Alex Volz looks at the dramatic rise and fall of theoretical rapper Boonk.Read More
Let's dig through the crates and go back eighteen years ago to February 29, 2000. Mr. Rat in a Cage and Co. (aka The Smashing Pumpkins) have put together a final farewell to fans in the form of a very ambitious fifth -- sixth if you count the b-sides & rarities “Pisces Iscariot” -- LP called “MACHINA/Machines of God.” Originally, this album was planned to be a reminder to longtime fans of the older Smashing Pumpkins material with the return of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain and even went as far as to be released as a double album much like that of the monstrous, beautiful and eccentric non-concept album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”
But due to poor album sales with the Chicago natives' previous effort, “Adore,” Virgin Records shut down any chance of the dual LP becoming a reality. With so much material being recorded, a secondary album, “Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music,” was released via the internet for free for anybody to download it. With all of this being said, I'm going to focus on the album that had been physically released by the Pumpkins.
At first listen, this album viciously grabs your attention with the first of three singles, “The Everlasting Gaze,” whose guitar work and industrial drumming are reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails while Corgan screams “you know I;m not dead.” You are soon caught up in the song and quickly singing along with the chorus. “The Everlasting Gaze” is just a peek at what this album has to offer when the band is at its heaviest. Some of the other standout pieces on “MACHINA” are the incredibly unsettling, dark and somewhat depressing “Glass And The Ghost Children” and the second single, “Stand Inside Your Love.”
By digging a bit more into “Glass and the Ghost Children,” you can hear how everything goes well with this track. As the music creeps along, Corgan’s vocals stand out amid lines like “black rooms are calling/two men in leather coats/white labs are cooking up the silver ghost” make your hair stand on end and paint a diluted picture of drug abuse and insanity as the two wait hand in hand. “Stand Inside Your Love” speaks of something else completely. With an entire music-scape being built from atmospheric guitar, light keys and some tribal-esque drumming, the track comes off as a pleading love song with probably one of the best choruses of the entire album: “who wouldn’t be the one you love?/who wouldn’t stand inside your love?”
Musically, this LP ranges from industrial sounds to dream pop to straight heavy metal (check heavy metal machine.) With that being said, the feel of the album remains in the same vein regardless of approach. Corgan might be screaming or pleading or just pouring his heart out as he breaks down over Chamberlain’s massive drumming or the accompanying fills, but the feeling remains. I believe one of the many common factors as this album plays on is that it is very produced, and even though guitar and drums are their main focus, synthesizers are heavily used in many songs.
As I wade through the album, my favorite pieces of music have got to be “The Everlasting Gaze”, “Stand Inside Your Love”, “Try, Try, Try,” “Glass and the Ghost Children” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears”. The album is not without it’s flaws, however, with some of the most notable being “The Imploding Voice,” which seems not as well constructed, possessing an awkward guitar progression riding over a vocal that seems out of place. And the song “With Every Light” just feels like it’s more of a throwaway track than one that made it onto this concept album.
And since this was originally poised as a concept album that not many Pumpkins fan could ever seem to get right, here’s my opinion. Our protagonist, Zero, is a rock star who, at one point in his life, hears the voice of God, switches his name to Glass and changes the name of his band to “The Machines of God.” The album follows our hero through his disintegrating ego, culminating in possible insanity through a sense of self-importance.
"Maybe God never spoke to me?," he wonders aloud to his unnamed and drug abusing girlfriend after noticing her in a self induced heroin stupor. Believing that she will forget or not even remember the conversation, he just goes on and on about his routine, and she accuses him of being insane, an event which finds expression in the track “Glass and the Ghost Children.” This is where the album begins to change, and we lose sight of the larger story. But the themes of sadness, self-importance, self-realization, anger and love still ring clear.
What is impressive is at this point in the album I have realized that everything thus far has been part of a deliberate theatricality. But is Corgan also waving his white flag and realizing that the loss and overall ending of the band was perhaps caused by him this whole time? The regret he feels continues through “The Tree of Mercury," possibly one of their most underrated songs. Lyrics like “I’ve been waiting like a knife to cut open your heart and bleed my soul into you” and “although I’m selfish to a fault, is it selfish it’s you I want?” are tear-jerking at its very best.
I could probably spend this entire review talking about lyrics and my favorite lines from different songs on this underrated “final” album, but I will just give you a general overview of everything that I have experienced. This album is most definitely a journey, clocking in at just over 73 minutes -- you feel yourself following your hero, be it Zero/Glass or Corgan, through his narcissistic ego-centricities and to his doubt of himself and those around him. His closest relationships are falling apart around him due to everything that he has done to cause this to happen: “You are sweetest flower that I have ever devoured.”
In the end, he comes to realize that when everything becomes clear around him and he understands finally why they are in the place that they are, everything leads back to him -- and it is so clear and so in front of his face that he cant turn away from it. The album is incredibly underrated, though not perfect (see above). It is absolutely worth giving another listen in the future.
Come up with your own theories. Everything is up for interpretation. But eighteen years ago, when music really wasn’t at its best, a '90s giant of a band offered a very personal, true and beautifully heavy-hitting album that, even if it does miss the mark a bit, still deserves a rummage through a crate of forgotten memories. And it certainly earns that further investigation. I don’t score albums. I don’t think you can really justify art that way because we are all going to see things differently. I can, however, tell you that “MACHINA/The Machines of God” deserves more respect among music fans in general. So today, if you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, turn the page back to the year of boy bands, frosted hair tips, auto tune and pop divas and get your Smashing Pumpkins on.
According to Geordie McElroy, frontman for the band Blackwater Jukebox, he is a preeminent ethnomusicologist whose songwriting is inspired by the myths and music he uncovered during his years of globetrotting research for the Smithsonian Institute. Ask any of Geordie McElroy’s extremely vocal critics however, and they’ll accuse him of glib cultural appropriation and musical plagiarism, all cloaked in the guise of scholarly research he may or may not have actually conducted. While the complete truth about Geordie McElroy may never be known (even to Geordie himself), this much is certain: Blackwater Jukebox makes fun music.
No Blackwater Jukebox recording captures that sense of fun better than “The Howling,” the title track from the band’s 2016 EP. After Blackwater’s line-up ballooned to an impressive if unwieldy nine members, McElroy decided to whittle the instrumentation down to a core of five: banjo, bassoon, bass, drums and guitar. This leaner and tighter Blackwater is able to deftly tackle the tricky tempo changes and frenetic pace in “The Howling.” By recording the band live in their home studio, guitarist/producer Jonathan Soucy captures the rare sound of a band actually having fun together while working on an album.
As with songs like “Carousel,” “Bone Yard” and “Black Rain,” McElroy again returns to the lyrical theme of death’s inevitability, this time explored through the story of a man who lives in fear of the murderous werewolf that lurks within him. McElroy often revels in the mystical, the magical and the macabre, and this song offers up a great blend.
“On Jordan’s stormy bank I stand / border town to the promised land / Lord oh Lord oh Lord what could I do?” laments the song’s cursed anti-hero as the tempo quickens and the band begins to literally howl. His conclusion that “no one’s escaping destiny” applies to the victims and the unwilling murderer alike.
Blending unlikely elements is one of the great joys of Blackwater Jukebox, and McElroy’s galloping, rapid-fire lyrics owe a lot to his rap influences. Over the last quarter century, hip hop has cross-pollinated with rock, metal and even country music. But Blackwater Jukebox may still be the only band to try and blend rap with Eastern European folk standards. The fact that it’s being done by a band of over-educated white LA hipsters only seems to add fuel to the fire of McElroy’s passionate critics. But when the music is this fun, who really cares?