This is an article I wrote about one of my all-time favourite bands, The God Machine, in early 2011. I polished the article a bit, hopefully you will enjoy reading this and check out this cruelly underestimated band. I hope they will overwhelm you (in a positive way) as much as they did to me.
Some bands are hopelessly overrated while others were brutally underrated. The latter often produce the most intense art but either it was too complex for the big crowds or they were ahead of their time and would only receive the credits they deserved retrospectively. The latter category, if not both categories, for sure applies to one of the most epic yet underrated bands of the nineties: The God Machine.
To me personally, except for Echo & The Bunnymen and Orphaned Land and maybe The Smiths, I cannot think of a band that inspired and moved me as much as The God Machine. They have been one of the main inspirations for me ever since I was in a Barcelona cyber cafe and first listened to them, being totally blown away by their almost 9 minutes long epic “Purity”. It was the tip of a huge iceberg as the more songs of The God Machine I was exposed to, the more gems I discovered. A portrait of one of the bands which to me has an incredible emotional value and for sure needs to be remembered. The story behind the band is as incredible as their musical output itself.
It was the mid to late eighties. Four youngsters from San Diego, California, USA, started to play music after school and formed a band. The band quickly created their own sound, and played some local gigs to relatively good reception. The band was named Society Line and consisted of Albert Amman, Ron Austin, Jimmy Fernandez and vocalist Robin Proper Sheppard. The band had some influences from the new wave that was popular around that time, and I highly recommend to give songs such as “Second Sun” and “Departure” a listen.
The story almost evolved into a success story but came to an abrupt end: Robin felt increasingly restless in San Diego (a city of which he would say in interviews that it has no cultural scene at all and that he feels claustrophobic if he has to spend more than a few weeks there) and decided to leave for New York City. The three other band members continued Society Line, meanwhile searching a new vocalist. Robin stayed in New York for about half a year. While there, he learnt himself to play the guitar ; it was one of the few things he could do at night while being “locked” in his apartment: he lived in a neighbourhood called Alphabet City which was notoriously unsafe after dark. More or less six months after his departure, Robin headed back to San Diego and proposed the Society Line members to pack their bags and reform the band in NYC. After careful deliberation, only Amman decided to stay behind with his girlfriend and in order to continue his education, while the others left San Diego. The beginning of a long wandering.
The band passed through the US, spending some weeks in Texas, before finally arriving in New York. However, NYC was not as good as they thought it would be. The three boys felt alienated in the city and went further north to the state of Connecticut. It was there that they decided in a very impulsive mood to leave everything behind and spend their last savings on a flight to England. Back in San Diego, an English person from a record label showed interest in their work in case they would ever head to England. In a spur of the moment decision, Robin, Jimmy and Ron left everything behind (except two guitars and a drum kit) in a local garage and spent their last savings on a flight to London. However, once arrived in London they could not trace the person they were hoping to find. Almost broke (they had less than 100 USD left and no place to stay, no friends or connections to help them out) they decided to head to Amsterdam. In the Dutch capital the band was busking on the streets to save some money and then headed back to London. A person that Jimmy met proposed them to move into a squat in Camden, a notoriously artistic and bohemian district of the British capital. With no money and no place to stay, the band had no other choice but to accept the offer and move into a room in a squat. The three of them, in a far away country where they knew nobody and with no cash left, found themselves trapped in a chamber in a squat they had to share between the three of them. Music now became a way of surviving in these very uncertain circumstances. With no working permits and no cash, the band was forced to work hard in the illegal circuit and spent the money they earned on instruments. The basement of the squat was their refuge, filling the room with screamingly loud music became a way of surviving. It is unsure when and where the name Society Line was dropped and replaced by The God Machine, but it must have been somewhere during their travels across the States or during their first period of time in England.
It took about a year before the band had its first gig in London. By that time, several songs had come into existance. Often subconsciously, Robin explained in an interview. The band would just improvise while playing, often being blown away by what they heard. If they could remember the exact sound they produced and managed to play it again, it would become a song. In the end the band was offered the chance to release an EP. This was the EP centered around the song that would change my view on arts radically and got me seriously addicted to The God Machine: “Purity” (although the first version I heard was the one on the debut album, while the EP version is slightly different).
Robin explained in interviews that their situation was very uncertain. They had little money and were unsure if they would ever have a chance to record again, hence they put all energy and perfection they could achieve in this one release. The result was epic and in my opinion one of the best songs ever. “Purity” lasts almost 9 minutes and is not an easy to swallow song. It is a very complex piece of art.
The song starts with an ethereal sound where a quiet guitar, gongs or cymbals and other sounds overlap. This intro would take more than 4 minutes. During those 4 minutes, the sound became more grim and unsettling, and noise structures were added (did I hear the scratching of a pen or is that just me?) and a voice whispering in a way that is too silent to decipher the words. The EP version contains other noises, such as cracks as if a vinyl record is playing. At about 4 and a half minutes, the relatively quiet intro makes place for a screamingly loud guitar riff and pounding drums. An ear-busting overwhelmingly loud sound takes over while Robin sings lyrics of despair, such as:
“If I show you the truth, will you show me the beauty?
If I show you the pain, will you show me the purity?”
(Interestingly and possibly on purpose, the first line seems to indicate that truth and beauty mutually exclude each other)
At the end of the song, when the sound gets even louder, Robin’s screams of despair conclude a song for which only the word “epic” is suitable. I was literally blown away by so much beauty and by the intensity of the song when I first heard it (again, I was first exposed to the version on the debut album ; the EP is extremely hard to find and copies sold second hand online can be quite expensive). If you listen to it with earbuds you hear new tiny noises with each other listen.
A very complex song with complex noise structures and a very long intro followed by an overwhelmingly loud second part… not exactly the easiest choice if you are almost run out of money and unsure if you will ever get the chance to reach success and sell records again. Given the uncertainty in which the band was living, it only shows the guts and the dedication to make pure art: it would have been a lot easier to cash in on an easy to swallow and radio friendly tune, but instead the band created a very complex and (for most people) hard to swallow song. Those who however take the effort to listen, will discover a true gem. The sound becoming more grim and exploding into a wall of sound, the lyrics representing the despair of someone trying to find peace of mind and purity but never finds it, the cry for help in the end… The record was complex and difficult for the mass audience, but it for sure was a piece of true art. In my opinion one of the best songs ever and a song which has greatly inspired me.
Luckily for the band, they did receive praise in the music press and this caught the attention of big labels. This offered them the chance to record a full-length album and promote it with gigs across Europe, including an appearance at the famous Reading festival. The debut album “Scenes From The Second Storey” in a way is a bit like “Purity”: complex, very loud, hard to swallow for the mass audience, ahead of its time maybe, but a true artwork. The album was full of songs, most longer than 5 minutes and one song (“Seven”) even over 15 minutes in length, where eeriely quiet sad songs (“It’s All Over” with the core line “Why do all the things have to change just when they mean the most? It always happens that way” being a perfect example) are followed by extremely complex and loud compositions. A few songs were shorter (“I’ve Seen The Man” is a good example), but overall this album was about 80 minutes of complex songs with the majority of them being very loud. A Dutch journalist described the sound as (translated) “The God Machine build a wall of sound, then break it with a huge hammer until the bricks are all over the place” and that indeed sums it up quite well.
Except for “Purity”, “It’s All Over” and “I’ve Seen The Man”, a few more gems must be mentioned:
There is the autistic-esque opening track “Dream Machine” with lyrics including lines such as “Talk to yourself, listen because no one else will” and “Talk to your imaginary friends that only you can see. Stare into your dream machine”.
Another emotionally very heavy gem is “Out”. The intro is once again relatively quiet, but then the heavy guitars and drums kick in, with Robin screaming “I look at these walls and scream… LET ME OUT!”. Claustrophobia was rarely described that well with such few words.
Another great song is “Ego”, where the lyrics are hard to fully understand, leaving room for interpretation, and leaving a big impression with the great guitar riffs. Live this song rocked as few other songs do.
The song “Home”, which contained a sample of a Bulgarian folk choir singing, came with a quite artistic promo video that got some airplay on MTV. The song contained lines about hoping to die, followed by “Jesus made her do it”.
“Scenes…” immediately established the God Machine as one of the best alternative bands around. More wandering occured when the band travelled to Prague to record the follow up album there. The album would be released after the return to London.
It was then, right when the band was at the moment of breaking through and become an established act, that fate stroke: bass player Jimmy Fernandez complained of headaches and was hospitalised for a check. He however ended up in a deep coma and died a few days later of what appeared to be a brain tumor. After all the guys had been through together (surviving in uncertainty without money in a squat etc), Robin and Ron were clear that replacing Jimmy by another bass player was simply impossible and that they had no other choice than to officially end the God Machine.
The story of this iconic band was completed with the release of the songs they recorded in Prague, the whole album being a posthumous dedication to Jimmy. “Last Laugh In A Place Of Dying” already sounds a bit dark as a title, but given the circumstances for sure it sounded somewhat grim. The album was not edited anymore as Robin and Ron wanted the songs to be released exactly how they were recorded with Jimmy on bass, without any editing. Some songs did not have a title yet and thus were named “The Train Song”, “The Life Song”, “The Desert Song”, “The Piano Song”, etc.
The album contained another set of true gems, such as “The Tremelo Song” with its incredible intro. Never before a tremelo sounded so intense, and intense is what we can say of the whole song and its lyrics as well.
“The Flower Song” had very recognisable lyrics summing up the feeling of days when it all goes wrong, and the desire for escapism metaphorically outed in the wish to be a flower that could just fly away: “Or will I always be alone standing, staring at the sky? Or will I learn to fly?”
The almost 8 minute long epic “The Hunter” has tribal-like drums, and is centered around the line “What do you do when you feel like you’re living a lie?”.
The piano-based ballad “In Bad Dreams” where Robin, with aching voice, sings “Or maybe you’ve seen someone somewhere before, that I might have loved if I’d never loved you”, shows the band is more than an earbustingly loud ensemble and is perfectly capable of creating haunting slow songs too.
Another song I love is the rocking “Painless” which is centered around the easy but very recognisable line ” You said life would be painless; I’m sorry but that’s not what I’ve found”.
The album was a farewell from one of the bands that in its short existance left a mark on many fans.
Ron Austin and Robin Proper Sheppard would remain living in London for a while, Robin would later move to Brussels (Belgium) and currently resides in Berlin (Germany). Ron is a film maker now, while Robin created his own record label called The Flower Shop. While initially he helped promising artists promote their material, he started recording new music as well as Sophia (which is Greek for “Wisdom”). Sophia is nothing like The God Machine, it is very intimate low-key introspective music with lyrics mainly about broken relationships, loneliness, sadness and alienation. One of the most beautiful songs Sophia has released was one of their first releases, “So Slow”. The song clearly bears the memory of Jimmy’s death:
“But death comes so slow
When you’re waiting
When you’re waiting to be taken
And death comes so slow
When it’s all you want
And it takes the ones that don’t”
The acoustic guitar and piano as sole background music enhance the sadness of this song, but also its incredible beauty.
Sophia would go on to release more albums with other gems such as the romantic “Swept Back” (“You’re wet around the edge, tired of swimming upstream. You thought you’d just rest a while, but you were still swept back to me. … Swept back to all the grief and the worry.”) and the another beautiful romantic song, “Where Are You Now?”. Other gems include “Directionless”, “There Are No Goodbyes”, and the maybe most heartbroken yet also romantic “Something”, a duet between Robin and Astrid Williamson with Robin providing the music on acoustic guitar. The song contains the line “I’m a f…-up and a nightmare” to which Astrid replies “No, you’re a dreamer, I can see the light there”. A beautiful love song, although one that is halfway aching and heartwarming, also containing the line “When nothing means anything … Doesn’t anything mean something?”. The song “Portugal” counters the pessimism of some other songs with lines such as “I decided today I’m gonna be a better person. No it’s never too late to change”.
While Sophia is mostly acoustic and low-key, they did not forget the more louder rock music totally. “If A Change Is Gonna Come” (including the line “Life’s a b*tch and then you die, don’t waste your time and wonder why”) has the energy and undertone of punk and heavy rock, while “Oh My Love” (containing the brilliant paragraph “Why don’t you open your eyes? You might like what you find”) was indie rock at its best and became an alternative radio hit in several European countries. “Oh My Love” also reunited the surviving God Machine members for once, as it was Ron Austin who made the video for the song. Also, under the moniker The May Queens, Robin released some more louder rock songs that he thought were not exactly suitable for the Sophia discography.
The God Machine existed only briefly but it surely was a huge adventure and, in hard circumstances, they left behind two albums that were very ahead of their time. The band will live on in the memory of the growing number of fans they left behind, and meanwhile Robin continues to produce great music with Sophia. Ron Austin formed Mercylane almost 3 decades after the end of The God Machine.
The God Machine were:
Sophia is (permanent members):
The semi-official Sophia website: www.sophiamusic.com
Official Mercylane music: mercylanemusic.com
Sources used for this article, other than own knowledge, include:
the former The God Machine fan website “Sunday Velvet” (no longer online)
Several interviews with Robin Proper-Sheppard I read throughout the years
And my own article which I polished for publication on this site