Down and out, dead in the water, nowhere to run. Bay Area metal band Machine Head carries a back-breaking metaphorical suitcase full of Been There Done That Got Screwed dirty laundry — most of which had the band teetering on the brink of extinction — through every rehearsal, every recording session, and every concert they play. The blistering speed, the violent rage, the wicked words are all testament to the tumultuous times the Machine has endured. Most bands would break, all bands would bend. But this band is no band at all — they’re a monstrous mechanical middle finger spitting boiling blood in the face of adversity. And then begging for more.
Why else would a controversial metal band with a rocky past, yet on the cusp of a potential platinum resurgence, open up their highly anticipated new album with a 10-minute, 27-second Civil War—themed grand proclamation? The Blackening welcomes listeners with the ferocious sprawl of “Clenching The Fists Of Dissent,” one of four tracks on the eight-song album exceeding nine minutes in length. The track has more ingredients than a street vendor hotdog, more changes than Michael Jackson’s profile. Yet the album’s welcoming mat, like Blackening as a whole, somehow works. It could be the colossal song structures or the infuriating guitar play or the bloodthirsty vocals that separate this Machine from the countless other screaming bags of hate available on today’s metal market. But, eh, we don’t think so. Just a quick listen and Machine Head’s distinction jumps out and kicks you square in the face. It’s the drums, man. It’s the drums.
Dave McClain is the Hemi engine under the hood of the Machine. All piss and pistons, he’s a beastly basher with venomous speed and thunderous power yet enough creative deceit to effectively juggle these razor blade drum parts without so much as a paper cut finger. Crisp and strong, complex and blinding fast, McClain is a determined woodshedder armed to the teeth with talent. And his work on The Blackening could certainly be his best yet, as he and his bandmates felt a newfound freedom while taking on the album. “We went through so much stuff as a band for our last album,” sighs McClain, articulate and humble. Quieter than you’d think. “I think we went through more stuff during a six month period than most bands go through their entire career. There was a time we didn’t have a record label, we just lost a guitar player, we didn’t have anything. What are we going to do? Well, we could fold it all in right then and there, or we could keep going. [Screw] it, let’s keep going. So we just started writing stuff.
“It was almost a freedom, not having to worry about songs going too long or making a single or all that stuff. And Through The Ashes Of Empires was received so well, like a rebirth almost. So we wanted to take that same approach and carry it over to this album. It felt good, it was fun, and we wanted to take it to a new level.”
The band will usually spend about a year writing songs for an album, and Blackening was no different. While singer/guitarist/producer Robert Flynn is the undeniable driver of the Machine, the creative process is nonetheless a highly collaborative effort. “Everybody brings in riffs,” McClain explains. “I play guitar too and write stuff, so I’ll bring in some ideas, along with everybody else. We have a dry erase board in the practice room, and we start naming riffs. Like we had this one riff called “Iron Russian” because it sounded kind of Russian and like an Iron Maiden riff. So we give them stupid names and go from there, trying to put the songs together. Over the year of songwriting, we definitely go through a lot of demo processes — probably three or four times.”
Even McClain’s drum parts are open for collaboration. It takes a true pro to welcome suggestions from fellow band members (especially from guitar players), but McClain considers these suggestions essential as well as comical. “Rob and I are always working on the drum stuff. He thinks he’s a drummer. He’s kind of a closet drummer, and sometimes he’ll have these ideas that are kind of, in a way, dumbed down. He’ll suggest something really simple that I would probably never do on my own. But he’ll make me try it and sometimes it actually sounds pretty cool. Most of the parts he suggests are cool to people who don’t really understand drumming.
“One thing he always says is, ’Dude, do it backwards!’ So I’ll have to do things like go up the toms instead of down the toms. We’ll record it that way, then I’m like, great, now I have to play it like that every night. He gets a kick out of it.”
They say you can tell a man by his drumming. While this may not work as a blanket theory, it certainly applies in the McClain study. When discussing his approach and his drumming philosophy regarding his studio recording sessions, it boils down to the two traits most prevalent in his ideology as well as his technique: efficiency and meticulousness. “The last couple weeks of writing, before we head into the studio, Rob and I really work hard on the drum parts. I hate getting into the studio and not being prepared for stuff. Just sitting there. So once we get into the studio, I’m ready to fly through the drum parts. I recorded these eight drum tracks in two days. The first day we did six tracks, then two tracks the next day. I leave the tougher songs for the end. Then we spent the next two days just trying different things — changing up fills or adding different layers.
“Every album up until this one, we’ve used a full-band scratch track. But this time, we got in there and we did it with just Rob and myself. It was just the two of us for the drum pre-production the two weeks prior, so we thought we’d see how it went. We don’t use a click track or anything; we just go in there and rock it out. And Rob’s the person I feed off the most when we’re playing. So we did it this way and it was awesome. It worked out great.
“Taking two other guitar players out of the equation cuts down so much of the noodling factor. Normally it takes so long just to start a song. You have three guitar players there and one person plays a little noise, then the other guitar player starts doing it, and it just goes on and on. So this way we cut out the five minutes of waiting from when we’d say we were starting a song and when we actually started it.”
Goodbye to guitar player noodling? Does life get any better than that? Yes it does, and it starts when you hear the drum sounds on The Blackening. On an album like this, it’s so easy for the drums to get swallowed in the bloody mud of screaming vocals and guitars. Not the case here. Snare hits like a stick of dynamite in a catcher’s mitt. Tom tones like church bells. Bass that makes your scrotum ache.
“It took us longer to get drum tones than it did to actually record the drums. We tried everything. We tried different drums, different heads, different mike placements. There were a couple things that were really surprising to me.
“We switched out my maple drum set for my birch drum set. I never realized how different the two sets could sound. It was amazing. And then switching up the heads really opened up the drums and it sounded so good. I just wanted to sit there in the studio and just play my drums all day. It blew me away how much better the birch kit sounded. It just opened everything up. The tone had more attack and it rang out more. A complete 180 from the maple kit. So I’m sticking with birch when we hit the road. Pearl is making me another birch kit right now. “I had been using the same kind of drumheads for probably ten years. But we decided to try some different head combinations. We started using Emperors for the top heads and Ambassadors for resonant heads, and the sound we got from that was amazing. We tried a couple snares, but mostly I stuck with my Pearl piccolo snare because I know how to tweak it out and make it rock.”