Beards, Blazers & Glasses: The Secret Machines or Whither Goest Stoner Rock?
These are not the salad days of stoner rock. In the 1960's, it seems like nearly every album was made for the narcotically inclined: 13th Floor Elevators, Hendrix, The Beatles,The Dead..et al. This proud trend carried into the 70's , with the prog-rock bombast of groups like classic Pink Floyd and King Crimson,the roots reggae heydey of Bob Marley and the thumping dub of King Tubby. After a dry-spell in the 80s (Flock of Seagulls? Not so great while high), stoner rock made a resurgence in the 90s with groups like Mercury Rev, Phish, The Flaming Lips and Ride, not to mention England's Primal Scream/Happy Mondays Madchester trip. But today in the year 2006, potheads have few options.
I suppose you could pretend to like the jam band scene, but let's be real, no one REALLY likes Widespread Panic or Moe, or heaven forbid The String Cheese Incident. And don't get me started on the Mars Volta. They're an answer to the question of what would happen if Otto the bus driver from the Simpsons, decided to form a band. So where does that leave the Pothead nation? My Morning Jacket. Okay, that's one. But even so, My Morning Jacket's music feels better suited to soundtrack an illegal grain whiskey binge than heavy clouds of reefer smoke. Wilco? A great band for sure, but it's rumored that the fastest way to a panic attack is hearing "Ashes of American Flags" under the influence."
And then there's the mellow lazy Sunday vibe of groups like Brightblack Morning Light, Espers, and Devendra Banhart, but those groups are more folk than rock. In particular, Brightblack Morning Light can probably be used as a cure for insomnia (a good cure mind you). So by my count, there are only two good bands working in rock today that can be classified as stoner rock: Comets on Fire and The Secret Machines.
The Machines' Love of Getting High? Not So SecretIt's the Secret Machines' ability to fill this specific niche, that brought me out to the Avalon on a Monday night, despite the Avalon's status as the most inconvenient venue in Los Angeles ($10 drinks, $20 parking and situated smack dab in the middle of Hollywood). Now the Machines might not be a world-beating band. But they're a good one and their brand of machine gun drums, spacy synths and spiraling jams are unlike any other band working in music today. Channeling Dark Side/Obscured By Clouds era-Pink Floyd, the Machines turned the cavernous Avalon into psychedelic spectacle, complete with retina-searing strobe lights and an "In the Round" stage set-up, where fans circled the band members playing on an elevated platform.
The Machines are a streaky band if there ever was. Every time you see them you're running the risk of mediocrity, but also the prospect of greatness. And sometimes, there are nights lfilled with both. I can perfectlyunderstand someone going to a Secret Machines show and ending up bored, something that happened to the great Slack Lalane earlier this month. Not every one of the Machines' songs is a gem and when the songwriting suffers so does its live rendition. No amount of ethereal prog-rock arrangements and maniacal drumming can make "Daddy's in the Doldrums"tolerable for 12 minutes. But as their catalogue has expanded to three LP's and one EP, the band thankfully has enough good songs to make their live show worthwhile.
On Monday, the band got off to a slow start, meandering through the first 45 minutes of their set, with some notable high-points, ("Faded Lines" and "Alone, Jealous and Stoned") but some slow ones that made the glass of whiskey that I was drinking far more interesting than the mostly sedentary plodding band.But after the 45 minute mark the band seemed to pick up steam. Benjamin Garza' s drums took on a bayonet-sharp stomp, Brandon Curtis' singing seemed to grow more intense and Benjamin Curtis started moving around the stage, locked into a pose of extreme concentration.
The Secret Machines Get Around, Round and Round, Round They Go
By the time the encore rolled around, the band was hitting on all cylinders, a blur of adrenaline and volcanic drums. They tore through a spell-binding kinetic rendition of "Lightning Blue Eyes,"complete with hard guitars, stoned vocals and rolling hypnotic percussion. They followed it with two more songs that the whiskey has compelled me to forget. But on their the last song, "First Wave Intact" the band approached levels of greatness, as its members turned the nine minute track into a symphony of crunching guitars and booming sound that shook the foundations of the Avalon.
This band can get LOUD and when the crowd gets into it, the Curtis Brothers and Garza seem to pick up those wild streaks of energy and harness it into soaring and stoned prog-rock anthems, that build with each note until the energy is towering and dangerous, sinking into a slow lull then at once exploding in a blast of white lights that explode off-stage into the stunned head-nodding crowd. And for the final ten minutes of the show, the band proved that even though they might be inconsistent, they are capable of hitting heights that many bands can only dream of hitting.
As a whole the show was just pretty good, but the thing about the Secret Machines is that they don't have to be great all the time, just some of the time to make their live show worthwhile. Are they a great band? No. But they're a good one and almost always a fun one to see. Plus, they understand their role as America's best stoner rock band quite well, utilizing a unique stage set-up and flashing lights to maximize their ability. So sure, to quote Jon Stewart in Half Baked, they might be better "on weed." But in these fallow days the stoners of America need a band to turn to for good high headphone listening sessions and right now, there might not be a better one than the Secret Machines.
The Secret Machines: "Alone, Jealous and Stoned" from Ten Silver Drops (right-click, save as)
The Secret Machines: "Faded Lines" from Ten Silver Drops (right-click, save as)
The Secret Machines:"First Wave Intact" from Now Here Is Nowhere (right-click, save as )