Awake In The Brain Chamber
The Secret Machines are back with a new record after an ungodly long hiatus. How’s this new album stack up?
Awake In The Brain Chamber [Space Rock, 2020] Review – The Secret Machines Return!
I fucking love this band. Always have, always will. I sense I got to watch them as they were coming up back in the day. I felt, in a distant and vicarious way, as if I knew them. That was probably the obsession talking. I’m not one to typically remember song titles or lyrics, ESPECIALLY member names but these 3 guys were really different from anything I’d ever experienced in 2004. Benjamin Curtis. Brandon Curtis. Josh Garza. These Space-Rockers come to mind within milliseconds of calling them forward from my memory. This is how enmeshed I felt with this group.
2004 was a pivotal point in my coming of age, directly in the midst of my decision to take percussion seriously and hammer away at it day after day. These gents reinforced that every move I was making was the right one because one day pointing at imaginary stage I could possibly be up there doing something along the same lines.
This meant something even more special
Since my weapon of choice was percussion. And the Secret Machines had this big, intimidating – looking (but seemingly sweet as pie) dude bashing away behind the kit. It was the first in my lifetime that a drummer was treated equal as the guys towards the front. This instantly made me a Josh fanboy. I thank them a lot when asked for influences when inputting submissions for various blogs, or playlists. I may not sound like them to a tee. But their thundering sound will always, always be something I hold near and dear. When we lost Ben all those years ago it felt like a personal affront from the Universe. I recall crying for days. But, upwards and onwards as they say. So, without further ado here is my track by track breakdown of their newest release, Awake In The Brain Chamber.
3, 4, 5, Let’s Stay Alive
The first thing which will strike you about this opening track is that while we know the Secret Machines to be a group happy to toy around with BPM, this is markedly slower song then anything they’ve produced, or at least that intentionally slow when compared to most other releases.
An unfortunate second realization is that it appears the boom has been lifted from the bass drum mix. I find this interesting, as it was a vital part in what created the group’s signature sound. So, is this very conscious decision to bring down the bass drum levels on this tune a flagrantly stupid move, or a sign of maturity? I’m certain the forthcoming tracks will have more insight into the ability to answer this question.
Awake In The Brain Chamber At 2:10
All of a sudden we find ourselves at the 2:10 mark, where major Ben vibes are heard in the guitar part. This shines and carries this section into the song’s conclusion. In fact this whole section, from 2:10-End is extremely reminiscent of days gone by. Even subtleties like the particular way which Brandon layers his vocals. There’s an attempt to replicate the breath-y and airy harmonics his brothers’ voice had previously been responsible for.
As rocking a section as it may be, it’s still a tearfully triumphant one. “Damn, he pulled off almost hitting my vocal range,” Ben says to himself somewhere, smiling at his big Bro.
Dreaming Is Alright
This one comes in Pumpin’! This is the energetic burst, the necessary soundscape that a band with a particular sound and niche like The Secret Machines must reinforce when there has been such a lengthy gap in time between releases. What’s not surprising is an extremely similar tone to their hit from 2006’s Ten Silver Drops, ‘Lightening Blue Eyes’. For a brief moment, as this song kicks to life, it eerily feels almost as if Ben is still there and never went.
One minute and twenty-five seconds marks the significant instrumental transition that continues to leave Ben smiling upon Brandon, as he is humbled by the way his brother has gone about reconfiguring particular sounds. Sounds which were always unique to Ben, but Brandon seemingly had no trouble jumping into the driver’s seat with what looked like little to no effort. Ben is also hopefully proud of the apparent care Brandon put forth in this track to sound like the younger Curtis brother. It’s heart-warming to hear him not shy away from his brother’s style and instead embrace it. All the while, a flattered Ben laughs to himself over how long it must have taken Brandon to piece this all together, knowing it would have taken himself only a mere couple takes at best. Brothers will be brothers.
This was the first song I experienced which clued me into the fact this album release was occurring. I was somewhat jaded/bitter when listening to this track prior to today, though. That may have been shock at the event. From here, I solemnly vow to to give this track a fair listen with an open-mind and attentive ears!
The drums and keys in the intro are a bit bright and New-Wave. In the worst kind of ways. Fortunately, it segues quickly. The following verse features Brandon stretching his vocal range to a point which was never exactly the group’s strong suit either. There’s also this twangy, country-esque guitar part going on somewhere in the background of the mix that leaves you saying, “Where’s this song going?”
Something in the beginning of the track, though, was clearly done right. This is despite my own personal opinions about individual parts, or certain nitpicky things. I know it was done right because it is the job of the artist in this instance to draw the audience in with a sense of mystery. Well, I’m invested in seeing what this song has yet to unleash upon me, so mystery established. Game on. Hit me.
Overall, Talos’ Corpse is just unimpressive. It tries to be positive but we are living in the most cynical of times, leaving this optimism sounding misplaced and tone-deaf.
To hear a typically cynical singer repeat the mantra, “Don’t give up” is nearly to a point where you ask, “He’s not serious, right?” Stop trying to cheer me up, Brandon! You know why I’m here – Make with the sad and lilting! Whatever, though. They can’t all be slam-dunks.
This song again hearkens back to the driving energy heard on Ten Silver Drops. Brandon’s breath-y vocals here seem much more akin to what we’d expect of him back then. Needless to say, I’m listening…
And something I feel obliged to note is that the mix on this track finally gives the audience what they have been passionately pining for this entire time; Drummer Josh Garza’s signature thundering, John Bonham-esque bass drum.
Awake In The Brain Chamber’s Approach To Percussion
There’s been some trepidation thus far regarding its use. They don’t want to show their hand. It’s coming. Most assuredly it’s coming, but when he’s god damn good and ready to fork it over to wreak sonic havoc with its hammering consistency. This is about as close to old school material I’ve heard this album offer up so far. Is that what I want, though? I can stand up right now and pop Now Here Is Nowhere on my record player if I wanted a carbon copy.
Do we want a duplicate of efforts released in 2004 out of sheer nostalgia?
I don’t really think I want that so what we are hearing is the inevitable cost of progress. As they regain footing under the Secret Machines umbrella again it may take a moment for this record to fit in your minds eye as a welcome member among the group’s canon.
This fifth track I’m going to tentatively deem my favorite from Awake In The Brain Chamber. As the track begins we hear a near New-Wave vibe coming at us once more in the form of the piano part. It just feels like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. As if it doesn’t fit. Anyway, moving on we find Brandon trying to sing again instead of going with his gut and using his unconventionally charming timbre. Stop it, my friend! You’re not a typical singer who should feel as though he needs to bend his voice to fit into whatever ‘convention’ you’re attempting to reach. Instead, go with the flow and delivery that has always made you such a unique and interesting vocalist.
Forget my criticisms. Despite them, I’m going to hit you with a 180. This is one hell of a track. Sardonic, full of confusion and loss, Everything Starts sounds like a mythical tale of rebirth wherein the subject is not necessarily welcoming of crummy circumstances but still begins the process of acceptance.
‘Daddy’s In the Doldrums’ vibes are present thanks to the bass part conjoined with the effected vocals heard during the tracks on-set. It’s ‘contemplative droney-ness’ which spells out this songs structure. It is so reminiscent There’s many moments where I find myself forgetting again that Ben is not there. By saying that, it makes me realize I can feel however I want as far as they care, I’m sure, but for 2 dudes like Brandon and Josh (who have really been through the mud these past several years) to manage through, against all odds, to release another Secret Machines record under the same banner as when they were a 3-piece outfit oh so many moons ago must be such a breath of fresh air.
Plainly spoken – This is a GOOD RECORD !!!
However, those blocked by emotion like myself previously will never open their minds enough to hear or note this. Only once you separate this album from previous works do you realize just how much this slight departure SUITS them. If I had never heard The Secret Machines before I could see them converting me to ‘fandom’ with this LP.
A New Disaster
The pulsing drums can be heard as the compass towards reminiscence once again. I actually needed to spin this track a few times. It was so spot-on that I completely forgot about writing down my thoughts for massive chunks of it due to large amounts of silent head-bobbing. Even ME, I don’t have anything to gripe about with it. That’s saying a lot!!!
For the sake of filling space, of course I’d be interested in documenting this album had it been less than up-to-snuff. I’d have honestly ripped it to pieces and came in thinking that was the direction I was already headed.
The career – spanning fan side of me though, is so so so happy that I don’t have much to say. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this flashback to to my 20’s. In a weird way, this is a time capsule in a song.
So Far Down
As the track kicks off, I find myself entranced by the dissonant guitar. The piano and drums enter in a more ‘standard’ fashion than guitar did. This makes for a very odd, but really cool balance. Part of you deems it weird upon first intake, switching to thoughts that leave you assuming this to be generic (but still .. uncomfortable) material very quickly. Brandon breaks with any idea of this being ‘conventional’ when his unpolished and more appealing vocal methods begin. They immediately remind again of days of yore, when he would hiss and whisper into the mic effortlessly while sounding superb. This is opposed to when it’s clear he is ‘really trying’ to ‘sing’ in a more traditional sense of the term lead singer.
Awake In The Brain Chamber
Awake In The Brain Chamber is an excellent amalgamation of The Secret Machines from the early 00’s, to where it seems to be heading towards going forward. They’re not 100% certain of the plan yet, but rest assured, all will come together in time. If this is their intended trajectory I’m very very interested in seeing where they take it from here and they have my emphatic thumbs up! Had you asked me two days ago about my personal opinion about the impending release of this record I’d have probably replied, “Why is it they are still even bothering anyway?” I’ve never been so glad to be chowing down on my own words!