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Smashing Pumpkins ‘Machina/The Machines of God’ 15th Anniversary Retrospective

Edited by Brett Buchanan

While some today are promoting February 28th as the 15th anniversary of Machina I as today, that is actually not the case. In a typical weird Pumpkins move, Machina I was actually released on February 29th, 2000.

This is as close as we’ll get.

The Machina albums (both I & II), according to Corgan, are both in the works for a remastered and complete release, with the original intended track listing to be restored. The two track listings contain about 40 songs, and several commercially unreleased demos exist from this era, and a few, I’m sure, Corgan has kept to himself for an occasion like this. It may end up being the largest reissue of Smashing Pumpkins music.

Traveling from the giddy dream pop-psychedelica of Gish all the way down to the deep, dark and tragic folk-electronica of Adore, you can hear the band really mature and ripen their sound as their discography progressed. During this evolution, they accepted the somber lessons they accumulated through a turbulent and crazy decade of internal drama, mental health crises, drug abuse and even the death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, brother of Wendy Melvoin of Prince and the Revolution and Wendy & Lisa fame, which resulted in the firing of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin from 1996 to 1999.

The Smashing Pumpkins cycled through several guest drummers like Matt Cameron (Soundgarden) and Joey Waronker (Beck) from the latter part of 1996 to 1999, but worked most extensively with Filter’s Matt Walker, who helped them finish the rest of the Mellon Collie tourdates, with Dennis Flemion (The Frogs) on keyboard. All 3 drummers contributed to 1998’s Adore, but the album relied more on drum machines and loops than anything. Corgan had a vision for the album to create a sound combining influences of electronica and folk rock, to create a sound both “ancient” and “futuristic.” At the end of 1996, guitarist James Iha claimed in an interview regarding the future of the band’s music that “the future is in electronic music. It really seems boring just to play rock music.”

In 1999, the band brought Chamberlin back as their full time drummer and embarked on a short American ‘Arising’ tour, playing older hits, deep cuts and new material. After The Arising Tour, long-time bassist D’arcy Wretzky left the band, though by that time most of the Machina album had been recorded. Remaining bass parts were filled in by Corgan and Iha, and Melissa auf Der Maur of Hole joined the Pumpkins on bass for their (at the time) final tour.

Machina/The Machines of God upholds a mesh of influences, but is connected through a concept of a band falling apart. Although almost at any point of the Pumpkins’ career their latest album could have been the last, there is a distinct feeling of “The End” when one listens to these recordings.

This feeling is not completely melancholy either, the Pumpkins knew that things were falling apart fast and were doing their best to keep things together and give their fans one last great effort. The break up’s inevitably became especially apparent after Wretzky left. In later years, Corgan would lament on her departure from the band, “To this day I miss D’arcy’s sense of integrity, but it’s not like the integrity of the indie world, she had a certain kind of musical taste, I think is the best way to put it, that I still respect. A real good keen sense of bullshit, and was very principled in that regard.” Wretzky was arrested for crack cocaine possession later in 1999.

The Machina albums, instead of departing from Adore’s styling all together, combine its sonic landscape with a cybermetal sound to create a greater soft-loud dynamic. The Machina albums may have some of the greatest examples of the soft-loud switch-off dynamic in the realm of alternative rock music. The album opens with the insatiable catchy deep metal riffs of “The Everlasting Gaze” (complete with mid-song rant) which abruptly ends to the beginning of the mysterious and ominous “Raindrops + Sunshowers”, a Corgan eulogy to the lack of communication between him and everyone around him. As the lyrics are penned: “Rain falls on everyone  /The same old rain/ And I’m just trying to /Walk with you /Between the raindrops /I send my echo out /To get your love without /Obscured reflections of /My love”.

This pattern is repeated virtually in uniform throughout the album’s tracklisting. Additionally, the Machina albums, especially the second, has a distinct influence of shoegaze and 80’s post-punk that had been downplayed in the band’s sound the last few years before the Machina albums. The earliest Smashing Pumpkins demos are riddled with direct influence from the Cure, My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division. The Machina albums brought all of their influences, past and present (and future), into a full circle concept.

3 singles were released from the album, “The Everlasting Gaze,” “Stand Inside Your Love,” and “Try, Try, Try”, along with the promo single “I of the Mourning”.  The first two singles fared pretty well, with “Stand Inside Your Love” even making it to #2 on  Billboard’s Modern Rock tracks. The album’s promotional campaign was heavily laced with mythos. The album artwork by Russian artist Vasily Kafanov was covered in drawings and etchings in the style of Renaissance alchemy, decorated with esoteric and astrological symbols. An online gallery of them is displayed here, on Kafanov’s website. Oftentimes many forget that the Machina albums were meant to be a concept double album. The album was full of concepts, many of which still go unraveled and ignored today.

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“Plates VII & IX – So empowered, the Lovers negate the blinding brilliance of Love” [Diptych]

One of the main concepts, exemplified in the track “Glass and the Ghost Children,” is a fictionalized version of the band. A rock star, Zero (Corgan), is spoken to by the voice of God and renames himself Glass, and his band, the Machines of God. So this, in a way, is the first self-titled album by Glass and the Machines of God, and the last album by the Smashing Pumpkins, until Corgan and Chamberlin’s reunion.  A small collection of animated episodes was created in the series’ promotion featuring the story behind Glass and the Machines of God, in the vein of the cyberpunk shows that existed during the late ’90s like Batman Beyond. The 3 known episodes can be seen here:

Smashing Pumpkins fans are one part blessed, and one part cursed to love a band with such a diverse sound and strange sense of artistry that makes them a band set apart from virtually all of their contemporaries. The Pumpkins were the first band to venture into a realm that crossed the borders between electronica and rock, treating each influence as an equal. Meanwhile, the budding contemporary electronic and EDM movements were beginning to overrun rock on all fronts, from Britpop to the very few remaining acts from the late ’80s and early ’90s alternative scene, both by and large who refused to conform to any standard of electronica. In the history books they are usually regarded as a “grunge” or “alternative” rock band, but in truth the Pumpkins really emerged in their first incarnation as a new wave/shoegaze band, and closed as a new wave/shoegaze band in their last original incarnation.

Contract disputes, the rehabilitation and exudation of band members, the media’s perception of Corgan, an array of diverse musical influence, the magic of alchemy, and the first honest plea of ceasefire between electronica and rock create this wholesomely weird album. Today, there are those who yearn for the Smashing Pumpkins of the past, and this album, taking in the diversity of influences, is the most comprehensive image of the old Smashing Pumpkins. I anxiously await the reissue of this neglected album (along with MACHINA II), so the world can finally see the album for what it is: the last stand of the classic Smashing Pumpkins that fans knew and loved in the 90’s.

Happy birthday, Machina!