16 years ago, on February 29, 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins released a thundering powerhouse of an album, the gargantuan and gonzo MACHINA/the machines of God.
It was the Mad Max: Fury Road of albums, a monumental epic that roared wildly along alt-rock’s highway, knocking everything out of its path. And when you listen to it, you half-suspect that guitarist James Iha’s guitar is genuinely shooting flames.
But we digress.
It’s a classic, although it wasn’t considered as such at the time, receiving mixed reviews and being one of their lowest selling albums at that point. Which is just wrong, because this is the ultimate Pumpkins album. It’s a massive, 15 song, 73 minute set… but oddly enough, this was the short, compromised version — band leader Billy Corgan initially intended it to be a double album, but was refused by the record company. Even in its “reduced” state, MACHINA is an extraordinary, genre-busting achievement, bursting at the seams with alternative concept rock cybermetal pop balladry. It’s a thrilling mix of delicacy and heavy distortion, driven by angst and emotion, and a whole lotta love.
Above all else, it has really great songs (all written by Corgan). MACHINA is overflowing with powerfully catchy hooks, skyscraping choruses, and deep, driving, relentless grooves that keep it all flowing. Opening track The Everlasting Gaze sets the tone, kicking things off with some gloriously fuzzed out guitars and bass and crushing drums, as Corgan tells us “you know I’m not dead”… and that’s the quiet part of the song. It soon lifts off, racing through stratospheric atmospherics as Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming transforms into a godlike thundering, while Iha’s guitar becomes a roaring furnace in front of a 100 foot Marshall stack and the whole thing achieves lightspeed transcendence.
It’s not folk music.
Somehow, the album gets better from there, jammed with huge choruses, gleaming atmospheres, and a whole bunch of kick-ass rock songs. It’s the sound of a band giving it everything they’ve got, wringing every last drop of intensity from every note, every word, every moment. Which is what was happening: it was designed to be the Pumpkins’ last album, a goodbye, and thanks for all the fish. Corgan’s plan had been to reconvene the original line-up of the band one last time, and go out on a high with an album that was about a fictionalized version of the band. He re-recruited Jimmy Chamberlain, who had left the band a a few years before. Their previous album, Adore, did not feature Chamberlain: it’s a quiet, hushed affair that never unleashes itself. It’s a beautiful, slinky album, but when Chamberlain came back for MACHINA, his muscular drumming changed everything. If Adore was Black Widow, MACHINA is the Hulkbuster. The band wanted to throw everything they had at these songs. Iha would add effects pedal after effects pedal to his guitar set-up to create the monstrous roar that powers much of this album, while Chamberlain would wreak furious havoc on the drums. However, partway through recording, bassist D’Arcy Wretsky chose to leave, wrecking the band, and Corgan’s plans. The album had to be refocused and started over; former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur was drafted in for the live shows.
It’s a concept album — come back! — but one you can air guitar and air drum the shit out of. And, yes, it can be exhausting if listened to from start to finish — but exhausting in a good way, because the music really does consume you. Once you get past the event horizon of the pyrotechnics of the first few songs, you get pulled deeper into the intense gravitational pull and pressures of each successive track… by the end, as you fall through the glimmering soundscapes of With Every Light, the mesmerizing interstellar beauty of Blue Skies Bring Tears and the gleaming alternative pop of Age Of Innocence, you will almost certainly feel like you’re Matthew McConaughey in fifth-dimensional space. But that’s a good thing! Never has something so radio-friendly been so uncompromising in its vision. The CD booklet contains eerie, haunting artwork like the below, full of the dreams and nightmares of Corgan’s original vision of this as a “musical theater” piece based around a rock star called Zero (which had transformed by the time the album was done to Glass, and his band The Machines Of God).
It’s certainly not lacking in ambition, and it refuses to yield in its vision. MACHINA is full of emotional storytelling through almost mythically outsized songs. It marked the end of the 90s; luckily, it did not mark the end of Corgan’s ever-revolving collective. It was a forward-looking record, gazing unflinchingly at a glaringly bright future horizon that it raced towards. 16 years on, it stands as a testament to believing in your creativity, and even more importantly, seeing your creativity through, no matter what.
If you have an idea, make it your own… and make sure you actually make it.