photos: Irfan Khalil
I first heard The Secret Machines the same way I imagine most people have: I saw the video for “Nowhere Again” on MTV, loved the hook, and bought the album. Upon listening to “Now Here is Nowhere,” it seemed that people had one of two reactions: “Hey, they sound like a spacey Led Zeppelin. Cool!” or “These other songs are too fucking long.” Needless to say, I belong to the former group. Their mainstream popularity seemed to wane over the years, but with a solid fanbase, they have become the band for those who want a healthy mix of prog and pop. Their show at the 9:30 club didn’t disappoint, but as with most proggy bands I see, rock eventually gave way to indulgence.
The opening band, TK Webb and the Visions, started on a solemn note. After a brief mumble into the microphone, front man Webb began with slow, measured hard-rock designed to demonstrate guitar histrionics. The band mates, all clearly talented, created a pleasant dirge, but seemed to be going through the motions. It certainly didn’t help that maybe three dozen people were in the audience. Only one guy with a pony tail seemed enthusiastic – everyone else was polite. But as the set continued, it became clear that their set was an extended crescendo. A turning point was when Webb broke out a harmonica. The songs began to vary, and the band gained some energy. When Webb addressed the audience before their last song, he seemed relatively perky, making jokes and clearly pleased with the audience’s growing numbers. They ended on a high note, but as with many throwbacks to 70s hard rock, it felt that I’ve heard all this before.
If nothing else, The Secret Machines gave us something to experience. Their light show was simple yet unusual. A metal frame caged the band into a small space. Attached to the frame, thin white ribbons rendered curvy three-dimensional planes. The only light sources were from the floor, making the band secondary to their shadows. Oh, and they sounded great, too. Drummer Josh Garza is the band’s center – his thunderous playing had the steadiness of firing pistons. It was great to watch their new guitarist Phil Karnats play a chord with his entire body. And keyboardist/bassist Brandon Curtis had the role of the enigmatic front man down pat, showing little enthusiasm yet exuding charisma. They played through songs steadily.
Most of their set focused on cuts from their new album, which was released earlier this month. My eyes kept wandering to Garza, who played like a fierce, unwavering automaton. Unfortunately, at the half-way mark the group delved into the kind of prog repetitiveness that gets mistaken for musical prowess. In spite of their indulgences, however, the set was never boring.
Leaving the 9:30 club before the encore, it occurred to me that I’d remember the light show long after I remembered the music. The Secret Machines worked best when I thought of them as an accompaniment to visual spectacle. The hair on the back of my neck stood up more than once. Still, I think the best approach to experiencing the band came from a group of shrieking girls on the balcony. They rocked the fuck out during “Nowhere Again,” and left before the show got too boring. For a band that provided only one kind of mood, that felt about right.