Smashing Pumpkins – Machina

Album Review by Mark Bayross

The Smashing Pumpkins have always been a hard band to fathom. They seem to be able to keep up with musical trends (from the grunge of GISH and SIAMESE DREAM to the post-Manson goth of ADORE), but somehow always miss out on the laurels. The Smashing Pumpkins will never go down in history as changing music.

And history is the very thing that weighs heavy on this album – chief Pumpkin Billy Corgan has said that this will be their final one – and there is a definite need to put them back on the rock map after the failed flirtation with electronics that was 1997’s ADORE. Part of the reason for that was that they had sacked their drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, for messing with the dreaded H and inadvertently getting the band’s keyboard player killed. Three years on and Corgan has reneged on his assertion that “Rock Is Dead” and asked the reformed Chamberlin back to pound the skins once again.

The musical chairs have continued with the recent departure of bassist D’arcy Wretzky (who plays on some of the album) and her replacement by ex-Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur. It seems being female and having a silly European name is part of the bass recruitment policy.

The album starts superbly: THE EVERLASTING GAZE is four minutes of howling guitars and throbbing beats, while Corgan’s sometimes irritating vocals sound very much at home, lending the song a real sense of urgency. It’s a blast. Unfortunately, with exception of the pleasingly catchy single, STAND INSIDE YOUR LOVE, the next few tracks are rather samey. They are not bad, but they suffer from the same lack of variety that dogged the later regions of 1995’s sprawling MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS.

Not until the promisingly-titled HEAVY METAL MACHINE (track 7) does it get interesting again. This is all distorted vocals and fuzzed-up, squealing guitars, and it gives the album a much needed injection of heaviness. THIS TIME, coming straight afterwards, sounds quite pretty, with tuneful hooks throughout and chiming eighties guitars, while the lyrics point to this being Corgan and Co’s last outing: it closes with the lines “as the curtain falls / we bid you all goodnight”.

Billy Corgan is widely known to be a difficult customer (his contrariness caused the band’s manager Sharon Osborne [Ozzy’s wife] to walk out after only a few months). His quest for perfection is evident throughout: the production is polished, with processed vocals and shimmering keyboards alongside guitars that sound huge in places THE IMPLODING VOICE is a good example). Elsewhere, there’s enough to satisfy the spooky eye-liner kids: THE CRYING TREE OF MERCURY sounds like The Cure circa “Pornography”, all lumbering drums and funereal keyboards; while BLUE SKIES BRING TEARS has New Order-style tenor bass and thunderous feedback.

The Smashing Pumpkins have always had the ability to craft seriously epic songs (DISARM, PORCELINA OF THE VAST OCEANS). However, at just under ten minutes, GLASS AND THE GHOST CHILDREN has to be the longest song they have ever committed to record. Drifting from a psychedelic feedback-drenched opening to a lone piano with samples of dictaphones being played and rewound, it then builds again to an echoing finale.

This album is a grower – it lacks the immediacy of SIAMESE DREAM and needs a few plays before its vast 74 minutes can be digested properly. As with their last couple of albums, it’s a case of choosing to play certain tracks for maximum enjoyment, rather than trying to take the whole lot in one go. It’s no masterpeice, but there are some impressive moments. For the most part, it’s a return to form.

4 stars

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