Secret Machines / May 4, 2006 / Los Angeles (El Rey Theatre)

The Secret Machines are an artistic force to be reckoned with, best experienced in a live setting. Both albums from the New York-via-Dallas trio contain plenty of the thick, swirling sonic mood that p

The Secret Machines are an artistic force to be reckoned with, best experienced in a live setting. Both albums from the New York-via-Dallas trio contain plenty of the thick, swirling sonic mood that pervades the band's characteristic psych-rock sound. Yet somehow, both albums fail to fully harness and represent what the group is capable of creating while simply playing together in a room.

At this Los Angeles tour stop, Secret Machines showed the audience exactly what they do best. Celebrating the release of the brand new "Ten Silver Drops," the band played in-the-round, having brought their own stage platforms and lighting rig with them especially for this performance.

With the setup in the middle of the floor, the El Rey looked more like a venue for an Ultimate Fighting match than a rock concert. Three large platforms facing inward towards each other, arranged like a Mercedes Benz insignia, separately housed each band member's instruments. Singer/keyboardist/bassist Brandon Curtis, guitarist Ben Curtis and drummer Josh Garza were led to the stage in pitch blackness like boxers entering the ring. Clad in various monochromatic dark outfits, the group launched into "Alone, Jealous and Stoned," the lead track from "Ten Silver Drops."

Immediately Garza asserted himself as the evening's main attraction. A darker and more suave vision of James Bond villain Richard Kiel, the drummer's massive power dominated the entire set. His kick drum alone was perhaps the most emotional instrument played all night long. With drum sticks that looked like pencils in his hands, song after song saw Garza -- head banging, hair flying, face smiling -- bashing the very life out of his drums. It was astonishing that the kit did not crumple underneath his Herculean hammering.

With a set that plucked the highlights from both of their albums, Secret Machines segued effortlessly from song to song with virtually no stage banter to disrupt the flow. "Pharaoh's Daughter" slowly became "Daddy's in the Doldrums," which simmered nicely into an extended hefty bass and drum groove. Brandon Curtis remained perched behind his Fender Rhodes for most of the set, occasionally strapping on a bass guitar to complement his brother's guitar atmospherics.

Playing in-the-round gave the audience a unique opportunity to see the trio communicating with each other on stage. The collective power that they generated was much larger than their individual musical contributions. With plenty of space left in the arrangements for such expansive proggy jams, their songs remained perfectly suited for the heavy moods that they effectively sustained throughout the set.

Four silver scaffolds supported a circular lighting rig above the band, shooting out psychedelic blasts concordant with the ebb and flow of the songs' dynamic builds, most notably during "You Are Chains" and "I Hate Pretending." Strangely, the band's finest moment on disc, the poppy "Lightning Blue Eyes," seemed to lose some of its effectiveness amidst the layered sheets of processed guitar and Rhodes tones.

Over the past two years, Secret Machines have quietly been spreading their live reputation across the country and beyond. A blinding performance at last spring's Coachella Festival in particular seems to have almost singlehandedly launched the group into must-see concert status.

But herein lies the challenge for Secret Machines. For a group so clearly in tune with the importance of aesthetics and mood, it is perhaps somewhat of a struggle to marry their tendency to jam on experimental grooves with their ability to write fantastic songs. Indeed, this is no small feat. Sure, Led Zeppelin could captivate audiences with half-hour versions of "Dazed and Confused," but it could also knock them out with "Black Dog" or "Rock'n'Roll" in a matter of minutes. Pink Floyd could temper the majestic length of "Echoes" and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" with more concise hits like "Another Brick in the Wall."

Of course, great songs are not just judged by length, but simply by whether or not they are great. And why shouldn't Secret Machines be held to such high standards? It is only because they can already conjure legitimate artistic similarities with such rock heavyweights that they should be pushed to hone their song craft even further.

Here is Secret Machines' set list:

"Alone, Jealous and Stoned"
"The Road Leads Where Its Led"
"Faded Lines"
"Pharaoh's Daughter"
"Daddy's in the Doldrums"
"Better Bring Your Friends"
"Lightning Blue Eyes"
"I Hate Pretending"
"(De Luxe) Immer-Weider"
"You Are Chains"
"Nowhere Again"

"Sad and Lonely"
"First Wave Intact"