Secret Machines have always known how to make an entrance. On their 2004 debut, Now Here is Nowhere, they announced themselves with the explosive nine-minute “First Wave Intact.” The remainder of the album, though never as loud or forceful, was no less urgent, combining insistent kraut rock underpinnings with Brandon (Keyboard / bass) and Benjamin Curtis’ (guitar) dense, swelling layers of sound. The Pink Floyd / Led Zeppelin reference points were tossed around with good reason.
Ten Silver Drops saw Secret Machines smoothing out the edges, to slightly decreasing returns. “Alone, Jealous and Stoned,” and “All At Once (It’s Not Important)” showed the brothers Curtis (and drummer Josh Garza) injecting their methodical space rock stomp with nuanced turns. But Drops’ standout was “Daddy’s in the Doldrums,” in many ways an extrapolation of “First Wave Intact.” It was loud, long, repetitive, hypnotic, simple, melodic, soaring. It was a high point in an album that sought (not entirely successfully) to coalesce the two predominant elements (crushing rock vs. quiet atmospherics) at the band’s aesthetic core. It was also the last full-length with Benjamin, who left in 2007 to form School of Seven Bells and was replaced by Philip Karnats.
On their third, self-titled album (they put out a superb self-titled mostly-covers EP The Road Leads Where It’s Lead in 2005), Secret Machines again seem torn. The first five tracks (there are only eight) come across as paltry attempts to recapture the insistence and straight-ahead immediacy exemplified on Now Here is Nowhere’s “Nowhere Again” and “The Road Leads Where It’s Lead.” On “Last Believer, Drop Dead,” and “Underneath The Concrete,” they mime rhythmic territory they’ve already executed. A return to form is admirable — who wants to see Secret Machines go soft? — but not when they’re attempts — “Atomic Heels” — are half realized.
Despite the band’s mechanical leanings, they’ve always been able to let emotion seep through the swell and walls of distortion and static; it’s a trait the band shares in common with few of their louder (current) contemporaries. But the opening half of the album is not powerful enough to convince the listener of much of anything.
What will ultimately convince the listener of their immediacy is the final song, “The Fire Is Waiting.” It’s an example of Secret Machines expert ways with repetition, four-note riffs, and crushing layers of swirling distortion. Though Benjamin Curtis, at least live, was responsible for much of the electronic manipulations, Karnats handles the role with precision. The song is also eleven minutes long, with the last three minutes dedicated solely to a single riff, while Karnats’ guitar — and studio effects — build to an overwhelming crescendo. It’s a cue taken from the outro to the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with some of the mania of Pink Floyd “Eclipse.” Along with the album’s other standout, the shifting and strange “The Walls are Starting To Crack,” it shows Secret Machines haven’t lost their exploratory edge. Are these two songs enough to sustain an entire album? Not at all, but they sure know how to make an exit, and it’s enough for now to keep us waiting.