Not long after writing this recent feature on Cosmicide, I resolved to come up with a sequel (or rather prequel) discussing the previous band of guiding hand Brandon Curtis. And, apropos of Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, I got to thinking about alternate histories.
See, both The Secret Machines and Arcade Fire released their debut LPs in 2004. Both got endorsed by David Bowie. And yet it was Arcade Fire who, for better or worse, became the band to emulate. Heck, Ottawa alone produced a good half dozen clones in the immediate post-Funeral period; bands with great quantities of personnel and superfluous instrumentation you often couldn’t really hear in the mix.
The Secret Machines were a trio (rounded out by Josh Garza on drums and Brandon’s brother Benjamin on guitar, though he’d later be replaced by Phil Karnats), but one that always sounded bigger than the “indie” sound. They were more expansive in sound and mood. They didn’t neglect the lower frequencies They weren’t “indie rock”. Just “rock”.
Here’s a chronological rundown of their small but consistently great catalogue. Join me in imagining the more visceral musical world they would’ve begat.
September 000 (2002)
The production budget on this one (released by New York indie Ace Fu) means things don’t sound as explosive as they would later. Still, these six songs are an impressive showcase for an impressive band. It bounces from Floyd-ian piano balladry to the motorik pulse of “What Used to be French” (with its opening bass pulse that, it seems to me, nods to “Runnin’ With the Devil”) to the gentle and totally hummable “Still See You”.
Now Here is Nowhere (2004)
Reprise Records, seeing the potential here, turned the fellows loose with a major label budget and let them co-produce. Drummer Garza benefits especially. He combines the muscle of Bonham (who also favoured a massive, 28-inch kick drum) with the driving, hypnotic repetition of Neu!’s Klaus Dinger. The record opens with “First Wave Intact”; nine or so minutes which owe a little (conceptually at least) to Neu!’s “Hallogallo“. As for the rest, there’s not a clunker to be found. Heavy, existential (‘how we race,while our lives erase’ Curtis sings on “Nowhere Again”) and tuneful. Perfection again.
Ten Silver Drops (2006)
For my money, this is the most homogenous of TSM’s three proper LPs. But, hey, that’s really not saying much considering the range they’d displayed up to this point. Plus, it was a break-up record; all three guys having split from special somebodies in the lead up to TSD’s release. So, while there’s a lot of balladry going on (which is not to say those songs are anything less than great), there’s still room for the hard rock stomp of “Daddy’s in the Doldrums” and “I Hate Pretending”. Once again, there’s an immediate challenge to the attention-span impaired in the form of long-ish opener “Alone, Jealous and Stoned”. It’s a heartbreak song or sure but also viscerally powerful. That 28-inch kick drum gets a workout.
Secret Machines (2008)
This marks the amicable departure of both Benjamin Curtis, who would turn up in the more ambient School of Seven Bells, and Reprise. Former Tripping Daisy/Polyphonic Spree guitarist Phil Karnats filled the void quite nicely on the band’s fully independent swan song. Brandon Curtis once again demonstrates his gift for sad songs that don’t suck (“Now You’re Gone”, “I Never Thought to Ask”), but things also get heavier than ever. The opening one-two of “Atomic Heels” and “Last Believer, Drop Dead” will snap your neck if you’re unprepared. Closing track “The Fire is Waiting” ends the story with impressive finality. Vacillating between a doom metal-esque section (that, frankly, makes a lot of doom sound tiny by comparison) and piano ballad verses, it not only draws the curtain but adopts a scorched Earth policy. It’s as if they knew this was their last and they wanted to leave nothing behind. As Curtis sings, “Near the fire, dust turns to ash.”
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