21 Years Ago: Machine Head Release Their Debut Album ‘Burn My Eyes’
As a member of popular second wave Bay Area thrash band Vio-Lence, guitarist Robb Flynn wanted to reach beyond the structural confines of his main outfit and explore music that was bouncier and more groove-laden. But his bandmates told him he couldn’t be in two groups. So Flynn quit Vio-Lence and formed Machine Head with bassist Adam Duce, guitarist Logan Mader and drummer Chris Kontos. Three years later, in summer 1994, Machine Head released their debut, Burn My Eyes, which combined the caustic precision of thrash with the rhythmic cadences of hip-hop.
“We really loved Pantera and Sepultura, but we also started getting into Biohazard,” Flynn told me in 2007. “Their guitarist Bobby Hambel was like Slash to us. He was a total f--king rock star. They were mixing hardcore with hip-hop beats and grooves and there was nothing else it. When we wrote Burn My Eyes I was actually listening to more hardcore, hip-hop of industrial s--t like Neurosis than actual metal.”
Despite Flynn’s pedigree with Vio-Lence and before that Forbidden, Machine Head struggled from the start. The band was living in the rough-and-tumble community of Oakland and Flynn was surviving by selling weed. Lunch was a luxury Machine Head usually couldn’t afford, and when given a choice they often spent whatever cash they had on cigarettes and beer.
“Man, we had nothing when we wrote Burn My Eyes," recalled Duce. “We were in the middle of the grunge era and we wanted to hear metal, so we wrote that record from a place of nothing to lose, probably nothing to gain either.”
Almost from the start, there were lineup problems and personality conflicts. The band jammed “Death Church,” “Blood for Blood” and “Block,” with Kontos, but he was also playing in Attitude Adjustment and Grinch and didn’t have time to devote to Machine Head. So the band recruited Papsmear drummer Tony Costanza.
“A big chunk of Burn My Eyes was written with Tony,” Flynn said. “We used to jam this old warehouse we shared with five other punk rock bands. The place was completely covered in punk rock fliers.”
“Tony was from Vegas and he had heard of us and was like, ‘Dude, I’ll come out right now,'" Duce added. “We wrote eight songs with him. But then he left because he lacked experience and there were also some personal problems between him and some of the other guys. At the same time, Chris started to gain interest again, and he was the one we wanted in the first place. Tony quit because he felt like he was going to be fired. So, then Chris came back and worked on the record with us.”
The songs featured elements that would become Machine Head trademarks: the choppy, start-stop riffs and squealing guitar harmonics of the opening cut “Davidian” (which the band still regularly plays live), the sludgy chug and double-bass beats of “None But My Own,” the ominous arpeggios and clean vocals of “A Nation on Fire” and “I’m Your God Now” and the hardcore aggression of “Block.” While Machine Head have expanded upon their core sound over the years, they’re rarely sounded as raw and immediate.
“We just went for it with those songs,” Flynn said. “It was all about burning hot all the time and thinking your never gonna cool down. We were pissed, were in our own world and it felt good to play this stuff.”
Word of mouth spread and after hearing demos for the album, Roadrunner Records former A&R man Monte Connor (who also signed Sepultura, Slipknot and Type O Negative, amongst others) offered Machine Head a record deal. While Burn My Eyes was immediately embraced in the U.K., the album didn’t fare as well in the States at first.
“The metal scene in the Bay Area at the time was essentially dead,” Flynn said. “Everybody was either trying to do ‘The Black Album’ or sound like Faith No More. We played with anybody we could: Rancid, Fungo Mungo, Downset. And nothing was happening. We named the first part of the Burn My Eyes run ‘The Disastour’ because we played a skate park to 35 kids in Austin, and we headlined at the Hickory, North Carolina Pool Hall to people who were more interested in playing pool than watching us.”
After practically being booed offstage during an opening slot for Obituary and Napalm Death, Machine Head flew to England to play the Castle Donnington festival. Kontos, who had contracted the flu, refused to go so the band hired a fill-in and fired Kontos. At the suggestion of a friend, they eventually brought in Sacred Reich drummer Dave McClain, whose spot-on beats and acrobatic fills gave Machine Head new parameters for exploration. Soon after, the band was offered an opening slot on a European Slayer tour. It was a turning point and served as Machine Head’s big break.
“Slayer were hands-down our favorite band,” Flynn said. “We did two-and-a-half months with them. And right at the end of that, they asked us to do the American tour. It was Slayer and Biohazard with Machine Head opening. And that’s really the thing that changed everything. After that tour, the record really started picking up.”
Machine Head were able to ride the momentum they accrued through the rest of the Burn My Eyes cycle and into the songwriting sessions for their second album The More Things Change…. While plagued with its own conflicts and setbacks, the sophomore effort was the band’s first to crack the Billboard 200 album chart and pave the way for further success down the road.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen.