15 Years Ago: Smashing Pumpkins Give Away ‘Machina II/The Friends + Enemies of Modern Music’
Smashing Pumpkins carried a lot of weight during the '90s. But by the time the new millennium had arrived, the Pumpkins found themselves with a dwindling fanbase. Their fourth and fifth albums, Adore and Machina/The Machines of God, respectively, failed to impress fans, as well as their record label, Virgin Records. So, in what might be seen as a fit of frustration, they released Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music for free, 15 years ago Saturday.
The Smashing Pumpkins' fourth album, Adore, was a sonic departure from their established sound. Electronic drums and grand arrangements replaced the band's signature layered-guitar sound, and fans weren't impressed at the time. So, with their fifth album, the Pumpkins put their guitars back on and turned their amps back up. But the result was another failure, at least commercially.
So, when Billy Corgan presented Virgin with Machina II..., they said something like, "Eh, we're gonna pass on this one." Since the Pumpkins' contract with Virgin prevented them from taking their album elsewhere, they decided to release it themselves for free on their label, Constantinople. Corgan printed up a scant 25 double LPs and sent them to a handful of people with instructions to share the album on the Internet. This release was accompanied by the announcement that the Smashing Pumpkins were breaking up. They'd play a farewell tour, then they were out.
Machina II was met with adoration from fans and critics alike. It seemed that everyone wondered why, if Machina/The Machines of God was so bad, how could the follow-up be so good? Even Pitchfork had few negative things to say about Machina II and made some positive remarks:
Within the first three songs, I'm immediately reminded of everything I ever loved about the Smashing Pumpkins: perfect examples of the dream-pop/arena-rock hybrid they forged back in 1993. The performances are, for the most part, raw and mostly live sounding, with some tracks actually recalling the glory days they spent in Butch Vig's basement. Basically, you get the one thing missing on MACHINA I: the sound of a band playing.
Perhaps one of the elements of Machina II that made it so good is the sound of anger and frustration that made the band's first three albums so relatable. Unfortunately, it was probably also that same frustration that led to the band's demise. The Smashing Pumpkins performed on television for the last time (until Corgan reformed the band in 2007) on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. When Leno asked Corgan why he was quitting, Corgan replied: "Comedy doesn't pay."
Machina II had lots and lots of what Pumpkins fans complained was missing from Adore: guitars. The song "Dross" is a great example of Corgan's ability to wrangle bitchin' riffs at will:
Even guitarist James Iha wrote a song for the album. "Go" doesn't quite sound like a typical Pumpkins tune, but it is a solid, admirable song that makes one wonder how the Pumpkins' overall sound might have been if Corgan had given Iha a little more room within the band:
Corgan has said that he'd like to re-release Machina I and Machina II packaged together, as he originally intended. Unfortunately, legal issues with Virgin have prevented him from doing so. Luckily, you can still find Machina II online.