Secret Machines

September 000

First out in 2002, this mini-album re-release comes at a curious time for Secret Machines. With a third album apparently completed last year but mysteriously still in the vaults, and founder member and guitarist Benjamin Curtis having departed, it’s easy to suspect that their space-rock juggernaut has suddenly stalled. Certainly, their only recent recorded output – backing Bono’s horrible cover of I Am The Walrus in the god-awful Beatles musical Across The Universe in 2007 – has done little to inspire confidence.

It’s also questionable what fans of their two albums proper – 2004’s Now Here Is Nowhere and 2006’s Ten Silver Drops – will make of September 000. Because unlike the sound of those records – as solid, shiny and downright expensive as polished marble – September 000 sounds as though the band had a twenty dollar budget that they promptly blew on weed before recording onto a broken Dictaphone inside a giant biscuit tin.

However, anyone put off by that will be really missing something. Recorded a mere six weeks after the band initially formed, their ambition is already fully apparent, no less than a re-imagined progressive rock from a parallel world where Neu! and Can were 70s megastars and Genesis never existed; elegant, powerful simplicity rather than baroque virtuosity.

Opener ‘Marconi’s Radio’ puts their knack for extreme minimalism right up-front, with little more than single electric piano notes slowly picked out in a repeating pattern for several minutes, before surging into a sweetly melancholic ballad that sits somewhere between Brian Wilson’s widescreen introspection and Ziggy-era Bowie.

Second track What Used To Be French most anticipates the grandeur-without-grandiosity of their later recordings, with its repetitive one-note bassline and threadbare guitar lines. It’s A Bad Wind That Don’t Blow Somebody Some Good is similarly expansive, adding inexorable Led Zeppelin beats to the mix. Where the bands they are conceptually most similar to – Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized – overpower by piling on the layers and stuffing every gap with noise and spectacle, Secret Machines’ music is lean and muscular, with clean straight lines demarking pristine empty spaces.

There are weaker moments here. Still See You meanders and fails to take flight in any of its disjointed passages, sounding like scraps of different songs glued together; a work in progress that never progressed. And Breathe is downright puzzling; an ungainly, phoned-in indie stomp that just doesn’t belong.

But the closing reprise of Marconi’s Radio easily redeems the entire record: a glorious cacophony of glockenspiel, found sounds and distorted drumming cockily ending with a sample of rapturous applause.

Quite possibly more for the devoted than the casual fan, but this is a great reminder of just how great long-winded, bong-addled, stoner rock can be in the right hands.

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