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Smashing Pumpkins - MACHINA/the machines of God (Virgin)

In the weeks and months preceding the Smashing Pumpkins' most recent release, the rumours were rife; the buzzards were hovering. After the lagging sales of 1998's dead-on-arrival "Adore", the suspiciously sudden defection of bass guitarist D'Arcy in late 1999, and the equally abrupt exodus of band manager Sharon Osbourne in January of 2000, there seemed every reason to believe that "MACHINA/the machines of God" would sound the definitive death knell for the perpetually unsettled, Chicago-based collective. Of course, the Smashing Pumpkins have always served as a glorified, and ill disguised, one-man showcase for singer/songwriter Billy Corgan, his shaved pate and feral teeth somehow always less suggestive of a ghoulish Nosferatu than a pasty-faced Uncle Fester with a Messiah complex. Having first staked his claim to rock-god posterity with 1993's chronically over-praised "Siamese Dream", the Pumpkins' incorrigible frontman struck the mother lode with "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness", a dazzlingly ambitious double-disc set that, despite its occasional overblown opus, plodding stomper, and directionless sketch, nevertheless afforded Corgan the expansive canvas he seems to need in order to keep his demons and dementia in check and just generally get his megalomaniacal ya ya's out.

With its 15 songs clocking in at 70+ minutes, "MACHINA/the machines of God" is hardly an exercise in pithy minimalism. Corgan's infamously shrill sinus-whine runs its usual lab-rat range, from shriek to squeak and back again, on a disc steeped in the sort of creepily obsessive love songs that one cannot help but suspect the man is singing to himself. While things begin encouragingly enough (the 'Everlasting Gaze'' raw riffage and sinister, Jimmy Chamberlin-administered stomp), the rest of the record plays out as a surprisingly mild-mannered, sometimes shockingly lobotomised, link between the Pumpkins' past and present. Much of the blame can be placed on a self-consciously muddied production style that seems less a nod to early Pumpkins' fuzz and sludge than a belated sonic apology for the under-appreciated "Adore's" straightforward candour and clarity. Thus, the sort of subtle, tuneful accoutrements that might otherwise elevate songs to signature status ('This Time' - squalling, U2-like guitar; 'The Sacred and Profane' - soaring backing chant) are left helplessly burbling in the murk, sinking their songs right along with them.

The promisingly poppy 'The Imploding Voice' sounds as though it were strained through an out-of-range cell phone, while the six-minute slab of dread n' drone, 'Heavy Metal Machine', might well get Marilyn Manson salivating in his panties, but just sends the rest of us fumbling for our CD players' forward buttons. Only 'With Every Light', a gently effortless, "Mellon Collie"-esque confection, manages to make even an iota of impact, an impact all-but-instantly undercut by the blandly monochromatic album-cappers 'Blue Skies Bring Tears' and 'Age of Innocence'. If those hovering buzzards should actually be on to something, if those rumours of dissolution should ultimately prove true, what a crappy epitaph "MACHINA/the machines of God" will make for a band that has successfully navigated the rock n' roll rapids for better than a decade and has never been less than entertaining in telling the tale.

by Michael Karpinski

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