(first draft written in 2013; additions in 2013; finished off in July 2014)
I bought Machineri's eponymous debut album (2011) at the African Music Store in 2012, a couple of months after its release. I stacked it in a shelf along with a bunch of other CDs, with the vague plan of sitting down with it one day and listening closely with headphones for full sonic effect, in order to do the work justice when I wrote about it. Somehow I just could not get it together. The CD was usually on top of the stack so that supposedly I would not forget about it but for one reason or another it always ended up underneath something else end I would forget about it until I saw it again when I was looking for another album and had to pick up every CD in the stack to find the object of my curiosity.
The first part of this piece was written when I got the album and before I'd listened to it. The second part was written after listening. The curious thing was that I had uploaded the album on both my iPhone and iPad and often played the music on shuffle yet for some cosmic reason Machineri simply never came up, at least not recognisably, as the two devices carried a bunch of music that was unfamiliar to me. These days I hardly have the time to get to know any new album I buy. Firstly there is not much opportunity for listening and secondly I keep buying new stuff before I've become fully acquainted with the older stuff. When I owned 10 records I knew every word, chord and note of every song of every group intimately. Now I barely know who I'm listening to at any given time, unless it is a digital version of a record I used to own.
Anyhow, it's been a long time coming, but here are my considered thoughts on Machineri's debut album.
(Probably about March 2012)
Great cover. A naked woman, I guess, squats on a phallic looking rock with her back to us. Her back is painted with psychedelically styled cogs, no doubt an unsubtle allusion to the band name. My guess is that the Sannie Fox is the naked woman, as the inside section of the cover insert, which forms a single, large picture when folded out, features an equally naked man also squatting on a rock with his back to us with similar cogs painted on his back and chances are that he is the other band member, Andre Geldenhuys.
This is the type of great album cover that should feature in a coffee table book of classic album covers. Should have been an LP with gatefold sleeve. Reminds me of the work of Hipgnosis, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, even if Hipgnosis did some Pink Floyd album covers.
On the back cover there is a nice sepia, Photoshopped photograph of the band members, with Sannie Fox front and centre in her silky flowery top and mini skirt, left hand firmly on the headstock of het Fender. Andre Geldenhuys gazes dreamily at something we cannot see. Sannie Fox raises her chin slightly and stares us straight in the eyes, not necessarily confrontational but definitely direct and challenging. Maybe she is thinking about what I may write about this album, bearing in mind that I think Machineri does not quite work out as a stage performing proposition. There is a third, ghostly presence on her left and slightly behind her, looking away to the right of the viewer. Who he? Must be the drummer.
I have listened to MP3 versions of some of the songs on this collection and was quite impressed with the tunes. I must confess that I had been eagerly awaiting my acquisition of this debut.
By early 2012 this album had been out for a couple of months and I'd been idly looking for it in various branches of Musica without finding it. I suppose I could have made a real effort by going to the very large Musica at the V & A Waterfront or looking for it online, or even attending some Machineri gigs on the chance that the album would be on sale there, but that is not the way I do these things. I do not seek, I find. On my first visit to The African Music Store in 2012 I found Machineri and bought it without hesitation.
I am not exactly a huge fan, particularly not of the live Machineri. It has perhaps been my misfortune that I saw them live well before I heard any recordings, unlike, say, with Pretty Blue Guns whose album I'd bought on the strength of a teaser track on a SL Magazine sampler CD, years before I saw them play live, coincidentally headlining a bill with Machineri in support. Petty Blues Guns were great; Machineri grated.
The description of Machineri's musical and other influences on their website indicated that we should have a lot in common and that, all things being equal, I should like their music. This suspicion was confirmed by the MP3 tracks I listened to, yet as a live proposition the band did not do it for me. The riffing was ponderous and dull and Sannie Fox wailed and exuded rather than sang. The songs also seemed formless and tuneless.
Machineri does have good PR though. The band has appeared in magazines and on local television and has gigged quite regularly. Sannie Fox is a striking front woman that certainly advances the cause. Machineri must be successful if one judges solely by media attention.
Over the last 14 years I have bought a lot of local music of various genres. For my money South African rock, to use only one example, is on par with the best the rest of the world has to offer, even if South African has not yet produced a huge, dominant international success even if many local acts do tour overseas and may even make a decent living from their music. There is also a lot of mediocre, and sometimes flat out crap, music. Local boosters insist that we must support "local is lekker" regardless of the quality on the premise that all local music is almost by definition good simply because it has been released on CD. This is not so. In these days when independent releases are as much a norm as record company support, it takes only money and time to record, print and release a CD of one's own music.
(I9 September 2012)
I finally listened to the album only about six months after I'd bought the thing. Not only did I have a weird resistance to listening to the album but I'd also bought so many other CDs in between that I almost had no time to do it. Now I'm sitting at Arnold's restaurant in Kloof Street, having breakfast, listening to the album on my iPad through headphones, making notes on the iPad's word processing app, in-between mouthfuls of muesli, fruit and yoghurt.
Opening track, "Soul People," is Sannie Fox accapella over a drum brat.
Second song, "Stranger On The Water," starts "standing on a beach like a stranger now" which sounds like a restatement of the opening lines of a Cure song.
By the third tune the Sannie Fox vocal schtick has settled in. She has a good voice, and on "The Searchers" reminds me of Grace Slick with less histrionics, and perhaps some unknown folkie, yet the tunes ain't present much. The musical backing is subdued, perhaps mixed too low, and Fox rambles. Later on the guitars surge into a power rock finale.
Fourth tune, "Spider Suitcase", has a boogie intro that's closest to the blues they claim as influence and one hears a good twist of Canned Heat here. Fox is still wailing without much tune, double tracked on the chorus. First proper Hendrixoid guitar solo, albeit brief.
Fox goes for smouldering and sensuous, holding back on the full throttle roar.
"Drop Us A Line Ladder Operator" could be the early Black Sabbath homage albeit with less punch. This is one of my main concerns about this album. The music is just not powerful or dirty enough. What the hell is it all about? Could be that Sannie is just making it up as she goes along.
"Blood On Our Hands" sounds the most like a blues, particularly the lead guitar, and Sannie Fox sounds kind of committed to her complaint about not being good enough for the significant other in her life. With a little work this is a room filling live anthem with hot guitar solo to boot. Actually, this guy just plays lead breaks, not proper solos, but they are fiery.
Next up there is another spiffy, snappy riff, possibly the best of the album. Fox chants about a "Big Bad Machine" and mentions a broken engine, perhaps a reference to blind Willie McTell's broke down engine. Absolutely the best track so far. When I listened to the track again, on my iPhone, I got it that Fox was singing about a working engine. Oh well, the best lyrics are often the misheard ones. I hardly ever read the printed lyrics. Rough and tough little number though.
"Lovers Whim" is a rocking, wailing, lament. Sannie goes big voice in what sounds like soul diva meets metal. Good stuff.
Penultimate track, "Cold Sister," has another plodding would be heavy riff and some soaring lead guitar and a good vocal hook.
Album closer "Father Gun" illustrates the serious weakness in the Machineri musical template. The track revisits tuneless Sannie shouting about something or another she takes too seriously backed by some tasty Hendrixy guitar that seems to have no connection whatsoever with her vocal histrionics. It is dysfunctional and disconnected and irritating.
By July 2014, when this outro is being written, Machineri has either broken up or is in hiatus and Sannie Fox has a solo career. It is probably typical of the modern music industry that bands are mostly just projects with limited life span and no expectation of, or even desire for, career longevity. Hit, git and split. The debut, and possibly only, album may then well be the only record we will ever have of the music Sannie Fox and Andre Geldenhuys made together.
Machineri was part of the South Africa blues rock revival and to their credit came to it from a completely different angle to the rest of the more traditionalist bands. The main ingredient in most in the music of their contemporaries is some element of heavy blues boogie and if Machineri employed some aspects of the heavy riff it was always just slightly skewed and off-centre. The main difference, thought, would be Sannie Fox as a female presence in an otherwise male dominated genre, barring Natasha Meister and Ann Jangle, perhaps, and the fact that the band either refused to or could not write tuneful songs with strong hooks. The performances on the album are strong and also forgettable. There are perhaps two, maximum three, really good songs on the album and the rest are no more than superior filler. Sannie and Andre had a high concept and presumably achieved their specific goal and made the record they wanted to make but I cannot see it on the list of "1000 South African rock albums you have to listen to before you die."