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Man or Astro-man? - Your Weight on the Moon

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Artist: Man or Astro-man?

Album: Your Weight on the Moon

Label: Overground

Review date: Jan. 6, 2012

There’s always some past sound being revived, but in the 1990s, it seemed like every sound was being held up for reconsideration before the century expired, from Dixieland to synthpop made with keyboards that were barely dusty. Surf instrumentals had never really gone out of fashion, perhaps because they were square as a crew cut from the start. Compared to the girl groups and early Brit invasion bands that were further up the charts at the start of the ‘60s, surf was clean and melodically focused, and safe for television themes. As decades passed, primacy of the guitar only strengthened, and learning “Tequila” or “Walk Don’t Run” became a satisfying first step for fretboard familiarity. By the ‘90s, even Anthrax did a version of “Pipline.”

The retro momentum allowed a wave of surf bands to stand apart from the psychobilly and skatepunk that kept the twangy E-strings vibrating in the intervening years. Bands like Man or Astro-man were strict about sticking to space-age tones, and staying instrumental. Gimmicks couldn’t hurt when there was no vocalist to keep the onstage focus, and Astro-man went all out. They’d wear foil Souyuz suits, and fire up Tesla coils and cop sirens – anything to evoke the world of pre-digital electronics. Going to the moon had become quaint.

This is a reissue of a 10" from early in their career, filled out with singles and a lot of period clippings and reviews in the CD booklet. One of the cop siren songs is here – “Space Patrol.” There’s also a cover of a Rezello song that violates the instro rules, keeping the new wave lyrics intact. Most of the tracks are peppered with B-movie dialog, which helps fill in for the stage silliness (though they incorporated those samples on stage, too).

How does it hold up? What made early rock instrumentals so durable was the flexibility of the approach, so that just about any melody could be adapted, as long as the right signifiers were met: crackling treble and reverb carrying the hummable bit, beats that gravitated towards “The Twist.” The trick was to keep the sound open, but steadily headed toward a crack-up.

Man or Astro-man didn’t use that flexibility to explore. They stuck to riffs that were simpler, punked up the tempo and and added growl to the leads -- more “Batman” than “Hawaii 5-0." So there’s not the ingenuity of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s “Autobahn” or the surprisingly un-ironic sweetness of Los Striaghtjackets’ Celine Dion cover. That said, you couldn’t accuse these guys of blandness. They keep it hyper.

The band caught on in England, where their Alabama homebase seemed especially exotic. The clippings are uniformly ecstatic about the band -- not just Melody Maker, who’s support would have been expected, but even Metal Hammer. Tracks like “Secret Agent Conrad Uno” make it clear why -- it snakes through tense riffs, shifting a half-dozen time, but never loses the clanging, rippling tone. If their chords never depart much from “Louie Louie,” the band was excellent at disguising the basic underpinnings with all the dueling staccato. This has the effect of making the music heavier than anything from the original era, but lithe compared to the rock of the day. The thing that the ‘90s surf bands added to the genre was pacing. After decades of serving as palate cleansers on live albums or fodder for cheapie oldies collections, surf could carry a full album.

By Ben Donnelly

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