Machine Head could get no lower by the end of 2002. Fourteen months after the release of Supercharger (Roadrunner) the band was at their wit’s end seemed to be on a slide. Having the misfortune of releasing that album just three weeks after 9/11, touring well, but at a tough time in the business for a touring band, and undergoing a transition, they were definitely standing on a ledge, looking over an abyss at their futures. After delivering their Hellalive album in early 2003, they were without a label for the first time since they were signed in the early 1990s. As detailed in the Elegies DVD from 2005, the band hunkered wrote as a three-piece, later on getting some contributions from Robb Flynn’s Vio-Lence shredder pal Phil Demmel. Finally getting a release ready for Roadrunner in Europe and still without a US label, the band released Through The Ashes Of Empires on December 16th 2003 with little fanfare outside the fanbase.
Through The Ashes Of Empires is not so much an album, but a mission statement from the band. With the same rage and energy of their earliest work, the band may have felt desperate making the album, but they also sound so confident and grown as writers. It came out too late in a year to be recognized in a crowded field of greats like Lamb Of God, Enslaved, Opeth, Katatonia, Children Of Bodom, Gojira, Anthrax and more. Over time, however, TTAOE took its a place among the best albums of this year like a bolt from the blue. The vicious thrash riffs, harsh vocals, deep subject matter, and upper echelon performances really propelled the album. ‘Imperium’ wasn’t the first song finished for the album, but what an opening salvo! Even today when you hear the opening scream of “Hear me now!”, you will get chills. The song is classic Machine Head, but also felt fresh, hostile and unrelenting. The band put everyone on notice that thought they fell off with The Burning Red and Supercharger, (they didn’t) and they were out for blood.
Heavy bangers like ‘Bite The Bullet’ and ‘Left Unfinished’ are bangers, with little touches of all the eras of the band. Both have amazing drums by Dave McClain and harmony vocals. ‘Elegy’ is another standout track with its almost doom riffs and foreboding messages. ‘In The Presence of My Enemies’ is another solid track with a Burn My Eyes feel. Flynn’s vocals and the occasional harmony of former bassist Adam Duce dot the songs and give a nod to where the band was taking this sound. The track also features a killer solo from Demmel.
The masterpiece of the album is definitely ‘Days Turn Blue To Grey’. Painful and deeply personal like most of the album, the track just cuts you lyrically, and the kills sonically. Heavy, melodic, well composed and compelling from start to finish. It’s not the heaviest or most technical track, but it definitely set the tone of what was to come. A certain top ten track for the bands’ immortal playlist, and it is still in the set list as of the bands recent “An Evening With..” tours. The single/video propelled the band back to the frontlines, helped remind people they did not suck and they were back!
‘Vim’, ‘All Falls Down’ and ‘Wipe the Tears’ are all Flynn and McClain compositions, and solid late album tracks. With the release of TTAOE for the USA on Roadrunner (still the only band the label has ever asked back after dropping), they went to record a new song, ‘Seasons Wither’. This song written by Flynn and Demmel was firmly in the spirit of melodic thrash metal and is a powerhouse song. I know many fans in the US, this was actually the track that led them to discover this album, and in some cases the band itself. It’s a real masterpiece and would be something special to build on.
The album closer ‘Descend The Shades of Night’ is an epic meditation on death, and it still holds up. Exquisite guitars, somber vocals, and a killer chorus make this another top track. If you have seen the `Head live you have seen scores of tough-guy bro moshers crying their eyes out by the end of this song.
Through The Ashes OF Empires proves that “nothing is over”, to quote Rocky. It’s not the finest Machine Head album, but it certainly breathed new life into the band and warmed up fans for what was to come next on The Blackening. With the recent departure from MH of Demmel and McClain, you might say the era that started with this album is over. At the same time, look how they battled back from adversity before you ever count them out.