Time to dig back into my musical past once again, this time for a band that released their third – and what was to be their last – album in twenty years ago in 1995. They had, pretty much, already hit their commercial peak by this point, and as things continued later into the nineties, sadly they fell apart thanks to other interests, record label changes and intra-band tension.
I like to think (it has to be!) of a cybernetic ecology where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, and all watched over by machines of loving grace. Richard Brautigan: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (excerpt)
That band is Machines of Loving Grace. A long-gone band that survive as a footnote in the industrial-rock boom of the early nineties, to me and many others I’ve come across in the years since, they are sorely underrated, underappreciated and really do deserve a bit more of a celebration. So, I guess, here we go with something of an attempt to do just that. This article comes with grateful thanks to the detailed repository of information that is Children of Sores – particularly for confirming dates and some other details.
Machines of Loving Grace
Machines of Loving Grace
Machines of Loving Grace
Machines of Loving Grace
Their status as outliers in a wider scene perhaps originates in where they come from – Tucson, Arizona. Not an alternative hotbed, it’s a city I associate more with Mariachi music more than anything (a legacy of the close location of the city to the Mexican border, I guess). So a bit out of the way from everyone else making similarly aggressive rock with electronics, they ended up sounding rather different.
The seeds of what was to come (in a much-more polished form) on the following albums is signposted by the opening track of their debut album. Burn Like Brilliant Trash (At Jackie’s Funeral) bounces in on an elastic bassline and multi-layered drum pattern, with snatched gospel samples and Scott Benzel’s growled vocals and an array of vocal effects burning through three minutes effortlessly.
Much of the rest of the self-titled debut, though, comes across as the demo that it was recorded as. For reasons best known to their label at the time, Mammoth, it was released as it was submitted, without any effort to smooth out the rough edges and thus it is something of a raw mish-mash, with two belting tracks (the aforementioned opener, and the piercing synth-funk of Rite of Shiva), and a number of middling, half-completed ideas.
Clearly, though, the potential was there, and it was realised in astonishing fashion on Concentration. It wasn’t just the music, either. There was a thematic concept running through the veins of the album, one of deep disgust with the human condition, highlighting and poking into the failings of men in particular. This comes out in Scott Benzel’s vocals – words are often spat out or snarled as he winds his tales of failure, be that relationship failings, unrealistic expectations of women, historical allegories, or just the general hate of humanity in general.
It's so nice to wake up in the morning all alone and not have to tell somebody you love them when you don't love them any more. Richard Brautigan: Love Poem
Oh yes, a happy, positive album this is not. But thanks to one song in particular, the band perhaps gained exposure that they would never have quite expected otherwise. As I’ve noted before, a few times in fact, many bands in the early-nineties alternative boom benefitted enormously from an open-minded attitude at MTV in particular that meant all kinds of videos got picked up and plugged – the kind of stuff we’d be lucky to stumble across on Youtube at best nowadays. Lead single Butterfly Wings was one such track, and was my route into this band that I would otherwise have likely never heard at all.
It is one of those tracks with an instantly recognisable hook – a synth motif that reoccurs intermittently – but also a bouncing, electronic rhythm and caustic, ripping guitars that scythe through the beats, and maybe more than any other track on the album, this is where Benzel tears into the human condition: “Don’t place faith in human beings / Human beings are unreliable things” – the inference being that we fail, we always fail, and those butterfly wings signify the Butterfly Effect, that small changes – i.e. one human, for example – can end up amplifying much larger changes, for better and worse.
Elsewhere it seethes at other failings, too. The provocatively titled Albert Speer takes on the titular Nazi, pouring scorn on his idealistic plans that Hitler had enthusiastically embraced. Perfect Tan (Bikini Atoll) takes apart the failings of men and their sexual deification of women, and what happens when things go too far, while Lilith/Eve maps out the indecision and double-standards demanded of women.
Musically, though, this album was a quantum leap ahead of their debut. Their outlier status was further hammered home by their unusual approach to their sound – rather than relying on pounding rhythms, like so many other industrial rock bands of the time, they instead concentrated on swirling clouds of electronics and samples, with the basslines taking far more prominence than the beats ever did, the result at points taking things into mutated, robotic funk – more Cabaret Voltaire-influenced, perhaps, than anyone else (their track Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself) from The Crackdown in particular shares a number of thematic links to MOLG).
The latter element was shown off most spectacularly on album highlight Shake, which ups the tempo from much of what has come before, the guitar trembles away like a disco-funk riff, and Scott Benzel unleashes a heck of a singing voice for the soaring chorus – notable as for much of the time, he exercises restraint and growls his way through most songs. The subject of Benzel’s ire here, too, is different, taking aim at the record industry and how artists simply get fucked over time and again, while elements of the film Slacker bleed into the track during the breakdown.
1. Get enough food to eat, and eat it. 2. Find a place to sleep where it is quiet, and sleep there. 3. Reduce intellectual and emotional noise until you arrive at the silence of yourself, and listen to it. 4. Richard Brautigan: Karma Repair Kit: Items 1-4
Cheap takes a lighter musical tone, complete with gospel-influenced backing vocals and with yet more uptempo funk influences, as Benzel sneers at Westerners paying for sex in the Third World, while Acceleration lives up to the title and careers through an electro-punk hate-fest in an exhausting three minutes. Classical influences run through the veins of Ancestor Cult, a curio of a song that lurches forward with strings filling any sonic gap, and lyrics apparently about what we gain from our predecessors, and what we will pass on to future generations, and the outlook is apparently somewhat bleak.
I’ve always thought, though, that the album ends on probably it’s weakest note. Trigger for Happiness is a feather-light synthpop rumble, that riffs heavily on earlier Depeche Mode – even down to Benzel’s vocal stylings – and frankly is easily forgettable. But that is very much the exception on this album – one that, with origins very much rooted “of it’s time”, has remarkably aged little, many of the lyrical themes remain true now, and the unusual take on industrial rock has also aged well, the production being relatively clean and clear really helping – as does the lack of reliance on the same old sounds that everyone else used. One thing, though, that is inarguable – if you’re going to pick up one MOLG album, make it this one, although saying that a secondhand copy is going to be the best you can do nowadays (my own copy is the original that I bought over twenty years ago!), as it has like the rest of the material, long been deleted (and little of their back-catalogue appears on streaming services, either).
One song that burst through to wider attention, and likely other than Butterfly Wings their best-known track, was the band’s contribution to the excellent soundtrack to The Crow – a compilation that was full of original songs from an interesting selection of bands, and indeed many of the songs never appeared anywhere else (most notably this and The Cure’s Burn). Part of the reason, I suspect, was that these two songs in particular were written specifically for the film, and so fit perfectly – both reflect the dark hues used in the camerawork of the film (the whole film is shot in pretty much perpetual darkness) by sounding like they were recorded in a shroud of fog. Golgotha Tenement Blues appears in the scene in Funboy’s dank, grim flat, the lyrics spelling out the hopeless, wasted lives of all those that live in that part of the city.
The song was the sole release between their second and third albums, too, and is actually key to the transition in sound that Gilt shows. The guitars are much more prominent, in particular, but the beats still remain pushed into the back end of the mix. If that wasn’t enough to signify a change in direction, the first single from the third album hammered it home conclusively. Richest Junkie Still Alive sounded more alive than anything they’d released before – in that it now actually sounded like a live band, rather than a studio project as the band had broadly been before. The drums were actually live now, the guitars phased across the speakers like squalling wind, and synths/samples, while still clearly used, were no longer the focal point as before. There was a far more…”industrial” take on the track, though, remixed by Swedish musician Sank, that appeared on the Hackers Soundtrack. Not the only remix he did for the band – he also did an astonishing remix of Butterfly Wings (listen here) – but this one certainly surpassed the original. Oh, and if anyone can find me a copy of the …Junkie video, I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks to their profile following The Crow, there was quite a lot of press interest in Gilt, and I vividly remember at the time a sense of disappointment that the band had gone in a far more rock direction – and I’ve always thought that the choice of Sylvia Massy (best known for her work on early Tool material at the time) was probably the main reason for this. The whole album had a lush, detailed production, a world away from the dry darkness that Roli Mosimann (Swans, The Young Gods) had achieved with Concentration – but …Junkie was a red herring of sorts.
I changed her bedroom: raised the ceiling four feet, removed all of her things (and the clutter of her life) painted the walls white, placed a fantastic calm in the room, a silence that almost had a scent, put her in a low brass bed with white satin covers, and I stood there in the doorway watching her sleep, curled up, with her face turned away from me. Richard Brautigan: Lovers
The rest of the album, you see, is far darker than that opening track. Suicide King has imagery of revenge, criminality, and the futility of both, while Casual Users – an awesome burst of disgust underpinned by an absolute killer of a bassline – details the downward spiral of two drug users as they realise the danger of their mutual dependency on each other and the drugs. While sung in the first person, it is never made clear – as the band never, to my knowledge, ever explained their songs – whether it was autobiographical or not. Elsewhere, carnal desires are explored in detail, in terms of instinct (Animal Mass) and BDSM (the surging, sultry charge of Tryst), or a relationship that is disintegrating before your eyes, in one of the album highlights (The Soft Collision). It brings the pace down to a crawl, opening with little more than Benzel’s voice and a few effects, before the rest of the band join in properly for the hammer-blow of the chorus, as he howls at the injustice of what he is losing.
Those songs are the key to understanding the album. It is less outward looking than before, preoccupied with internal struggles like love and sex, substance abuse and the extremes of human emotions, and those themes marry well with the jagged, guitar-heavy sound used here, and they even work well with album centrepiece Solar Temple, an industrial-rock grind that bulldozes through the speakers as Benzel once again roars a tale of disgust and failure, apparently referencing the mass suicides within the Order of the Solar Temple around that time. Happy times, eh?
But Machines of Loving Grace never were about the bright side of life. Everything about the band was in the shadows. We knew who the members of the band were, but we knew barely anything about them, aside from Benzel’s lyrics, and their music drew from the wells of industrial, gothic rock, even dark ambient at points – Coil and Swans (particularly lyrically) were as much as an apparent influence as the more expected Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode. Maybe that mystique was one of the things that drew me to them. Back in an era where we really had to hunt for any information (there might be a small interview in the rock press for a band such as this, otherwise we’d have to rely on scant MTV play), bands newly discovered were more precious, perhaps, and in the twenty years since Gilt I’ve come to appreciate the album much more than I did when I first picked it up. Ok, so it still isn’t as good as Concentration, but it is a good album in its own right, just a step further on.
Fourth album Love Scenes At The Slave Market, although apparently near completion at least, never saw the light of day as labels collapsed and the band disintegrated too – and curiously has never, ever leaked – not even one track or a snippet as has often resurfaced in other similar cases since. Either it never actually got recorded, or the ex-band members have the masters and don’t want to release them. If it is the latter, then fair enough – it’s their choice.
Neither is there any likely chance of a reformation, either. Scott Benzel is nowadays a conceptual visual and sonic artist based out of LA (interestingly with no reference to his old band on the bio page), while keyboardist Mike Fisher was working under the curious title of Amish Rake Fight for some of the past decade.
So it’s down to people like me to carry the flame, I guess. As I noted earlier, obtaining their material may be difficult nowadays, but if you have an interest in what was under the surface of the industrial rock boom of the nineties, a band like Machines of Loving Grace is a fascinating starting point to explore some of the more unusual sounds that got released around that time.