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Secret Machines

(27 Aug 2009: The Icehouse — Phoenix)

As an outsider looking in, and as someone who, perhaps foolishly, holds artists and those who create my kind of art to a higher standard, I would imagine that performing for a room half full of local media/promotion types on the eve of a weekend long, corporate-sponsored event intended to pimp the 2010 Kia Soul leaves a ghastly wad of shame lodged deep in your stomach, and that after assisting in such a cause you might imagine your skin to have a slick, greasy sheen, as if you just crawled out of a pit of lifeless, festering ooze. 


I found myself debating this peculiar artistic dilemma as the Secret Machines, a band I enjoy very much, prepared to take the stage at a converted warehouse space in downtown Phoenix. To my left was the “bar”, a makeshift countertop where a couple of hired stooges were handing out free cans of Budweiser and Mountain Dew. To my right, inexplicably, was a 20-foot tall cardboard robot. Banquet tables overflowed with various Kia product fliers. Behind the band was a large decorative mural that had multi-colored 2010 Kia Souls juxtaposed with-no shit-little tiny sheep. The implications were staggering. Apparently, Kia’s ad wizards have resorted to calling the American public exactly as they see us: sheep! I’m not sure if they were trying to be ironic or flat out insulting or if maybe they’ve finally just given up, as in a “nobody is buying cars anyway…we might as well tell the truth” kind of statement. Their diabolical marketing scheme was lost on me, however.  I just wanted to see the Machines. Besides, I already have a sporty mid-sized compact SUV.


The band began their abridged set with “Nowhere Again”, without question their most recognizable song, and if the shiny-shirt wearing guys in the front row thought the warm-up DJ mouse-clicking Itunes dance jams earlier was loud, well, they must not understand loud like some of us do. The Secret Machines are a LOUD band. It starts with drummer Josh Garza, who sets up stage left rather than the traditional background locale. Garza, it seems, uses small trees for drumsticks—for sheer force and consistency, his is a tough act to follow.


Brandon Curtis runs the show; songwriter, singer, guitarist, keyboardist, etc. His brother Ben quit the group in late 2007 to form School of Seven Bells. My first experience with the Machines was in early 2005, and the demonstration that Garza and the Curtis brothers put on that night was awe-inspiring, to say the least. I’m not saying that the current lineup (guitarist Phil Karnats now rounds out the trio) is lacking in any way, and perhaps this evening’s shortened set wasn’t the most honest representation, but I can’t help feeling that some of the magic has lifted.


Their most recent, self-titled LP, while nowhere near as captivating as the first two records, does manage a few great moments. One of which, “The Walls Are Starting to Crack”, with it’s devastating mid-section, featured Garza absolutely losing his shit during a freakish, five-armed drum solo, and it was easily the most memorable moment of the night. The rest of the set pulled mostly from the band’s earlier work, from a slow-burn take on the sad-sack anthem “Alone, Jealous, and Stoned”, to a typically vamped out version of “Sad and Lonely”, to their crowning achievement, Now Here Is Nowhere’s ten minute opening opus “First Wave Intact”. 


I’m hard pressed to pinpoint a riff, written in the last 15 years, that rivals the one in “First Wave Intact” in terms of monstrosity and face-melting potential. The song totally wails and the Machines held nothing back as they barreled their way through it. Safe to say that by now, all the shiny-shirt PR guys were making for the exits. This was not their kind of noise. For a moment I stood in blissful repose, feeling the thundering madness all around me, briefly forgetting that I was in a half-empty warehouse surrounded by Kia salesmen, drinking lukewarm Budweiser, and feeling very sketchy about the giant robot looming over my shoulder. That moment felt like any other Secret Machines show, as I stood there cursing myself for forgetting my earplugs.


The band called it a night after eight songs, playing barely an hour. I had already resigned myself to the fact that this wouldn’t be a proper Machines gig—one look at the stage set-up told me that, as Brandon’s keyboard was nowhere to be found.  If I wasn’t going to be able to hear “You Are Chains” or “1,000 Seconds” than I certainly wasn’t getting the full experience. Not to seem bitter or ungrateful—on the contrary, I would like to thank the folks at Kia for making an effort, for bringing a great band to town, and for giving me those three free drink tickets. I imagine lukewarm Budweiser can only taste that good when you’re standing in a dusty Arizona warehouse in the middle of August.


I’d like to thank the band, as well. It can’t be easy fulfilling these kinds of corporate obligations, even if it does mean a decent paycheck. With the music industry in shambles, perhaps any paying gig is as good as the next.

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