With their expansive sound, refusal to adhere to conventional song lengths and psychedelic theatricality, the Secret Machines have been pegged as the cutting-edge in contemporary space rock. Yet on a month-long U.S. tour promoting its second full album, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas trio-bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Brandon Curtis, guitarist/vocalist Ben Curtis and drummer Josh Garza-is experimenting with a different notion of space. For their in-the-round concert tour, the Secret Machines channeled their inner Habermas, plopping their enormous stage in the middle of small concert halls across the country. The band’s label, Reprise, describes the search for a “truly communal live experience” for show-goers.
The idea is commendably ambitious, not to mention expensive, for a band of the Secret Machines’ stature in the club-rock world-it’s more appropriate for mega-groups touring through cookie-cutter arenas than the peculiarities of America’s various clubs and concert halls. Every night surely brings new challenges of space, sound and sight lines. And in November in the hall at Warsaw, a converted Polish social club, the nine-person road crew performed a marvel of staging and lighting, using the large mirrors on the hall’s narrow walls to increase the space and enhance the gorgeous light show by reflecting it back onto the stage and the crowd standing around it.
The quest for intimacy with its fans is a noble endeavor, confirming the Secret Machines as a band constantly pushing itself to re-conceptualize the boundaries of the rock show. Yet the group hardly embodies the stereotypes of communal music. Its music tends toward the abstract and detached, the lyrics vague and elusive, an air of imprecise alienation and ambivalent dissatisfaction that belies the dense, pulsing rhythmic approach. There’s fragility behind the bravado.
In concert, the Machines exhibit the same detached cool their music suggests. Clad all in black but not mopey, neither unfriendly nor cuddly, the band is an unlikely host of communal experience. Forget stage banter; there’s barely eye contact. The band members faced inward toward each other, creating an invisible barrier between performer and fan, and it was as if the audience was invited to peek into the band’s private space, their rehearsal studio. The crowd gathered around the stage five or six deep, almost uniformly arranged by height around the stage, with the subconscious courtesy of crowds gathered around a minor traffic accident, an abstract sculpture or the lion pit at the zoo.
Still, the communal spirit triumphed, due in no small part to the stunning light show from the stage that constantly rotated, swooped and strobed with the time and theme of the music’s every valley and crescendo. Linked by the massive sound emanating from the hulking set that dwarfed the Machines, band and crowd spilled outward from bright lights at the center of the room, reveling in the music as shared experience, the concert as mutual spectacle.
The performance lacked the controlled urgency of the band’s better shows, whether due to the unpredictable sound of the circular stage in an unfamiliar room, fatigue from their month-long tour or drained from industry hobnobbing during that week’s CMJ Festival. Compared to the Secret Machines’ incendiary record-release show in the round at New York’s Hiro Ballroom in April, the band failed to find its footing until the last third of the set. Opening with “What Used to Be French,” off the band’s September 000 EP (2000), the band ran through somewhat dispirited versions of songs from its two full-lengths, including “Faded Lines,” “Sad and Lonely” and “Pharaoh’s Daughter.”
A welcome attempt to rave up “The Road Leads Where It Led” felt forced and uninspired, and “Better Bring Your Friends,” a straight-up rocker in the vein of the Curtises previous band, UFOFU, and a significant departure, was unintelligible beneath Garza’s uninterrupted banging. The band often cites the influence of Krautrock rhythmic simplicity as a critical element in their music, though in a live setting, Garza lacks the touch and deftness that defined motorik beats, an inability or unwillingness to temper his powerful wallop to the dynamic tension and musical complexity found on the Secret Machines’ studio albums.
Whether a result of the inconsistent sound mix depending on where one was standing around the circular stage-no surprise, it was best in front of the soundboard-or an overexcited drummer perhaps attempting to energize his weary band mates, the Secret Machines failed to take launch until the close of their set, with powerful versions of “Daddy’s in the Doldrums” and “Nowhere Again,” and sustained its momentum through the three-song encore of “Lightning Blue Eyes,” “I Hate Pretending” and “First Wave Intact.”
Not coincidentally, it’s in these songs that the massive drum sound perfectly complements the tonal richness and propulsive energy, building the dynamic tension the night lacked as a result of his unwavering full-throttle approach. When you’re clubbed over the head repeatedly, another whack loses its impact, robbing the power at the climax of bombastic epics like “Nowhere Again” and “First Wave Intact.” Like all great, expansive psychedelic bands, the Secret Machines burn brightest when they smolder from wisps of smoke into a raging inferno rather than dousing themselves with gasoline and lighting a match.