The Rube Goldberg Machine are an up-and-coming musical trio based in London. The band’s name implies intricacy, cause-and-effect, and it’s as accurate a description for the band’s music as it is their biography. RGM’s work is subtle, nuanced creativity, taking cues from the likes of Steven Wilson while still maintaining a strong individualistic approach to songwriting. Elliot Coombs (rhythm guitars, balalaika, vocals, soundscapes), Daniel Bowles (lead guitar, keys, vocals), and Jordan Brown (bass, keys) have together produced a debut album full of tunes that resonate with melancholic themes, discussing heavy topics through eerie ambience without being overtly dark or defeatist.
Released April 1st via England’s Bad Elephant Music, Fragile Times isn’t a true DIY debut, though it certainly feels like one. This is largely due to the band’s talented, multi-instrumental members, each of whom contributed in directly hands-on manners to the album’s conception and production. Jordan Brown’s work on the album can’t be overestimated: on the bass, his structured lead parts, in-pocket grooves, and compliments to Fragile Times’ overall mix is invaluable. There are moments where his work on the fretless bass sounds far more like sticks than guitar, which speaks to his technique and appreciation for the needs of composition and instrumentation. He also composed and arranged with the band the album’s strings parts, all of which were performed by the St. Reatham Philharmonic Orchestra, not to mention also performing nearly all of Fragile Times’ additional instrumentation (with the exception of drums, which were tracked by guest Owen Martin). Bowles too contributes more than just vocals and guitars. He is credited as producing, mixing, and mastering the album, as well as engineering guitars and vocals. Coombs – who, alongside Brown, initially began work back in 2013 on what would eventually become the Fragile Times record – is the soul of the project, contributing his gentle yet poignant singing, giving voice to RGM’s politically, socially, and environmentally conscious lyrics.
There are plenty of Wilsonian pieces on this record – in particular, both the album’s opening and closing songs (“Background Noise” and “Afraid of My Own Shadow” respectively) as well as its title track stylistically reference Steven’s work. “Afraid of My Own Shadow” paces restlessly through 7/8 and cycling a Fripp-esque, multi-guitar riff beneath the mix, while “Fragile Times” stands on a platform of acoustic guitar, supported by Brown’s warbling fretless bass and Bowles’ shivering guitar lead, and features layers of vocal harmony in the backing vocals. “Background Noise,” meanwhile, explores the dystopia that is the modern internet age with appropriate ambience and direct lyrics: “We choose to drown in silver light / Shining window to your life / We fill the space, we’re entertained / Kept controlled and kept contained.” What is particularly astute about this observation is that it doesn’t merely presume a conspiracy by the government or some higher entity to subdue the masses, but instead highlights the fact that we are voluntary subjects, shackling ourselves to our media, our devices, and our online personas.
It would be unfair to limit Fragile Times to Steven Wilson comparisons, though. “Little Funerals,” the first track I heard off of Fragile Times thanks to the Progzilla podcast, is bright and free-spirited, belying its heavy emotional content, and putting me in mind of Moon Safari or Gomez. This is a particularly well-written and memorable tune – accessible prog trending toward a pop idiom, with plenty of dynamic diversity. The driving guitar octaves of “In Symmetry” chart this track in a more indie rock style, and its later guitar/bass unison segment trends further in the direction of math rock. Second to “Little Funerals,” this latter tune is probably the most hook-oriented composition featured on Fragile Times, which made it an obvious candidate for the album’s promotional single back in August, when the band posted it for streaming.
“Man of Glass” is another bright composition with a Blues Traveler sort of feel. It also meanders through some interesting meter changes – notable sections of 6/8 and 5/4 on the “she can see right through me” refrains – and features an all-too-brief solo on an acoustic guitar toward the conclusion. “The Captain’s Blackjack” too moves between time signatures – 4/4 and 6/8 – effectively marrying a simple, melodic tune with some prog-oriented complexity. Finally, “Times Square” – an instrumental, multi-metered, and guitar-based composition – immediately trends into different territory: a dual-guitar ballad with parts working in a round-like fashion, moving in and out of unison into harmony and contrary motion, while the bass flurries beneath to add another layer of harmonic depth. Of all the compositions on RGM’s debut, this song particularly serves as a testament to the collective musicianship and compositional genius of the band.
Fragile Time’s overall thematic content seems to point to the often volatile and precarious status of the modern digital era – that is, the state of a global culture that would rather doctor its image than evaluate its sensibilities. Coombs asks poignant rhetorical questions with uncomfortable answers, such as “So where’s my desire to choose? / Did they change me from user to used?” and “How did you get to be someone’s slave?” and “Overcome by the things we made / What good is God when morals fade? / We stand united by our will to save when we’re the ones to fight against.” In that regard, speaking to the sleeping, sheep-minded world is the all-important first step to get the grand Rube Goldberg Propaganda Machine operational – rolling the ball down the first chute, which will then pass through the complex system of levers and pulleys, gradually awakening thought in the listeners until that one final enlightening bang.
I really like this album. It’s undeniably accessible, yet establishes itself as song-oriented without being simplistic or delving too much into repetitive pop idiosyncrasies. It’s musically and thematically complex, and takes its place in the ranks of other like-minded and challenging projects that have recently united under the Bad Elephant umbrella (examples include Tom Slatter, The Fierce & the Dead, Nine Stones Closer, and Mothertongue amongst many others). Each of the releases in this camp are products cut from the same cloth, formulated by a modern, independent only vaguely proggish mindset: largely melodic material with unusual methodology and distinct identity. In particular, Fragile Times is unshowy and unpretentious work that aims high and sticks its landing.