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The Smashing Pumpkins

MACHINA/the machines of God
(Virgin)

Leave it to Pumpkinhead Billy Corgan to attempt in just over 73 minutes his own dark twist on what it took English poet John Milton several pounds of parchment to accomplish in Paradise Lost: explaining the ways of God to man. That the delightfully megalomaniacal Corgan doesn't embarrass himself (at least not often) in the process is a fairly impressive feat. That the resulting disc doesn't bite like a Catholic schoolboy on a soggy communion wafer is all the better. Thematically and sonically, MACHINA's most compelling cut is "Glass and the Ghost Children," a near-ten-minute monstrosity featuring three distinct sections, one of them a spoken interlude that could have come straight from the airwaves of a particularly eerie radio talk show. "Everything I operate on is based upon what I believed God was telling me to do," drones the song's speaker, whose subsequent questioning of his own sanity introduces the tension that drives many of MACHINA's most lyrically satisfying selections. More specifically, in "Glass," as well as in "Blue Skies Bring Tears," which targets Bible-thumping hate groups with lines such as "You'll draw the guns you're given/Write down the words as written," Corgan seems less interested in examining the tenability of religious faith in troubled times than in exposing the fallibility of those who presume to have a lock on Divine guidance. "The Everlasting Gaze," on the other hand, makes it clear that Corgan himself isn't quite sure how notions of an omnipotent being jive with the universe's apparent cruelty. "Underneath the wheels lie the skulls of every cog/The fickle fascination of an everlasting god," the singer snarls a cappella in what is bound to become the CD's most quoted couplet. And if the preceding lines create the impression that MACHINA is about as much fun as Sunday school, fear not: On numbers such as "Heavy Metal Machine" and "I of the Mourning," Corgan and his cohorts -- this time around including prodigal percussionist Jimmy Chamberlin and former Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur -- prove they've lost none of the simultaneously dreamy and driving style that's been keeping old baldy in twin blades for years now. Sure, the songwriter's sappy side comes through in kinder, gentler compositions like "Sunshowers." Perhaps a more serious knock, though, is that fully half of MACHINA's vocals would be indecipherable without a lyric sheet. Then again, maybe Corgan knows better than to utter sentiments such as "All you have to do/Is play the part of who you are/The rest is up to you," from "The Imploding Voice," at full throttle. That he espouses such sentiments at all, though, is what makes him something more than the latest aging grungemeister to exorcise his Christ complex in public. It makes him, well, damn near human.

 
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