Review: The Awesome Machine ‘…It’s Ugly Or Nothing – Beneath The Desert Floor: Chapter 1’

I love the idea behind Beneath The Desert Floor, Ripple Music’s new series of vinyl releases, to: ‘uncover lost treasures and gems from the early days of stoner/desert/doom rock… and freshen them up for a new generation of heavy rock fans’. I’m a big fan of turn-of-the-millennium stoner rock so the series promises to be a real treat.

The Awesome Machine '...It's Ugly Or Nothing' Artwork
The Awesome Machine ‘…It’s Ugly Or Nothing’ Artwork

By genuinely weird coincidence, the series kicks off with the record that started me on my long journey to Shaman scribe-dom. It’s an album that means a lot to me personally, so let’s make ourselves comfortable and I’ll take you on a trip down memory lane…

It’s the spring of 2001 and you’ll find a much younger me feeling homesick in Qingdao because I’d foolishly chosen to study Chinese at university instead of something I was actually good at. You’ll see me idly flicking through the latest Kerrang! that my girlfriend has sent me from home and finding an advert from I Used To Fuck People Like You In Prison Records for their latest label sampler, Where The Bad Boys Rock. Mostly because it’s cheap (£5 including shipping anywhere – I’m guessing they weren’t expecting many orders from the PRC) I wander down to a nearby internet café and order it online over the dial-up connection.

Now, the main reason for my ordering the CD was sheer boredom – I knew the label’s roster was a weird mix of stoner rock and rockabilly and knew nothing much about either genre. I’d mis-spent my teenage years listening to the god-awful local radio station 210 FM (‘No rap, no rock, just the biggest hits from the 70s, 80s and today’). When I was at university, I’d started buying random cheap rock albums from HMV and, while I’d found some music I liked, I’d never quite found something that really clicked.

Let’s fast-forward a week to me receiving the CD (the post to China was quicker than you might have expected, although much of it had clearly been opened and inspected by someone before it got to you) and loading it into my sound system (a Discman plugged into a cheap bass amp because all the computer speakers I’d bought kept dying). The opening track was The Awesome Machine’s Supernova and, from the moment the main riff kicked in, I was hooked. It’s a great song, but the thing that really struck me was the glorious fuzz that made it sound like the speaker was on the very verge of melting into a pool of plastic goo.

Naturally I picked up …It’s Ugly Or Nothing on the back of that and, while I had brief excursions into trying to hang with the cool kids who liked the noisy, mathy gubbins on Hydrahead, it was an album I kept coming back to. It was my gateway into the gloriously fuzzy world of stoner rock.

Given my history with the album, you’re probably right to be cynical about my ability to give you a genuinely objective review, but I’ll do my best. As ever, let’s start with some background: The Awesome Machine were a four-piece from Gothenburg that formed in 1996 and released their first demo, Doom, Disco, Dope, Death And Love in 1998. The following year saw a 10” self-titled EP come out on Ellington Records (strongly recommended – hunt down a copy if you can) before they got signed to I Used To Fuck People Like You In Prison for their first full-length: …It’s Ugly Or Nothing, which saw the light of day in 2000.

It’s a brilliant record in its own right; it shows why The Awesome Machine used to be mentioned along with Dozer and Lowrider as the foundational Swedish heavy rock bands…

The first thing that hit me on listening to this again is the production: it’s glorious. Compared to many heavy rock records today, it sounds super raw and much of the time it’s not easy to distinguish between the bass and the guitar – it’s just a wall of low-end fuzz. But man, the fuzz, the FUZZ! It’s not the silky-smooth fuzz you got from Kyuss, it’s gnarlier, rougher, more aggressive and gives the guitars real bite. There’s other stuff going on as well – when guitarist Christian Smedström decides to bring something else to the table, like on El Bajo which opens with some sweet wah-wah abuse and later on explores more mellow, desert-infused tones, it cuts through the mix loud and clear.

Something that didn’t particularly strike me back in the day but really jumps out on hearing it again – the drummer Tobbe Bövik is an absolute machine (perhaps an awesome one?) whose relentless battery provides a perfect backdrop to the rocky goodness on display. To round things off, Lasse Olausson vocals are different enough to merit comment. To quote the CD notes from Where The Bad Boys Rock: ‘What distinguishes The Awesome Machine from the rest of those bands is the vocal style of Lasse Olausson, who has a more aggressive heavy metal approach tosinging (sic)’. I’m not sure that’s exactly right, but it’s better than any formulation I’ve managed to come up with and definitely helped them sound different to the tide of stoner rock bands coming out of Sweden at the time.

I’m also not sure why the rock press at the time was so obsessed that every stoner band was trying to clone Kyuss because there’s very little, if any, of that across the album. From storming opener Never Said I Never Fail, to the pounding mid-paced groove of How Am I to Know, to the driving El Bajo, to the flat-out awesome Son Of A God, the band are much more straight-forward: hammering away at a sweet riff to get your head nodding before getting to a chorus that’s surprisingly memorable. To my mind, it’s much more in the mould of Fu Manchu or, to trace things back, Master Of Reality-era Sabbath.

As the album progresses there’s more variety. Cruise Control is the Planet Caravan-style mellow instrumental break. At four minutes I always felt it was a touch on the long side, but it sets you up perfectly for the shot of pure rock adrenaline Supernova which follows. Starting with an urgent guitar line that suggests, nay guarantees, rocking things to come, the drums join in for a bit to up the tension. Olausson shouts ‘Come on!’ and then the whole band pile in with a bulldozing riff that underpins a bulldozing track. I could listen to it for weeks and I can’t imagine it starting to sound old.

Looking For Sweet Opium shows off Bövik‘s dextrous drumming and demonstrates the band’s quirkier side, conjuring an irresistible groove from improbable ingredients. Out Of Fuel features one of my favourite instrumental sections of all time as Smedström belts out a riff for the ages. Used To Be is another rocker that would be an album highlight on most other records, before sprawling closer No Share. It’s a mellow, slow-burning track that reeks of pure 1972 – everything is so warm and vintage-sounding. There are keys of various types, but most of all it allows the band to show that they can do more than just hammer out awesome riffs. It gradually builds across its eleven-minute running time and provides a thoroughly satisfying end to an excellent, excellent album.

I was slightly concerned when I picked up …It’s Ugly Or Nothing to review that it would be a disappointment – one of those things you loved when you were younger but, looking back from a more mature (well, older and balder) viewpoint, is riddled with flaws. Thankfully, it sounds just as good as I remembered. It’s a brilliant record in its own right; it shows why The Awesome Machine used to be mentioned along with Dozer and Lowrider as the foundational Swedish heavy rock bands; and it’s a key album in setting the blueprint for the classic Scandinavian stoner sound that we all know and love. If you missed it the first time around, take advantage of Ripple Music’s generosity in re-releasing it and grab a copy post haste.

Label: Ripple Music
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Scribed by: Liam Blanc