Best albums of 2020: #5 Secret Machines “Awake in the brain chamber”

This COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives and for the most part, we have looked at these changes negatively. But are there some positives to be found in this new normal? One that I can think of right off the bat is that it brought us a new Secret Machines album, their first in twelve years.

Secret Machines were originally formed in 2002 by brothers Brandon and Benjamin Curtis and fellow Dallas, Texas musician Phil Karnats, when the three of them relocated to New York City. Their debut album, “Now here is nowhere’, was met with buzz and critical acclaim when it was released in 2004. Its big, kautrock-influenced prog sound even found a fan in David Bowie and they ended up getting calls to tour with Muse, U2, and Oasis. The sophomore album, 2006’s “Ten silver drops”, followed up on the promise of the debut and this is where I caught up with them, falling as hard for them as did Mr. Bowie.

Unfortunately, fortunes changed for the band when Benjamin decided to leave to the group to pursue a project called School of Seven Bells with the Deheza twins. A third Secret Machines followed but felt a bit stalled to me. Regardless, I still went to see them when they rolled through Ottawa in 2008 and yeah, I was bowled over by the intense and explosive performance. I kept tabs on them for a while and there was word of a new album being worked on in 2010 but it ended up being shelved for being too depressing and the band went inactive. Besides word of Benjamin Curtis’s death in 2013, seeing Brandon Curtis performing with Interpol in 2015, and Runout Groove Records* issuing the band’s first two albums on vinyl in 2016 and 2018, news this summer of a new Secret Machines record is the first thing I’d heard about the group in a decade. So yeah, it was a surprise.

The band is still just the two still-living original members, though a number of additional musicians appear on “Awake in the brain chamber”, including a beyond-the-grave performance by Benjamin Curtis. The album has reportedly been in the works, off and on, for many years, but really only started to solidify after Brandon Curtis started working with Josh Garza again in 2018. And it is possible that the only reason we hearing this year is because of the opportunity the band to release it without the pressure to promote it, afforded by this pandemic.

Okay. So that’s a lot more words than I had planned on writing for this album but I think the backstory for it is almost as important as the sound of it, which by the way, is excellent. Have a listen to and read more words on my three picks for you below and see what you think.


“Everything starts“: This first track illustrates the most marked difference between this album and Secret Machines’ earlier work. At just a smidge over five minutes, “Everything starts” is the longest track on a tighter, more compact album, where it might’ve been the shortest by a long shot on earlier works. And they’ve done this without dispensing with the big, ambient space rock sound. It acts as a tribute to frontman Brandon Curtis’s brother Benjamin because they built the song around the deceased musician’s guitar work. Drummer Josh Garza has said this about it: “When I close my eyes and listen to ‘Everything Starts’ I see three guys in a room playing music. I see Ben, Brandon and me… we’re all playing our instruments, we’re all smiling and it’s probably a bit too loud.” And as sad and troubling as the lyrical subject matter is, Josh’s image is beautiful and satisfying.

“Dreaming is alright”: Track two on the album starts off with Josh Garza’s pounding and punishing drums. His self-described ‘bashing away’ style of drumming is a big part of this group’s sound and forced Curtis to rethink many of these recordings when he decided that they would form the basis of a new Secret Machines album. Here it pushes the song into overdrive, forcing the guitars and the synths to keep up, racing down a darkened highway, just barely hugging the curves and staying on the road. It’s dangerous and precarious but the title brings us back to just this side of optimism. Brandon sings words that evoke holding hands in the face of a disastrous apocalypse and turning the page to tomorrow when today seems hopeless. Yeah, dreaming is definitely more than alright.

“Everything’s under”: This final track features more of the driving and relentless drone that had critics calling them krautrock acolytes in their early days. And yeah, it rocks. Totally abandon with arms a-flailing, the drums are punished and synths wash over you like a tsunami and that’s exactly as Secret Machines would have it. But here, as on the rest of “Awake in the brain chamber”, it’s served up in a morsel manageable for the rest of us mere mortals, not dragging it out as they would have in their previous lifetime. The chorus sums up the feeling of this album best, the succinct injection of the passion and energy of it all: “We’re gone, gone, gone beyond… everything’s under control.” Indeed. Let’s just hope this spells the start of something bigger and doesn’t end up just being an excellent post script for the band.

*Runout Groove records is a vinyl only label whose monthly releases are voted on by fans. The fact that they are chosen every time one of their albums comes up to be voted on shows that Secret Machines’ fan base is very much alive and well.


Check back next Thursday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Strokes “The new abnormal”
9. Venus Furs “Venus Furs”
8. Bright Eyes “Down in the weeds, where the world once was”
7. The Beths “Jump rope gazers”
6. The Rentals “Q36”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 1992: #3 R.E.M. “Nightswimming”

<< #4    |    #2 >>

“Automatic for the people”.

It was indisputably R.E.M.’s finest hour and I’m not just talking commercially. Sure, the album spawned six singles and went gold and platinum for sales in pretty much every country. However, it was also universally acclaimed. And for very good reason: There’s not a single bad track on the album.

For me, though, and as I mentioned back when I wrote about “Sweetness follows” when it came in at the number twenty spot on this very list, it’s the less obvious tracks, not the hit singles, that have become my favourites on this album. And yes, I know. “Nightswimming” was actually released as a single but I didn’t actually know that until about three years ago when I wrote the piece counting down my top five favourite R.E.M. tunes on which this song appears at the number two spot. I am thinking that the single might not have gotten a wide release here in North America because it didn’t make the charts here, only placing in England and Australia, and a track this great should definitely have placed, given the chance.

It was originally recorded as a demo for “Out of time” but was used instead for the following album. The original recording had Michael Stipe singing over top Mike Mills’ piano and was augmented by a string arrangement put together by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, along with a forlorn oboe to seal the deal. Mills’s piano doesn’t meander or dance or tiptoe. Instead, it eddies in place, like a whirlpool to get caught in, a bit of danger that might be heightened if the swimming hole was ventured upon at night.

“Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago”

The penultimate track on “Automatic for the people” is a quiet wonder, Mills and Stipe without Buck and Berry. A song about memories and remembering. A track that brings back many memories. Many of them driving in a car at night. In the city. On a backroad. Memories that are mine and memories that aren’t mine. But could be.

“Nightswimming, remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon”

There’s a sadness in Stipe’s lyrics and in his plaintive voice. Perhaps there’s regret in those memories, a sentiment never expressed, a kiss never stolen, a nakedness needlessly covered up. Yet there’s also the heavy weight of nostalgia, the excitement of youth lost forever. It’s something one can never forget. And never should.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Vinyl love: The Strokes “The new abnormal”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: The Strokes
Album Title: The new abnormal
Year released: 2020
Details: 180 gram black vinyl, hard plastic sleeve, foldout poster

The skinny: Just a couple of days ago, I launched the countdown of my top ten albums of 2020 and this is the album that kicked it all off at number ten. I picked up this 180 gram pressing of The Strokes’ sixth studio a couple of days after the first Record Store Day drop back in August. I went into one of my favourite local shops, Compact Music, looking for something else but walked up to the counter with this record. I remember the owner commenting on how it was his last copy and how the packaging was original but impractical. I love the cover art by Basquiat, a nod to the New York City band’s home, and the foldout poster that was included. But of course, the real prize is the music, the new wave glam vibe on the band’s first new album in seven years is, in my opinion, their best work since their now iconic debut.

Standout track: “The adults are talking”