Secret Machines Secret Machines

[TSM; 2008]

Styles: prog rock, indie rock, krautrock
Others: Faust, Pink Floyd, Queens of the Stone Age, Pink Floyd

“I wonder what you do when the last believer has dropped dead?” I know! You go on reaching for that angst-rock opus in the sky, audience be damned.

I guess that line, taken from the chorus of the second track on Secret Machines, “Last Believer, Drop Dead,” is actually about the early Christians or somethin’ heavy like that. But it might as well refer to the situation the Machines find themselves in. The loss of founding member Ben Curtis, brother to singer Brandon, provided Warner Bros. with the excuse they were looking for to drop the under-selling band. This double loss threatened their already frail sense of band identity: benefactors of the post-Strokes boom, they’ve been a major label band for practically their entire existence. Following the increasingly rare top-down model of success, they tried to transfer industry generated buzz into grassroots success. They never quite managed to do so, as a look at their MySpace statistics (a triple-a level 700,000 plays) confirms.

The resulting album is predictably self-titled, and you must be able to smell its pathetic, flailing desperation from miles away. Right? Actually, no. Drummer Josh Garza calls it “the album they’ve always wanted to make,” and I actually am inclined to believe that press release bromide. There are no embarrassing stabs at pop crossovers, no bitter jabs at the record industry. Just tuneful and accomplished, if somewhat anachronistic and faceless, BIG MOODY ROCK. The record they have wanted to make since they were stoned teenagers lying in strobe-lit rooms, very likely. But is it the album that anyone in 2008, stoned teenagers included, NEEDS to hear?

The extroverted first half of the album goes well. On opener “Atomic Heels,” Curtis takes on self-involved apathetic types: “ You say ‘let them go on fighting I guess/ As long as there’s some place left to visit’/ You’re thinking about all the jobs that you could retire from.” Thems fightin’ words. The tunes follow in line: the band convert their droning riffage into sharp verse/chorus/verse songs, replete with effective ’80s pop synths. Despite the focused sound, there is something that remains blurry about the ‘Chines, like your stoner neighbor whose personality-extinguishing high intake renders him mostly unknowable. The vocal melodies at one point bring to mind the dude from Fiery Furnaces (“Last Believers, Drop Dead”) and at another less unlikely point call forth the dude from The Psychedelic Furs (“Underneath the Concrete”). The latter includes an affected British accent, which is funny. However, Curtis never really establishes his own vocal style from which to stray, and so at these moments it feels likes he’s just grasping at others’ styles in order to borrow some needed frontman mojo.

“Now You’re Gone” is a breakup ballad, à la 2006’s Ten Silver Drops’s immaculately titled “Stoned, Jealous, and Alone.” “Stoned” could have been the best song passive-aggressive love song Sebadoh never wrote but for its vague lyrics and conventional over-production, which unfortunately relegates it to the category of boring rocker ballads. Inversely, “Now You’re Gone” features a soaring chorus only a step removed from Coldplay, yet its dense atmospherics make it too risky for radio. I don’t know if this tension makes them a good Coldplay or a bad shoegazer band, or what, but it definitely lands them in the Middle of the Road.

Secret Machines reveals its hand in the final three tracks, a prog-rock triumvirate capped off with the “epic,” 11-minute “The Fire is Waiting.” With these songs, the band either GOES FOR IT or retreats into its insular genre bubble, depending on your perspective. True, the Machines generate some impressive sounds, including a pretty freaky breakdown on “The Walls are Starting to Crack,” but the resulting mood is pretty much exactly parallel to The Wall’s, except that, you know, Secret Machines isn’t groundbreaking.

As long as the word “Rock” remains an intelligible signifier, bands will borrow from the inexhaustibly fecund sound of ’60s and ’70s classic rock. But for every Guided by Voices, who transmitted their own quirky genius via the lexicon of pop music, there is a band like The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who mostly just reproduce yesteryear’s attitudes and sounds. Rock is iconoclastic rather than traditionalist: if it stagnates, it loses its reason for being. It’s hard to say that The Secret Machines add anything singular and invaluable to the gray swirl they make out of rock’s past. Then again, if you’re the kind of modern rock fan who looks at her library and sees a glaring gap between Queens of the Stone Age and The Walkmen, Secret Machines will fit in nicely.

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