There's a fleeting moment in the middle of "The Everlasting Gaze" (RealAudio excerpt) The Smashing Pumpkins' new, don't-call-it-a-comeback single from their new, don't-call-it-a-comeback album, MACHINA/the machines of God, that perfectly sums up the band. After two and a half minutes of Billy Corgan's tightly wound anal-metal riffing, the music drops out, sending his vocals into an a cappella free fall.
It's among the most abrasive sounds heard on the radio in quite some time 13 seconds of unvarnished, prickly pain that are intensified by the fact that his voice (sorry, Billy) is about as pretty as our hero's bald-headed looks. Now granted, if all you want is ugly noise, it's not too difficult to find: Any album by 1980s sonic sewer rats Scratch Acid can fill that need. What makes this particular interlude interesting is the way in which Corgan somehow manages to transform those 13 seconds, and the rest of the song and for that matter, the rest of the album into something that is actually catchy. This may well be the key factor in the Smashing Pumpkins' successful musical chemistry: Corgan's ability to wed the filth and the fury of, say, Big Black's "Kerosene" with the songwriting skill and production pomp of, say, Boston's "More Than a Feeling."
MACHINA/the machines of God's first five songs (especially "Raindrops + Sunshowers" and "I of the Mourning" (RealAudio excerpt)) probably will reassure fans who disliked the downtempo textures of 1998's Adore, the album the group recorded after the band fired drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Now that the now clean-and-sober skin beater is back in the drum riser again, the Pumpkins may well be returning to the glory days of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Still, those who were put off by the quietness of Adore probably forget that, mixed in with all the boot-stomping and ax grinding, this ironically self-described "Heavy Metal Machine" (RealAudio excerpt) (one of their new songs) has periodically been prone to answer the musical question, "Have you never been mellow?" (c.f., the Sonic Youthlite glory of "1979.")
Meanwhile, just as the album's first five songs prove that these maturing monsters still know how to rock, the final five entries are a quiet, lovely ying to the group's hard-rocking bang. During these latter tracks, the album winds down to an atmospheric crawl but it doesn't evaporate into the ether. Solid song structures are still evident, but Corgan doesn't feel the need to scream and shout about his demons; instead, he whispers them lullabies.
From its thunderous beginning to its quiet, echoing end, MACHINA/the machines of God is perfect dancing-in-the-dark-with-yourself-'cause-you-have-angst-in-your-pants music. And, all told, that is something that Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins still do better than just about anyone else.