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Truth and Beauty : The story of The God Machine.

Truth and Beauty : The story of The God Machine.

“Have you ever held something beautiful”

In 1994 alternative rock trio The God Machine were putting the finishing touches to their second album when bass player Jimmy Fernandez began to experience severe headaches. Jimmy entered hospital for checks. Whilst there he fell into a coma and died from a brain haemorrhage. Devastated at the loss of their friend, the two remaining members ended The God Machine on the spot. One Last Laugh In A Place Of Dying… was released later that year, dedicated to Fernandez. The songs were published in their existing state. No additional editing was allowed. Any untitled tracks from the recording sessions were given names such as ‘The Life Song’, ‘The Train Song’, etc. Understated white artwork only added to the albums candour. Its inlay card simply read “For Our Friend Jimmy”.

”We were too heavy for the indie crowd, and we were too indie for the heavy fans.”

The God Machine have always been a difficult band to define. Even their own PR people found this a challenge. “Imagine Janes Addiction, mixed by The Devil using Stonehenge as a drum kit”, claimed an early press release. As signposts go it was pretty meagre. Few bands have achieved a Single Of The Week in both NME and Kerrang! though. The God Machine did (with ‘Home’) and the group consistently pushed at genre boundaries. Their unique brand of Alt-Rock could be heavy and challenging at times but it was also spacious and nuanced. In truth The God Machine never truly belonged to any scene. They were always outsiders – always on a different Storey.

The trio of Robin Proper-Sheppard (guitar/vocals), Ronald Austin (drums) and the late Jimmy Fernandez originated from San Diego. They had already been making music together as Society Line (with fourth member Albert Amman). Yet the band felt restricted by a local scene that they perceived to be “culturally lacking”. Eventually they quit their hometown for London (via a stint in New York) in the hope of hooking up with an old, music biz contact. It was a trip that left them penniless. Unfortunately they could never track their guy down and ended up squatting, busking for a living and honing their craft. It was in London that Society Line became The God Machine and Gigs eventually came their way.

Throughout their all too brief career the band eschewed set lists preferring to see where the mood and moment took them. Early live performances were improvised, as much a discovery for the group themselves as the audience. Any repeat motifs arising from these shows would then go on to form the basis of recorded material. Eve Recordings released the Purity EP in 1991 and The God Machine were eventually signed to The Cure’s label, Fiction Records.

Their debut album, Scenes From The Second Storey was released in 1993. It is an elemental listening experience. Windswept one minute, incendiary the next, Scenes… would have been a double album in the preceding vinyl years. Instead CD buyers were treated to 78 minutes of all killer, no filler, a rare accomplishment for the Compact Disc era. Opening track ‘Dream Machine’s begins with a sampled quotation about the fleeting ephemera of life before determined riffage takes over. The albums first true keystone is ‘The Blind Man’ where muffled contemplation gives way to a muscular, alt-metal workout. As the piece enters its climactic phase the whole thing surges forwards at breakneck pace. Listeners better look for something to hold on to because ‘The Blind Man’ is like standing in a wind tunnel.

Scenes From The Second Storey is the heavier of the two God Machine long players. Some songs erupt from quieter phases, others settle into hypnotic, drone-like jams. This louder, angrier side of The God Machine betrays their SoCal roots. It is when they pause for breath that the anglophile, indie label influences really shine through. ‘Purity’ showcases this perfectly. Beginning with five minutes of graceful strings you’d be mistaken for thinking you were listening to some long lost This Mortal Coil offering. Then the whole track bursts open with driving guitars and Proper-Sheppard’s accusatory vocals.

“If I show you the truth, will you show me the beauty?
If I show you the pain, will you show me the purity?
If I show you the scars, will you show me yours?”

The predominant lyrical theme of the album is faith, an almost defiant questioning of faith in fact. What remains startling, above and beyond the words themselves, is Robin Proper-Sheppard’s utter authenticity as lyricist. Many artists deal in torment on the written page (or canvas) yet are nothing like their perceived persona in ‘real life’. Robin… sort of is. A complex character, the frontman could be spikey and difficult to interview yet also warm, generous and funny. He admits to having been a wandering soul at times, with his finger never far from the self-destruct button. That said, if Proper-Sheppard was a flight risk, he was usually running toward something, never away. Intense drive and absolutism can be prerequisites for many successful artists. The only problem is that these same traits can be very confusing to people of different personality types (and vice versa). As a result Robin has probably spent much of his life misunderstood but his singular vision has been key, not only in the coming together of The God Machine as a band, but also to the quality of their output.

Given its length and unrelenting intensity The God Machine’s debut is no easy listen. The album has an oppressive quality akin to work such as The Afghan Whigs, Gentlemen, The Chameleons Strange Times or The Cure’s Bloodflowers. (See links to our Classic Album series) Yet we can still find calm within The God Machine’s raging storms. Invest a little time and the rewards will be tenfold. Though their music sounded huge it was often the deft little touches that elevated The God Machine’s work above other Alt Rock fare. e.g. the aforementioned quote from Paul BowlesThe Sheltering Sky at the beginning of ‘Dream Machine’ or the sample from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares on ‘Home’. The restrained ‘It’s All Over’ signposted a potential future direction for the band. Other notable selections from the album have to include grinding epic ‘The Desert Song’ and the seventeen minute drone, ‘Seven’.

Scenes From The Second Storey closes with ‘The Piano Song’, a somewhat melancholic instrumental given an almost haunted aspect by the taps and clicks that can be overheard in the background. If I remember well this paranormal activity was merely the result of somebody clearing up the studio while the tape still rolled but it sure is eerily effective.

I do not know how successful Scenes… was, commercially. All I can say that it reached my hands via a friend’s recommendation and blew my musical world wide open. I never considered The God Machine as part of Grunge or any other movement of the time. They just seemed so standalone, so apart, from anything else really. They were mine, simply. Their music forged a strong personal connection with me. I see that same fierce loyalty in their other fans. Perhaps they were ahead of their time? Listening to Scenes… now, it hasn’t aged a day. It is telling that Radioheads’ landmark release The Bends would not come out until two years later. I like The Bends and it is seen by many as the blueprint for Angst Rock or Pre-Millennial Tension but honestly, it is a stroll in the park by comparison.

Where The Bends is bruised, Scenes… is scarred for life.

The God Machine toured, playing festivals and opening for the likes of the aforementioned Afghan Whigs and Swans. They also did some notable sessions for legendary BBC DJ John Peel. In 1994 the band went to Prague to write their follow up. They were in the midst of putting the final touches to said album when tragedy struck. It must be remembered that 1994 was the same year that Kurt Cobain died. With Nirvana being the leading draw in the Grunge scene, Cobains was a rock n roll death of seismic proportions. As the music industry gears rumbled into motion to, let’s say, ‘mark the occasion’ of the icons apparent suicide, The God Machine simply stopped. With no fanfare whatsoever The God Machine called time on the band to mourn their dead friend Jimmy.

Why is this important? Not for one split second was any thought given toward exploiting Fernandez’ untimely death. No feature articles, no hashed together re-issues, no vulgar picture painted – the pair simply ended the band on the spot and went away. ‘Walk the talk’? These guys just walked, end of story. Such integrity lends added resonance to the music. When we listen to The God Machine, we believe in them. We commit to it and the impact is heightened.

One Last Laugh..

One Last Laugh In A Place Of Dying… was released later in 1994. This was Closer to its predecessors Unknown Pleasures. The grim title was a deliberate acknowledgement of those final moments in the hospital waiting room.

Though bittersweet, there’s an understated majesty to the second album. Anger takes a back seat to sure-footed serenity this time. That said, there is no doubt that this is the same band with the same focus and intensity. ‘The Tremelo Song’ [sic] launches proceedings in a similar driving vein to forerunner ‘Dream Machine’. It won’t be long though before One Last Laugh… shifts onto a whole other level – one of elegiac beauty.

“The trees are bare
And the sky is grey
Like veins in the side of a mountain”

Listeners could search for a long time and not find a better sequence than ‘Alone’, ‘In Bad Dreams’ and ‘Painless’. The widescreen ‘Alone’ is arguably a truer launching point than ‘The Tremelo Song’ for this version 2.0 of The God Machine. ‘In Bad Dreams’ veers toward The Cure territory with plush, elegant strings contrasting the gloomy narrative.

“maybe you’ve seen someone somewhere before
That I might have loved if I’d never loved you
But you only see me
in bad dreams”

This hattrick of perfection is rounded off by ‘Painless’, a song which combines the intensity of ‘Purity’ with the propulsive adrenalin rush of ‘The Blind Man’. Shorter and sharper than either, ‘Painless’ is the sort of song that makes you forget to breathe. It’s a favourite of mine and you’ll gasp too as it blows away both cobwebs and listener alike.

Seeing mentions of The Cure and Joy Division, you would be forgiven for imagining some American take on Post-Punk – a pre-Interpol, if you like. Long hair and long raincoats didn’t tend to go together but The God Machine have actually covered Bauhaus’ ‘Double Dare’. The connection is not without its merits. If Emo and Hardcore contain elements of Punk Rock, The God Machine were certainly channelling aspects of Post-Punk, at least in terms of the spacious production and prominent bass guitar. The point is that they were doing something new. ‘The Hunter’ is another album highlight. Its 8 minutes of stately elegance might just be my favourite God Machine track of them all. Serious competition can be found in the form of ‘Boy By The Roadside’, an accomplished piece of songwriting that floors me every single time. The God Machine almost predict the ‘quiet loud’ template of Post-Rock here (together with an appropriately cathartic finale). The piece certainly foreshadows Proper-Sheppard output with current band, Sophia.

“There’s a place I go to make fires
Burning spices on the 805
They found a boy dead by the roadside
Hanging naked but satisfied

There’s a place I go, where no one knows
And it’s not far away
And if you should see me with
My face up against the wall
Well don’t, don’t stop to talk
Don’t stop to talk”

One Last Laugh… closes with the meandering Wurlitzer weirdness of ‘The Sunday Song’. However it is ‘Boy By The Roadside’ that lingers longest in my mind after the finish. I wish this song was wider known. Austins restraint is masterful here – such a great drummer. The way the track casually juxtaposes innocent introspection with violent imagery is so provocative, so clever. I would have loved to have heard ‘Boy By The Roadside’ performed at a gig too. The fact is I will never hear this, nor any other God Machine output performed live, especially not by the brilliant Sophia. Robin is steadfastly clear on the topic. He doesn’t want to play those songs again, not without his bandmate Jimmy Fernandez. I find this admirable. What could have been straightforward fan service is instead refused on every occasion. The God Machine was over when Jimmy passed away and over means over. Proper-Sheppard is not a man for u turns. He will speak about his lost friend and has done so with great fondness at every single Sophia gig I’ve attended. However the songs are laid to rest with Jimmy now.

As we near the end of our story I must thank you, dear reader, for coming on this journey with me and for your interest in this wonderful band.

Einstein said that the pursuit of truth and beauty is “a sphere in which we are allowed to remain children all our lives”. As a music fan this resonates with me. Maybe you too? I am still rapt by the records that I loved as a teenager but I never quite shed that adolescent need to hunt down exciting new music. It’s the thrill of discovery almost as much as the music itself. Why should we ‘grow out of it’? According to Keats, “Beauty is truth and truth, beauty. It is all (we) know on Earth and all (we) need to know”. All we need, indeed. I hope that you discovered something rewarding here, something vital and real. That’s exactly how I view the music of The God Machine.

This has been the story of The God Machine. Thanks again for sticking through to the end. I dedicate this feature, not only to Jimmy Fernandez (RIP) but also to Ron Austin and Robin Proper-Sheppard. I hope that they are rightfully proud of their achievements because they made some seriously great music. I’ll also thank my friend Gavin Jones for pressing Scenes From The Second Storey into my hands and saying ‘you’ll like this’. He was right. His recommendations always were better than NME and Kerrang! put together.

After The God Machine, Robin Proper-Sheppard has lived in London, Brussels and Berlin. He founded Flower Shop Recordings and current band Sophia as well as heavier incarnation The May Queens. Ron Austin remained in London and went on to produce films. In January of this year Austin announced his return to music with new project Mercylane. We have covered Sophia before and will doubtless do so again. This isn’t their story. However I will mention that the new Sophia album “Holding On / Letting Go” as well as its accompanying promotional tour are on ice due to the covid-19 measures. I was actually due to see them play last night. The dates are postponed to the Autumn now. Have a listen to advance tracks ‘Alive’ and ‘We See You (Taking Aim)’ via the Sophia Bandcamp page for a flavour of things to come.

The stock photography featured here was sourced from the bands (and various) social media and may be subject to copyright. We are sorry that there are not very many videos on offer but we have done our best. We will put some more, audio-only ones at the footer for you as they are such great songs. Play loud, folks. The albums are out of print too I’m afraid. Your latest quest is going to be a challenging (but fulfilling) one. Where have we heard than one before?

Sophia band webpage

Sophia live at Botanique – review

Live at Reflektor

Classic Album – Afghan Whigs, Gentlemen.

Classic Album – The Chameleons, Strange Times

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