Secret Machines - Secret Machines Review

Secret Machines was one of those bands that seemed primed to take over the world earlier this decade, but inexplicably never found an audience outside of their slim but hardcore fanbase. Then with the departure of guitarist Benjamin Curtis, it seemed possible that the band wouldn’t even survive semi-obscurity. But Ben’s songwriting brother, Brandon, and drummer Josh Garza recruited Phil Karnats and forged ahead. Their third LP is called, um, Secret Machines, and it probably won’t disappoint eager devotees too badly. Until, that is, they cross the halfway point. Then all the good karma the band has accumulated over the years from constant touring and consistently good studio output is dashed to the floor. They’ve released bad songs before, but never have they seemed so limp and unfocused as they do during a few passages of this one.

This is a band built upon musical hypnotizing: expansive passages of reverberating fuzz  propelled by tribal drumming and crackling with the distortion of crunchy psychedelia. But that was merely a foundation; the band also built great tunes on top of them—melodies that ratcheted to the rafters with an affluence of crafty tempo shift tricks and meaty hooks to dig our nails into. Since Secret Machines have never been known for observant and nuanced lyrical creations, the music is all we really have. “Did you hear about the writing on the wall/It says we can win, you gotta believe that’s all” from “Have I Run Out” is a typical hollow statement for them. And, "Now you’re gone, it’s too late/The world is starting to spin,” is passable for “Now You’re Gone”’s stunned-at-first-sight account, but isn’t exactly expressive or particularly inspired.

They still do their whole Zeppelin-meets-Floyd thing—thunderous instruments doing moody ambience—but they’ve mostly eschewed good songwriting for a spirit of adventure. I doubt it’s Ben’s departure that has affected this new direction; more likely, it’s their new indie label and DIY ethic. After being unfairly ignored by the masses after two really strong full-lengths (and at least four or five shoulda-been radio hits), perhaps they decided to just take it as far as they could after Warner Bros. dropped them. But apparently they forgot that when Zeppelin and Floyd became too ponderous, they were a shadow of their former selves. The last two original Zeppelin LPs each had at least one brow-crinkling curiosity, usually an offspring of the band’s admission that their style was no longer the vogue. And Pink Floyd could be a tiresome bore when not properly motivated. Syd Barrett’s madcap pop genius gave them life in the early years; the shackles of R&B grooves kept them stellar during Mark III. But when Floyd wandered…yikes.

The album’s first half sticks to the Secret Machines instincts of old and adds new inflections: murmurs of David Bowie, Ken Andrews and Gary Numan. Leadoff, “Atomic Heels,” is as traditional as they get (and worthy of single status). It’s one of the few tracks to feature a refrain and doesn’t waste a moment during its three-and-a-half minute running time. Pulsing like Reznor, it grabs ahold of you right away, a surprising move for a band previously inclined to open deliberate and unyielding. “Last Believer, Drop Dead” fills the vacancy of that slow build, fuming with repetitive, zoned-out drums and droning arpeggios—it suggests their earlier stellar epic, “First Wave Intact.” 

Then we get the first true throbbing space-prog epic, the existential “Have I Run Out.” It doesn’t match previous great Secret Machines atmosphere exercises, but at least it never bores. And right after that, the mind trip is beautifully interrupted by another rocking effort. “Underneath the Concrete” resonates of the punk/new wave incarnation of Bowie during the song's first half. "Concrete"'s hook after that is a four-part progression highly reminiscent of their own “Lightning Blue Eyes.” The song is a catchy one, to be sure, but also incomplete. Their sudden allergic reaction to choruses ends the track improperly. It’s an anti-climactic hiccup instead of an exuberant release. But a few issues aside, Secret Machines is so far, so good.

But things go wrong quickly on the second side. First up is “Now You’re Gone,” a mid-tempo mini-epic that’s more than a bit sluggish. They start off with a low-key “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” intro, add spacey vocal echoes like “In the Air Tonight,” and layer on both instruments and volume. And just when it looks like they’re finding their footing around the four-minute mark, they bring in a loopy sonic overlay, burying the melody in a muddle that sounds like rewinding tape and Lynch-ian backtracks. “The Walls Are Starting to Crack” is up next, but would have been more accurate to be called, “The Songs Are Starting to Drag.” More proggy space rock tricks without a fundamental purpose abound. It’s cut in half, too—the first part is slow and vacuous, the second an overwrought experiment in robotic keyboards and jackhammer percussion. Don’t get me started on the arch-dramatic crescendo that “organically” derives from it.

“I Never Thought to Ask” comes on like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” but progresses with 80s adult contemporary synth pop fills and more untimely echoes. It feels yanked off of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, an album that saw Floyd running out of ideas. There’s a little redemption to come, but not much. Epic closer, “The Fire Is Waiting,” begins with a sonic boom and Black Sabbath-inspired slab riffs before going into one of their traditional, reverberating dirges (halfway between “The Leaves Are Gone” and “Daddy’s in the Doldrums”) and then pummeling us again. The last few minutes are full of standard prog-rock delineations on the main rhythm, either softening or strengthening, and closing with echoing waves of distortion. Did I mention that they’re obsessed with echoes?

Considering how musically inert the second half of this album is, it’s a wonder that I made it all the way through multiple times. If they’re not as concerned with crafting catchy hooks this time, that’s forgivable. Clearly they’re obsessed with prog-metal this time, a genre not known for radio-friendly tunes. But in an effort to explore sonic psychedelia and instrumental fission, they’ve forgotten about the audience. If they can’t keep things interesting, it becomes one tough slog. They’ve always suffered from pacing problems (even on their debut EP), but this is too much. Okay, maybe they don’t want to do another “Breathe,” but a nice, little pop tune would really leaven the dead weight during that passage. It would go against the album’s atmosphere, though; consider it akin to comic relief in a snuff film.

Secret Machines’ decision to go for a big, anthemic sound on Ten Silver Drops was one of the only times in recent memory that a “move for the arenas” actually worked. But they didn’t graduate to the big show, and poor album sales saw them booted from their label. Maybe Secret Machines is their answer to that: scoffing at proper tunes and just unleashing whatever comes out of their instruments. Maybe it’s a matter of pride, maybe a lack of preparation, but the magic is mostly missing. There’s certainly an audience for these huge, meandering sonic experiments, but I find too little here worth hearing again and again. Mediocrity is not easily forgivable for a band as talented and promising as this one. What we’re left with is half of a solid effort lacking the inspiration to get us past the marginal-at-best second side.

"Secret Machines" is on sale October 14, 2008 from TSM.

Matt Medlock


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