"Machine Gun" is extreme jazz in the extreme. Here is an album to make not-for-the-weak precursors like Coltrane's "Meditations" or "Ascension," or Coleman's "Free Jazz" sound like "The Girl from Ipanema." "Machine Gun" even surpasses Ayler in terms of pure havoc (though obviously Ayler's goal was never really havoc). The sound is loose like I never believed music could be. "Machine Gun" is the appropriate title, as the music sounds more like out-and-out war than jazz. This is sincerely violent music. Like most free jazz albums, there are a number of solos amidst the chaos (and notable ones, too, as these musicians were many of the most substantial figures in jazz in the decade to follow), but on "Machine Gun" the solos seem to have to fight just to stay alive, and are always smashed to bits by the unstoppable percussion. The superlative double-drum sound Sven-Ake Johansson and Han Bennink (!!!) whip up really steals the show. No other recording I've ever heard sounds like this. This album goes well beyond the free jazz of "Free Jazz." Its truly unrelenting. Let's go to the liner notes: "The endless aspect of this piece comes from its lack of time reference points. No obvious beginning, middle and end.... The only facet of time recognized is velocity." Mostly what you'll get from "Machine Gun" is loud, brilliant, pulsing sounds going every which way. `Velocity' really is the operative word. But probably my favorite parts are the brief stretches where the band comes together for a unified effort in an actual `song' - kind of a high-school-football kind of big band romp, lifting the listener's head out of the soup until Brötzmann rips it all back up again. Hearing "Machine Gun" is exhilarating because you can hear the exhilaration the musicians feel, as though they're discovering for the first time truly new possibilities of group performance - and of course they are. After "Machine Gun," there won't be anything else out there that can shock you.
This music came out of an extremely volatile period of Twentieth Century history - shortly after the widespread turmoil of May 1968. This music, though analogous to much of the stuff coming out of US labels like ESP Records, was of a thoroughly different breed. "Om" this was not. Let's go again to the liner notes: "`Machine Gun' is about machine-guns in a sense of word America does not yet know. Europe with its bomb-sights, concentration camp museums, war-scarred people and buildings and its Berlin wall and occupied Prague." Steve Lake wrote for The Wire Magazine (reprinted in the liner notes) that "Machine Gun" was "as earnest as a terrorist raid. It was that, really, a raid on established musical values.... The Octet was about power, sheer power in the here and now." In another article for The Wire (Issue 111, May 1993 - you can find it the mag's webpage, and I recommend you do so), Ben Watson has this to say about the album: "We can hear something bigger - the anguish and joy of May `68 unmediated by the cynicism of later commentaries.... It challenges you to like it, to choose sides, to participate." Amen to that.
The sound hit big. Self-recorded and self-produced, "Machine Gun" was even originally sold independently by Brötzmann at shows. It wasn't long, though, before it went on to be a massive seller (relatively speaking, of course) for Free Music Production (or FMP Records). Later on many of these musicians would go on to much success on their own. Brötzmann has recorded tons of things, including a number of albums with free jazz giants Last Exit. Atavistic's Unheard Music Series has been steadily re-releasing a chunk of his early material finally. Bennink has put out solo albums, and recorded with Eric Dolphy, with members of The Ex and Sonic Youth, and collaborated on a number of albums with his Instant Composers Pool. Sven-Ake Johansson has done quite a bit with the Globe Unity Orchestra, whose long-lost material is slowly getting unearthed by labels like, again, Atavistic. And Even Parker is, well, Evan Parker. (I'm not brilliant enough to know what the other musicians are up to).
I fall in love with albums every day. But rarely do I come across a true masterpiece of an album. A perfect record that never comes close to getting old, that I'm always excited to put on, and that I can't stop talking about. "Machine Gun" is all of that many times over. It is well worth the high price tag - WELL worth it.