Secret Machines rose out of Dallas, TX in 2004 with their debut album Now Here Is Nowhere, a chromed-out prog/space rock album that opened with epic 9-minute opener “First Wave Intact”. The three-piece, which included Brandon Curtis(vocals, bass, keys), brother Benjamin Curtis(guitars), and Josh Garza(drums), made a sound that was part Can, Led Zeppelin, and Harmonia blended with The Church and Echo and the Bunnymen. It was unlike anything I’d heard and I was immediately blown away by them.
Secret Machines put out two more albums, the masterpiece Ten Silver Drops(2006) and the equally stunning but darker self-titled(2008.) Benjamin Curtis left the band in 2007 to concentrate on his own project School of Seven Bells. In 2013 Benjamin Curtis died after a fight with lymphoma. Though Brandon Curtis continued working as a producer for bands, as well as joining Interpol on keys and vocals for live shows, Curtis and Garza effectively stopped as Secret Machines.
After a long hiatus Curtis and Garza have returned as Secret Machines. Awake in the Brain Chamber is the first new album since 2008s self-titled. It’s an album that captures the emotion of a band dealing with loss while carrying on in the face of it. It’s a welcome return of two musicians with more to say and do.
Out of the gate we’re hit with the dreamy and melancholy “3,4,5 Let’s Stay Alive”, The John Bonham-esque drums compliment the wall of harmonies and almost dream pop melodies. Curtis’ vocals have always been more under the radar. Breathy and unique, he’s not a belter but serves his songs well. Here he gives us lush harmonies and layers that give the song a sort of weightlessness. “Dreaming Is Alright” is a driving and forward motion song. This is classic Secret Machines. A cross between Krautrock and early 80s alternative. There’s always been this great balance between pop hooks and art rock with Secret Machines. No matter how eclectic they get there’s an emotional center to keep you grounded. “Everything’s Under” is another chugging track with a motorik beat, as if John Bonham fell hard for La Dusseldorf in ’78. It’s a densely layered track, giving the keys a chance to world build within the song. “Talos Curse” was originally recorded with Brandon’s project Cosmicide. Here it’s been given the Secret Machines treatment with a new mix and Garza’s drum prowess.
Elsewhere, “Everything Starts” is steeped in melancholy while firmly remaining in the sunlight. A gorgeously built track that is more reminiscent of early 80s alternative like The Church and Psychedelic Furs than Brian Eno and the German underground of the 70s. The song almost feels as if it’s going to burst at the seams, levels going red during the guitar solo. Closing track “So Far Down” is another emotionally heavy song, guided by a distorted electric piano and the most direct vocals on the album. There’s hints of fellow Texans Polyphonic Spree on this track. It’s a beautiful song to end the album, and one that I hope will lead to more.
The heaviness of loss is here, but this is not a bummer album. This is an album filled with hope amidst loss. More than loss, though, this is an album of reconciliation. Two friends reuniting to make music again, and what amazing music it is.
8.6 out of 10
‘Awake in the Brain Chamber’ is out now. Buy it here.