[15 February 2005]
The Secret Machines
The evening began inauspiciously, as the shrill ring of a fire alarm delayed the headliners by almost half an hour. Perhaps the smoke wafting above the stage was the cause of the alarm; I can’t be sure.
I’m more certain that the delay heightened the anticipation in the crowd, a tightly packed group of suburban soft-drug devotees and elegantly dishevelled urban sophisticates. The sight of smoke machines and a complex lighting rig combined with the ceaseless ringing caused a tingling desire for the show to start. Thankfully, the alarm did stop, and with apologies to John Cage, the real music began.
The Secret Machines—Benjamin Curtis on vocals, bass and keyboards; Brandon Curtis on guitar; and Josh Garza on drums—took to their places on the stage. With a flash of light, the show was underway. In a deviation from standard rock staging, the band members played in an almost straight line, with no one member taking a place of primacy. The geographic equality carried into the music, where the elements of the band’s sound cohered into a seamless, propulsive whole, equal parts Godzilla-stomp drumming, cracked melody, and high-tech precision.
While the band’s stage set-up and sound can be read as a demonstration of internal unity, no sense of oneness was extended to the people who paid to see them. Of course, that doesn’t mean the music wasn’t enjoyable.
The songs, mostly from the band’s debut album Now Here is Nowhere, rode long arcs of sound; the band was clearly aiming for the stars. If they didn’t quite reach those heights, they certainly had enough energy to go supernova. Garza’s Bonham-inspired drumming provided an immovable foundation upon which the melodic instruments could move back and forth between dreamy, ringing textures and surging waves of sound. It’s undeniable, if only because of the number of effects pedals scattered around their feet, that these transplanted Texans take their playing seriously.
The band’s album has had a lot of fashionable Krautrock comparisons, but heard live, the songs come across more hot dog than frankfurter. The easiest comparison would be to say they sounded like Presence-era Zeppelin jamming with Pink Floyd circa Meddle. It was almost refreshing to see and hear a band so obviously try to kick down the door to rock and roll heaven. After gorging on a steady diet of self-consciously primitive bands, a little ambition can be striking. Rock and roll could use some new heroes, and every move The Secret Machines made, with their extraterrestrial harmonies and space landing lightshow, was evidence of their grand ambitions. Whether or not they want to elevate their audience along with them was harder to tell.
Listening to the band’s album, you can make the songs work to your own ends. They’re good for rocking out or coming down. But live, the Secret Machines take back control of their music and appear only interested in using it to serve their needs: They hardly deigned to look out into the crowd. They spoke only to express gratitude for having the fire alarm turned off and a quick “thank you” at the end. The lighting was all ominous silhouettes and red spotlights, making the band look cool without enhancing the music.
I’ve never seen such a young band work so hard, in terms of music and presentation, to create a sense of distant awe. The only palpable physical communication, the only physical acknowledgement that occurred, was intra-band: a conspiratorial smile from brother to brother, a silent conferral between drummer and guitarist. There was a secret being passed around, but no one in the band seemed willing to share with anyone else.
I would never argue that musicians are obliged to play for the crowd. They can think the audience beneath them if that’s what they want. After all, a big dose of narcissism is probably required to create and perform music as grand as the kind made by The Secret Machines. Would a wallflower have written “The Wall”? Probably not. Could a shrinking violet have come up with the riff to “Kashmir”? Doubtful. But at least Floyd and Zeppelin knew they were playing to people—even if, as in the case of the former, that meant building a wall between them and us. For better or worse, I can easily imagine the Secret Machines playing the same show, with the same amount of passion, in front of empty seats.
If they ever figure out how to manufacture the odd pop hook to go along with their big sound, The Secret Machines won’t be a secret much longer. For all I know, they might not be interested in popular or critical success. But I still hope they learn to harness the strength and beauty that can only be found in the give and take between band and audience. Until that happens, I’ll admire them the same way I admire my new can opener—as nothing less than a perfect machine.