Machina II / The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music:Smashing Pumpkins
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Date Released: September 5, 2000
- Slow Dawn
- Glass' Theme (Spacey)
- Soul Power
- Cash Car Star (alternate take)
- Lucky 13
- Speed Kills (alternate take)
- If There is a God
- Try, Try, Try (alternate take)
- Heavy Metal Machine (alternate take)
- Glass's Theme
- Cash Car Star
- Real Love
- Let Me Give the World to You
- Blue Skies Bring Tears (Heavy)
- White Spider
- In My Body
- If There is a God (Full Band)
- Le Deux Machina (Synth)
- Here's to the Atom Bomb (alternate take)
One would think that trying to fit the most statistically successful rock band of the 1990s into a web portal designed specifically to circumvent acts like this would be difficult, but check that unceremonious conclusion again: Oh sure, you presumably already know the whole bloated backstory to the Smashing Pumpkins and how they conquered the world with a decent debut (Gish), the critical pinnacle of their careers (Siamese Dream), and of course, the impossibly triumphant double-album (Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness). The Pumpkins were never going to be indie heroes, that much was clear right from the outset. That they had ties to Sub Pop is irrelevant; they were always destined for the big-time. It's what happened when they hit the other side of the public's critical mass for tolerance that is of interest to this website.
Adore was going to be the "folk electronica" record Billy Corgan dreamed would take the band to another world, and while that didn't quite pan out, it might have unconsciously paved the way for the soon-coming "pastoral IDM" artists, a dime a dozen less than half a decade on from the release of Adore. The public, of course, was completely bewildered by this dramatic change of events; Machina / The Machines of God was going to be the album that patched everything up, that made it all better. It was, in short, the album that was going to bring the Pumpkins back to a position that was no longer available to them: "Best" band in the world.
So Corgan announced the band was through in May 2000 and admitted defeat, unwilling to "fight the good fight against the Britneys of the world." What happened from that moment on is in keeping with the rebellious spirit of indie subculture and, furthermore, in keeping with the very thing that makes the Pumpkins invaluable to future indie artists: Artistic integrity. While Dave Grohl was figuring out how entertainment made more cash than art as long as Kurt wasn't going to be around, Trent Reznor was doing lines with Marilyn Manson in a desperate attempt to delay The Fragile, and Radiohead were slowly coming to figure out what "art" even was, the Pumpkins were marching through the 90s with an artistic savvy that allowed a rock band and a 32-piece orchestra to score a hit single in 1996 with Tonight, Tonight.
While "new rock" radio was still playing Bullet With Butterfly Wings five years after the fact and the Napster case had artists up in arms over file-trading, the Pumpkins eluded the problem entirely in their own way: An all-Pumpkins channel on their website, all the time. If you wanted to hear a bootleg from Utrecht in 1999, there it was. If you wanted to hear Siamese Dream the song, scroll down the playlist a tad. If you wanted to hear anything from the album, scroll down a tad more. Virgin hated the idea but with less than eight months left before their final show, the band didn't care; they were making a statement by being neither for, nor against, Sean Fanning.
Ah, but it got better. And here (at last) is where we come to Machina II. With several unreleased Machina songs lying around, Corgan gave the go-ahead to 25 acquaintances to spread the love (and hate, since Virgin wasn't going to let the band produce the album with another label). A vinyl-only release on the one-off Constantinople label, Machina II was three 10" albums and two LPs. 25 songs covered the vinyl, 23 of them completely new. Available strictly via downloading, Machina II represents the ultimate indie fuck-off to a major.
Oh, and the songs: They are tremendous. The least well-known, to be sure, but gems all the same. Slow Dawn is the echo-laden opening mid-tempo rocker that sets the tone for the first 10", followed up by a similar-sounding grimed-up Vanity, the electric (rather than electro, as Judas O would come to reveal) version of Saturnine, and the spacey version of Glass' Theme. It was a slow-building 10", uniform and yet cohesively decisive all at once.
The second 10" was far more aggressive. Kicked off with a James Brown cover (Soul Power), the disc then provides what might be the most underrated song in the band's storied career: The first version of Cash Car Star is without a doubt the most vitriolic display of carelessness and jaded-careerism-gone-awry they had displayed since their heyday. Notably, it was also the final song the band would play on live television, their send-off for an unamused public and an unsuspecting Jay Leno audience to boot. Lucky 13 is full of alien guitar dementia and scraped-up vocals, a hallmark of these recordings. Speed Kills sounds like it belongs on the first 10", but as a closer for this one it works well.
The austere, piano-only rendition of If There is a God and alternate versions of Machina's Try, Try, Try and Heavy Metal Machine make up the eclectic third 10", while the LP takes up where the sped-up and more raw Heavy Metal Machine variation took off. The abrasive punk-on-prog Glass's Theme lights things up and gives a fine contrast to its alternate version. This one spews with all the bile and rage of Machina's protagonist, Glass, who seems a bit more gentle than this theme communicates. The tamer second version of Cash Car Star is still good enough for a gander, Dross a humorous drum-pounding exercise for Jimmy Chamberlin that still has plenty of melody left in it once you get past the percussion. Real Love might be the only Machina II track people actually heard; a single also released on Judas O, it seems a fitting partner to the song that took its A-side earlier in the year, Stand Inside Your Love. A beautifully effervescent tune, Real Love floats along on the gossamer sounds of My Bloody Valentine, a Harrier at take-off on full-thrust. This previews the next couple of songs: Go is the quiet Iha ballad, Let Me Give the World to You the romantic anthem, Innosense the acoustic sleeper, Home a strange segue into the heavy electronic version of Blue Skies Bring Tears. White Spider, a powerful jig that's tough to tell alongside the second Glass's Theme, holds the distinction of being the second-to-last song ever recorded by the band; In My Body is echoey filler at best, but the full-band version of If There is a God picks up the slack. Le Deux Machina is a Mike Garson piano number chopped up in the plodding Glass + the Ghost Children, but if that is a strange penultimate track, Here's to the Atom Bomb might be the perfect finale.
"May everyone find a way to get on," Corgan sings, and while he proved he eventually couldn't, for that moment they had already achieved redemption in the eyes of anyone that still cared. For all their misgivings, misadventures and mistakes, the Smashing Pumpkins went out more with a whimper than a bang... But the whimper was a sound still; and that sound, while almost awkwardly unnoticed, was the final sign that the band hadn't actually cared what people thought of them after all. The fame, the money, the scandal, the forthcoming "greatest hits" album... Machina II blew away the sand in the stone to reveal the epitaph: "Great music." - Patrick Masterson