Machina: The Machines Of God

Smashing Pumpkins

Virgin Records, 2000

REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman


Like all true rock innovators and visionaries, the Smashing Pumpkins have never rested on their laurels of success. Because in spite of all the attention, if you don't change, it's really just boring, whether you're Dylan, Bowie, or… yes, Billy Corgan. Where is artist loyalty in this decade? Why aren't all the people who loved Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness still eagerly awaiting the next offering of remorse from the artist who is now its prime musical source? Because they're too busy saying "Why can't he write another 'Cherub Rock,' another 'Disarm,' another 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings?'" Well, that's just too bad for them, because those who are sticking by Corgan and the Pumpkins have been rewarded with another masterpiece.

Ironically, the leadoff track to MACHINA, "The Everlasting Gaze," bears more than a passing resemblance to "Zero" at first blush. A no-nonsense wall of distortion, a guitar riff pounded into our heads to the point we can almost feel it. "You know I'm not dead / I'm just living in your head / forever waiting on the ways of your desire." Could Corgan be talking to those bandwagon fans? "The fickle fascination of an everlasting god?" It's not out of the question. But there are so many possible ways to interpret these lyrics, and that goes for most of the album. If one views the Pumpkins as a continuum, picking MACHINA up where Adore left off, "The Everlasting Gaze" seems to smash most of Adore to bits, preparing us all for a new chapter, with twists and turns which we can't possibly imagine.

"Raindrops And Sunshowers" comes next and sounds actually much more like parts of the Pumpkins' last album, the vastly-underappreciated-for-no-apparent-reason-other-than-it-didn't-rock-hard-enough Adore; an electronic beat, but a gorgeous, sweeping melody and slightly-clumsy but endearing sentiments like "I'm just trying to / walk with you" and "To get your love without obscured reflections of my love." "Where is he going with all this?" was my initial reaction to such a stark contrast between the first two songs. Then again, "To Sheila" and "Ava Adore" don't really sounds very much like each other either, to put it mildly.

What follows puts things sharply into focus, and is arguably the crowning achievement of Billy Corgan's songwriting career. "Stand Inside Your Love" is a powerful rocker, an intelligent sound collage, a touching love song, and a super-catchy stick-in-your-head melody all in one. It's the "Feels Like the First Time" for the '00s (and that's supposed to be a compliment in case there are any Foreigner haters out there reading this), and although it has already been released as a single, the fact that it hasn't been a more successful single is criminal when you hear the flotsam that masquerades as touching love songs on the radio these days.

Speaking of radio, "I Of The Mourning" is the next track, and is Corgan's take on the lonely soul who looks for salvation through the airwaves. This is not anything new as far as material goes, but this song sounds fresh and new thanks to another fantastic arrangement that's equal parts '80s new wave and '90s power punk.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

So after the vast array of ground that's covered merely on the first four songs, what's left for the Pumpkins on the rest of Machina? "The Sacred And Profane" is another fantastic set of rhythmic and guitar textures that would have fit it well on Adore but certainly doesn't sound out of place here. A couple of blistering and almost-humorous tracks, "Heavy Metal Machine" and "The Imploding Voice" alternate with two more classic examples of Pumpkins melancholia, "Try Try Try" and "This Time." The album does continue on for a full 73 minutes, and by the end you can barely remember those first four songs.

This is largely a result of the ten minute opus "Glass And The Ghost Children." It opens with a gothic bass line and some chaos that recalls Bauhaus (the '80s band, not the German architecture movement), with occasional pastoral flutes chiming in, which amazingly don't sound out of place. "I want to live / I don't want to die" is repeated throughout this section - it seems to be a recurring theme on the album. Images of ghosts, spiders, and God himself creep in throughout too, and after about five minutes of this, the song takes an abrupt metamorphosis. The gothic power ballad is gone, a voice pipes in over a quiet piano mumbling more theological questions, and then a lush, slightly-out-of-tune section begins with "So beats the final coda of a vinyl storm." The spiders are still here though - "Has she counted the spiders / as they crawled up inside her?" is repeated almost indefinitely, or so it seems.

What to make of all this? Sure, it's rather pretentious and excessive, but it gets better with every listen, and there's really been nothing that sounds quite like it. Ever.

One could argue that "Glass And The Ghost Children" would have been a fitting end to the album, and that they should've saved the rest for the next one. But this band has never adhered to popular conceptions of what makes a good rock and roll album, and that's what really sets them apart. MACHINA represents an album with a whole new feel; it almost seems like two albums due to the placement of the 10 minute separator. And although the cohesion breaks up a bit, there are some real gems if you're willing to stick it out until the end.

"The Crying Tree Of Mercury" recalls both the Cure and the track "Tear" from the Adore album in places, a fat '80s synth line and self-destructive tendencies like "I've been waiting like a knife / to cut open your heart and bleed my soul to you." "With Every Light" is almost countryish in its approach (yes, countryish) and a rare moment of optimism. "Blue Skies Bring Tears" is reminiscent of the soaring, expansive ballads on Mellon Collie and would be wonderful live, as well as an appropriate disc-ender.

But instead, and this is both entirely unexpected and ingenious, Machina ends on a relatively positive note. "Age Of Innocence" is the sort of classic-rock-vibe, anthem-for-the-young-generation no-brainer that Corgan could write in his sleep, but it's a great tune anyway. After the difficult-to-listen-to "Blue Skies," "Age Of Innocence" astounds with its simplicity, a fade-in clock-ticking beat and acoustic guitar that brings the intro to the Kinks' "Come Dancing" to mind musically (am I the only one who made that connection? I hope not), and you're instantly hooked with the easiest sing-along the Pumpkins have ever done. After a month and a half of listening to this album, I still find myself singing "Desolation yes, hesitation no" over and over again as I walk down the streets. In public. You will too.

So, it's time for overall impressions and advice now. And my advice is: be patient. I was going to review this the day it came out, but decided not to, because Smashing Pumpkins albums, at least the previous two, had taken many, many listens to grow and distinguish themselves. And MACHINA is no exception. Its comparative lack of cohesion makes it take even longer to get used to, and in spite of lots of recurring lyrical themes, it still seems less of a song cycle than the Pumpkins' previous albums and more of a collection of isolated statements. But the songwriting is still as strong as it's ever been, and there isn't really a weak track at all.

Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, this disc is neither a "return" to the Pumpkins' earlier styles nor a set of songs that weren't good enough to make Adore. It could end up being somewhat of a transition album, but if the next release is going to capitalize on the bold new directions that MACHINA takes a stab at, I'll be the first in line to snatch it up. I'm not going to preach how much better this is than all of the other supposed "alternative" music out there. Corgan is miles above his peers.

Rating: A

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© 2000 Mark Feldman and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Virgin Records, and is used for informational purposes only.