Smashing Pumpkins - Machina/The Machines of God Smashing Pumpkins
Machina/The Machines of God

Billy Corgan has written hit singles, dated a model and been the darling of the alternative rock scene. He's scored a movie, Stigmata, and worked (briefly and with some discord) with Courtney Love and Hole, as well as with Ric Ocasek. His band has weathered chronic drug problems and lineup switches over the past few years while selling well over 20 million CDs.

In short, over the course of their rise to fame in the '90s, Corgan and the rest of Chicago's Pumpkins have lived the rock life. But along the way, Corgan has taken on the demeanor of a cowled and menacing prophet and seems to have slipped further into left field, which has come to a head on Machina/The Machines of God.

Each lyric in the CD booklet has its own "plate" a piece of artwork accompanying it done in the style of an old Bible, though in this case the art is not necessarily religious in overtone. Instead, it illustrates the songs with a mix of almost science fictional and Salvador Dali-esque imagery. There's even a wax "seal" on the back of the CD artwork.

Like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the impression is that this is not just a bunch of new songs, but a fully rounded multimedia vision. Aesthetically, it's a beautifully constructed mythos, and like the medieval design of the album's cover, Corgan's lyrics are littered with religious iconography amid the songs of loneliness and heartbreak and pledges of love. In classic rocker fashion, his message through it all seems to be the redeeming aspects of love. And in several instances, he brings the eye of God to the table.

In "The Everlasting Gaze" he sings "You always find a way and through it all/into us all you move." Later, in the romantic pledge "Stand Inside Your Love" he refers to himself as being "recast as child and mystic sage" and in "The Sacred and Profane" he begs "give me tears/give me love/let me rest/lord above." In "Blue Skies Bring Tears" he asks "Unleash the Armageddon so all the children go to heaven/I sit by quiet still with their pictures on my eyes."

While most of these religious references are shallow asides, the most telling piece of lyric behind Machina and Corgan's "prophetic" state of mind isn't actually in a song, but in the interview clip that's inserted in the midst of the song "Glass and the Ghost Children." In it he says, "I always assumed that the voice in my ear is the voice of God." Take that how you will, but Corgan is definitely living in a very private, insular place. It may be an "out there" place, but it's one that still is producing some great music.

Musically, after 1998's often too-sterile synthesizer-based Adore (which spawned the radio hits "Perfect" and "Ava Adore") Machina is a welcome return to the scorching guitar attack that gave us "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" from 1995's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and "Cherub Rock" from 1993's Siamese Dream.

It leads off with probably its best song, the fiery riff-smashing "The Everlasting Gaze," a song that seems to be about getting through life in spite of God's "fickle fascination" ("you know I'm not dead" he keeps repeating). Later on the disc, atop a furious grinding riff he celebrates losing yourself in the noise with "Heavy Metal Machine."

There are quieter moments, however. "Try Try Try" and "Raindrops + Sunshowers" both work in that shimmering guitar throb that produced "Perfect." "This Time" has so much chorus effect on its guitars that its opening sounds like a Cocteau Twins creation and "Glass and the Ghost Children" rests on a slippery jazzy bassline and moody groove. And "With Every Light" has the easy loping rhythm that characterized the slower songs like "Lily (My One and Only)" from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

This may be the year to catch the Pumpkins live if you're going to; while Jimmy Chamberlin is back in the group, founding bassist D'Arcy is now out (replaced by Hole's Mellissa Auf Der Maur) and if you read the lyrics too closely, you could find indications on Machina that the group is nearing its swan song. In "This Time," Corgan could be singing of a love relationship or the state of the band:

I really must be told
that it's over ... what are we letting go
our spell is broken
crashing down
crashing down my friends.

Later in the same song he makes a very specific Pumpkins drug dependency reference when he sings:

for every chemical
you trade a piece of your soul with no return ...
someday we'll wave hello and wish we'd never waved goodbye ...
as the curtain falls we bid you all goodnight.

In some senses, with Mellon Collie, the Pumpkins took their sound to the brink and Adore and Machina have only polished their disparate penchants for droning synth-based ballads and earth-scorching guitar anthems. If this does turn out to be goodnight, it's a good time to move on.

If not, with their next disc, the Pumpkins will need to do some real watershedding to emerge with a refreshed sound. Machina is a solid disc, but it's also a place that we've been to before with the Pumpkins. It takes several listens to really weave your way inside the mix, but once there, the album is like a comfortable cushion of sometimes melancholic, sometimes frenzied-full-of-fight warmth.

Both its strength and weakness is that it listens like an encompassing envelope of buzzing, droning rock a search for Nirvana in the purity of noise. Corgan wraps each song in a cocoon of sound that rarely varies in tempo. Depending on the listener, this can either come across as a boring wall of noise or as providing an enchanting aural escape.

At 15 songs, however, even if you're enjoying the vacation, this escape lasts a couple tracks too long. If you can get inside the sound though and let the wash of guitars and fuzzed-out voice suck you in, it's a great place to go.