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Album Of The Week

Full Force: Secret Machines' Awake In The Brain Chamber
Patrick Clarke , August 20th, 2020 11:09

Despite a fraught and fragmented 12 year wait, Secret Machines' new LP 'Awake In The Brain Chamber' achieves something transcendent. Stream the album in full ahead of release exclusively via tQ alongside our review

Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

It has not been an easy 12 years for Secret Machines. The last time they released an album, 2008’s self-titled LP, it received a lukewarm reception that jarred in comparison to its two hugely-acclaimed predecessors. A planned follow-up The Moth, The Lizard And The Secret Machines was ditched halfway through recording for reportedly being “too depressing”. Amid fading enthusiasm for the band, frontman Brandon Curtis and drummer Josh Garza ended up on opposite US coasts, the former joining Interpol as their touring keyboard player and the latter settling down with the woman who would soon become his wife. Brandon’s brother and Secret Machines’ founding guitarist Benjamin Curtis had long since left the group to focus on his other project School Of Seven Bells.

Secret Machines were by Brandon’s own admission no longer a priority, but nevertheless by 2012 he had recorded a set of demos that would eight years later constitute some of the songs on their comeback record. His brother was there to help him shape them, giving constant feedback and occasionally contributing guitar. Garza, too, had hopes that he could once again work with his former bandmate – “I always thought we’d do something with him again,” he recently told The New York Times - but at the beginning of the following year Benjamin was diagnosed with T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. In between hospital visits and chemotherapy sessions Benjamin kept working on music for School of Seven Bells and attended mixing sessions for his brother’s new material, but shortly before the end of the year he died at the age of just 35.

After losing his brother Brandon retreated into his work with Interpol, and it was not until 2016 that he revisited those old songs, taking them on the road with a new band called Cosmicide. Garza attended a show in New York City and came onstage to play an old Secret Machines track, after which the pair reconnected. Gradually and remotely they started revisiting those demos and some of Cosmicide’s material, and began putting together what would eventually become Awake In The Brain Chamber. In 2018 they teased a full-fledged return, but then Garza’s wife developed breast cancer and they halted things once more while he helped care for her and their new-born daughter.

In short, Awake In The Brain Chamber has the sort of fractured backstory that rarely leads to an album this coherent. Though written and recorded in fits and starts amid periods of personal dejection and devastating loss, the gaps between sessions sometimes spanning years, it has every right to be a fragmented but well-intended record – a welcome return from a much-loved group who have overcome a great deal but a pale imitation of former glories . Yet it is not that kind of record. It doesn’t just find a way to paper over the temporal and emotional cracks in its creation, but to rise above them entirely.

On the record’s front cover, we see a lone figure sat in a wooden chair in the middle of a sparse, deserted room. From their face emanates a fantastic beam of blinding white light, bathing everything in a kind of transcendence. Listening to the record, you can feel that same overwhelming brightness. The production is widescreen and vivid, placing emphasis on Garza’s big, thunderous drumming, great waves of brash guitar and glistening inflections of electronics. It feels as if there’s a mysterious but powerful force at the album’s heart that blankets every one of its eight tracks in the same radiance, providing the consistency and uniformity that a record so disjointed in its creation requires, while simultaneously elevating its standard. It is music worthy of the ‘space rock’ tag the band always insisted on.

Some of the record is reminiscent of the band’s adored earlier work, particularly when Garza digs into the pummelling, turbo-Kosmische grooves that were always something of a speciality – the scorching ‘Dreaming Is Alright’, for example, or the relentless ‘Everything’s Under’. Often, they carry momentum from one song to another – the explosion of guitar and drums that opens another of the record’s crushers, ‘A New Disaster’, springs straight from the closing thuds of the song before it, ‘Everything Starts’.

Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

That is not to say, however, that the record is one-note. Though everything is unified by that big, cosmic energy, Curtis and Garza channel its intensity towards a number of different emotions. Alongside the record’s thrills are moments of sadness and melancholy. The record opens with ‘3, 4, 5 Let’s Stay Alive’. Garza’s pounding drums are still there, but they’re slower and more focussed, and around them swirls a transfixing, heavenly noise, from within which Curtis’ vocals float downwards. His words are fairly cryptic, but it’s hard not to read a lot into them given the track’s title. Early on, he appears to directly reference his brother’s other band: ‘New cell wall serrated / Blind side Seven Bells / See, these bones belong to someone else’.

On the record at large, death and transience hang heavy as lyrical themes. So too do images of entrapment, isolation – the interminable grind of life in the titular ‘Brain Chamber’ – and others of simply not knowing how to navigate a world so unremitting in its setbacks. Yet there is a vital steeliness to the record too. ‘3, 4, 5 Let’s Stay Alive’ might be mournful, but it’s also resolute – an affirmation of the value in simply keeping going. The album’s closer ‘So Far Down’ is similarly slow-paced, almost overwhelming instrumentally, but filled with resolution to break free that borders on hope: Baby, when you’re so far down / Find a way out, an end / Well, you know I'm down / Take it apart, make a different arrangement.’

Awake In The Brain Chamber is barely half an hour in length, but it contains remarkable emotional range, and the fact it’s so compressed means the scope of the record becomes even more pronounced. The frantic rush of ‘Dreaming Is Alright’ wouldn’t be half as exhilarating if it didn’t break free from ‘3, 4, 5 Let’s Stay Alive’ immediately preceding it; that brilliant transition from ‘Everything Starts’ to ‘A New Disaster’ is made even better by the two songs' opposing tones. As a whole, the record achieves something remarkable: a comeback record that overcomes the fractures and scars of its creation without trying to ignore them, a near-complete revival of the band’s former powers, and a bold delve into epic new territory.