When any key member leaves a band, a crossroads is reached. Still more if said key member is a founder member and brother to the lead singer, Benjamin Curtis having left to form the School Of Seven Bells, from whom we’ll be hearing plenty more this year.
Secret Machines remain a trio, however, as they head into album number three, released from their major label contract but with their anatomy rebuilt in the shape of guitarist Phil Karnats.
First impressions aren’t too promising. Once given great kudos as David Bowie‘s favourite new band, the Machines seem here to have taken a step sideways, their original thinking still intact alongside powerful references to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, but with little seemingly altered since 2006’s magnificent Ten Silver Drops.
But then, after a few plays, the penny hits the floor. There is more vulnerability this time, played out in the album’s closing tracks. The Walls Are Starting To Crack offers evidence of a real fragility in Brandon Curtis‘s vocals. Even prior to this the prognosis isn’t great, with Now Your Gone’s eulogy “now you’re gone, it’s too late” a possible reference to his departed brother – or at the very least, the end of a close relationship. The emptiness of the vocal speaks of first hand experience.
This being the Secret Machines, they still blow the doors off. How a trio can make so much noise could only be answered by bands such as Muse, and the huge eruption that opens the closing ten minute epic The Fire Is Waiting is full of power and barely concealed anger.
Elsewhere, Curtis’s preoccupations seem to be of a religious bent. In Last Believer, Drop Dead, which rocks like the proverbial bastard, he sings in the chorus, “Look a little bit further down, who’s that man wearing the thorny crown?” before ruminating, “I wonder what he’ll do, when all his believers have dropped dead”. It’s powerful stuff, picked up immediately by Have I Run Out, the galloping drums leading to talk of the “writing on the wall”.
All very prog rock of course, but the Secret Machines don’t indulge in empty guitar solos or lyrical guff, though some of their thoughts verge on the fantastical. No, this is more ‘red meat rock’, with the euphoria of an unexpected key change or the inexorable rush of their guitar sound providing copious amounts of energy, backed up by the thundering drums of Josh Garza, who still manages to play within himself when required.
It may not contain anything as seismic as First Wave Intact, from their debut Now Here Is Nowhere, but the band’s self-titled third album reasserts the Secret Machines identity whilst revealing a fragile underbelly. There is an element of treading water, it’s true, but not too much to hope their next record will see them moving on more stylistically. For now, though, this is still one of the best rock albums you’ll hear all year.