Hawkwind- The Machine Stops (2016) Cherry Red
I will admit it, I had Hawkwind written off. For most long term fans of Hawkwind, the band has been on life support for over 15 years. It’s not as if there wasn’t plenty of evidence. Folks started to wonder what was up as drum machines and sequencers took control of the band. Albums began to have a push button feel to them, and fans had started to abandon ship around the time Alan Davey left circa 1997’s Distant Horizons. This album had ushered in the ‘techno era’ for Hawkwind, and ripping guitars, washes of jet engine level white noise and howling vocals were being replaced by drum machines, polite sequenced synthesizers and a pattern of endless parade of pleasant remakes of their classic tunes, mostly inferior to the originals. Recent clunkers didn’t add to confidence that the ship would stop taking on water.
With that in mind, any new Hawkwind album needs to be graded on a sliding scale. 2010’s Blood of the Earth suffered from an overt absence of Dave Brock, the sole surviving member, and the heart of the band. His vocals and guitar work were essential cogs that made the Hawkship fly so successfully. His handing over the reins of the band to a revolving door of some less inspired associates made for a frustrating and disappointing experience. The follow up, 2013’s Onward, fell even further down the rungs of the ladder-no memorable tunes at all, and padded out with remakes of their own former classics. Ennui and malaise were now the watchwords, and the outlook for the future looked grim.
All of which makes 2016’s The Machine Stops, their 26th studio album such a welcome surprise. When one enters with zero expectations, even a modest level of success is noteworthy. But make no mistake, this album exceeds any modest expectations. Echoes of their underrated 80’s work-Church of Hawkwind, Levitation and Choose Your Masques-flow through this concept album (loosely based on E. M. Forster’s prescient 1909 short story of the same name-a post apocalyptic underground world controlled by machines). Church of Hawkwind is the best reference point, a 1982 album revered by Hawk-heads and generally unknown in their catalog. It has long been considered one of the last of the ‘classic’ Hawk albums, heavy on the synths and thick with a creepy and trippy dystopian vibe. The Machine Stops follows a similar bent: spoken word pieces as intro and outro, synth instrumentals that segue songs seamlessly, genuine rockers interspersed with more dreamy takes. It would appear that this is the first Hawkwind album in decades without a remake of a former classic, but hard core Hawkfans may notice that the song Tube is lifted from the introduction of Choose Your Masques’ Dream Worker, while others may notice musical and lyrical themes from other past songs weaving their way through.
Keeping in mind that Hawkwind has been mostly a functioning band since 1969, it is beyond startling that 47 years later, they could still pull some magic out of their hats and dazzle us. Long term fans and newcomers will resonate with this record, as it plays into Hawkwind’s strengths. Concept album? Check. Large dystopian theme running through the whole thing? Check. Creepy atmospheric interludes? Check. And a big reason for this album’s success is Brock stepping up once more to grab control of his own band, and inject some of his magical energy that has been lacking in the last 20 years. When people say this is one of their best albums in a while, they are spot on. (One review states it is the best since 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time, a bit of misguided hyperbolic praise). But this is definitely the most satisfying and complete work since 1992’s Electric Teepee (or some others have pointed towards 1995’s Alien 4 as their last really satisfying and complete album). Either way, it has been over 20 years since a Hawkwind album that really gets you excited and makes you want to play it again immediately has been released. Hawkwind releases used to be cause for celebration, make you want to take the day off from work or school and just—you know-get into it, get out of it, get into it. Blood of the Earth I played a few times and haven’t revisited in six years. Onward? I actually sold it after two plays knowing I’d never listen to it again. Hawkwind’s recent output was starting to tarnish the unique power and beauty of their 1969-1992 era of near perfection.
Their recent attempts at sticking their toes into the prog rock pool also didn’t sit right. Prog bands are known for their chops and tricky compositional skills, this was never Hawkwind’s vibe. Hawkwind was always about the SOUND. They always had taken a punk rock approach, long before punk existed. “Plug a bunch of things in, wail away, and let’s see what happens” has always been their approach, and nobody in the history of the band would claim virtuoso status in any era of their existence. This is what made Hawkwind stand out from the crowd, in a field crowded by anorak prog geeks wielding moogs, Hawkwind were the Neanderthals armed with technology who co-opted the fancy gear and created a glorious primal electronic caterwauling, a maelstrom of sound that could pluck your consciousness from your shaking body and take it to new dimensions, something ELP and their ilk could never do. Attempting to enter territory they weren’t well equipped for wasn’t playing to their strengths, and their recent work showed it. Only 2012’s Hawkwind Light Orchestra’s Stellar Variations avoided this trap, stripped to a trio of Brock, Chadwick and Hone.
Is this album perfect? No. Although it does not fare as well in comparison to their groundbreaking 1970-1977 period, and can suffer from time to time from overly generic synthesizer work, it should quickly grab the attention of any Hawkwind fans who would consider themselves a bit disaffected in the millennium. Overall, this album has an elegiac feel to it. Under the guises of following the storyline, the third to last (and best) song on the album, the infectious Solitary Man sounds as if Dave Brock is finally letting the long term fan peek behind the curtain into his private life for both a quick glimpse and large statement, and has pinned an appropriate title to let you know. For as the song says, Dave has always been a Solitary Man, single-handedly guiding the starship Hawkwind through the Cosmos, surrounded by friends, but alone with his thoughts. If this is the last Hawkwind album ever, it is a solid final statement, and they have done us proud. Highly recommended for Hawkwind fans both old and new.