A trio should not be able to sound as loud and as diverse as Secret Machines did on their 2004 debut Now Here is Nowhere. Early reviews of the band pegged them as inheritors of a Led Zeppelin-meets-Pink Floyd classic rock, but the Dallas-based trio was anything but a nostalgia act, their scope stretching far beyond such ‘60s and ‘70s era behemoths. Although drummer Josh Garza does channel the heavy lifting of Zeppelin’s John Bonham, pounding relentless rhythms that stand strong against Brandon and Benjamin Curtis’s psyched-out guitar explosions and keyboard flanges, the band counters its hard rock references with nods to krautrock, shoegaze, new wave and prog. Against a large, lumbering rhythm section, the Curtis brothers are able to weave spacey and concept-heavy textures from artists as different as David Bowie, Neu!, Interpol and the Flaming Lips. Altogether, their three-pronged attack resulted in an impressive genre-bending start.

The album begins with an explosion of rhythm and effects-laden chords on “First Wave Intact.” The incessant kick drum, bass flexes and fiery guitar chords combine to make for an epic opener. Garza inverts Bonham’s beat from “When the Levee Breaks” to place the snare cracks on the one, making it all the more propulsive, while the Curtis brothers wreak experimental havoc on their guitars and keyboards for nine minutes. The song kicks into overdrive when Brandon Curtis pushes his voice into a paranoid and reverberating falsetto near its climax: “No dreams, no curse/ Could we make things even worse?

The band carries its full-on musical assault as the album continues. “Sad and Lonely” layers a syncopated rhythm under a funky Yoshimi-esque synth line and a careening guitar, while lead single “Nowhere Again” is a piano-driven stomper that shares a passing resemblance to Arcade Fire. “The Road Leads Where It’s Led,” with its hydraulic rhythm section and its flexing synths, finds Brnadon Curtis at his most impassioned and full-throated, indeed “Blowing all the other kids away.” And “Pharaoh’s Daughter” casts a bluesy squall against classic Pink Floyd chord changes and background vocal volleys.

Secret Machines’ dynamic qualities emerge even on restrained songs that assume a Dark Side of the Moon psychedelia and meander with mellifluous harmonies. “Leaves Are Gone” eases through the delicate ebbs and flows of Brandon Curtis’s keyboard, while “You Are Chains” constructs an aggressive edge in the song’s second half, with Garza’s drums buoying the sharp piano with aplomb.

While the band’s sonic repertoire features the dynamic interplay between in-your-face bombast and calculated restraint, their lyrics are much more covert, remaining shrouded in paranoia and embedded in conspiratorial military imagery. On “Light’s On,” Curtis’s voice cracks with a palpable paranoia as he describes a dystopian world of Big Brother-like surveillance: “Somewhere there’s a record of your whereabouts/ Everywhere you go you leave a trace…/ The light’s on/ We don’t know just who our friends are.” “Pharaoh’s Daughter” responds to this kind of paranoia through the formation of a nascent rebel army: “We dressed in uniforms left over from the war/ A tourniquet, an iron vest/ our emblem was a star.” While the album’s themes of paranoia and military imagery are pervasive, these two songs subtly manifest the band’s political agenda as a response to the Bush-era wars on terrorism.

In addition, the album pulses with erotic energies equally as charged as Garza’s swaggering drums. On “Nowhere Again,” Curtis sings “There’s a woman in the mirror in a fiery state/ As she motions to me I start turning away/ She’s lifting her dress up/ Trying to keep up.” Although this libidinal tension could potentially threaten to undercut the album’s political aspects, it actually intensifies them through its more humanized qualities.

The album ends with its title track, a nine-minute bookend that catalyzes much of what had come before—relentless drums, cascading harmonies, and spacey effects. In many ways, it acts as an epic reprise for the band’s debut, a galvanizing display of textured and conceptually rich prog rock.

The trio recorded a solid, but somewhat lackluster follow-up in 2006 with Ten Silver Drops, after which Benjamin Curtis left the band to focus on another project, School of Seven Bells. He tragically passed away in 2013 after a battle with lymphoma. Ex-Tripping Daisy member Phil Karnats replaced Benjamin on guitar, and the band released a self-titled album in 2008 before disbanding altogether in 2010. Although Now Here Is Nowhere suggested that the Dallas-based three-piece would be ready for big things, they never quite regained the musical and lyrical vigor of their debut.

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One Comment

  1. Peter K Reilly

    March 29, 2018 at 6:19 am

    Editorial comment. Brandon Curtis was the lead singer not Benjamin


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