never, ever match the peerless ferocity of metal.
Encores saw Halo delivered with its usual guitar-laden aplomb and then ‘Freedom Rang with a shotgun blast’ as Davidian ended the night.
There will always be naysayers who readily knock any band, but they are a tiny minority when it comes to Machine Head. They’ve earned every ounce of their success; they deserve every plaudit. Once they were asked live whether they were thrash metal, black metal etc etc. Rob Flynn and Phil Demmell looked blankly at the camera and said: “We’re just a heavy metal band!” All hail that sentiment.