Communicating Vessels Recordings
Review by Kent Manthie
After TWELVE long years of absence, the space-surf-punk trio, Man or Astroman? Have finally reunited – at first it was to play a few reunion gigs and soon turned into a full-fledged comeback. The new album, with the original three members, Birdstuff, Coco and Star Crunch, Defcon 5 is just out and it’s like they picked up right where they left off.
I remember back when I lived in Los Angeles for a brief time, in the first couple years of the 2000s, and, in 2001, I believe, it was (and I’ve been kicking myself ever since, for missing it), they played a show at a relatively small club around the downtown L.A. Area. It’s been awhile, but I am pretty sure that the club was The Smell, who, I recall, hosted some other great indie bands around that time and, if they’re still there, I’m sure they still do.
Just a couple weeks ago, I found out that these guys had a new album due out soon and I was so excited to hear about it that I contacted them instead of vice versa, which has been happening a lot lately (so much so that I have a big backlog)! To my delight, the manager or one of the label guys mailed me a promo, pre-release copy of Defcon 5. So, before it was even released publicly, I’d been listening to it over and over again for about two weeks (I think I got it about 3 weeks ago, actually). This is some really potent stuff. It’s almost like a concept album, albeit an irony-filled, glazed-eye concept: the album’s title: Defcon 5 (short, of course, for “Defense Condition #5”, a “national security”-type label, is part of a theme here, on the CD. The first cut is the title track; a nice, 3 minute instrumental, mind-altering opening theme that sets the tone for this mind-blowing album. It is a swirling, percussive romp with the clean guitar tone that is so well known to most as a “surf-rock” style. But this stuff goes way beyond the shore of earth. The next tune, “Antimatter Man” has the muddy, punk rock vocals, sung with like Tom Verlaine and in the attitude of one who is high on adrenaline and maybe a bit buzzed as well. The whole thing is in typical MOA fashion: a cross between Spacemen 3 (not Spiritualized, no – the original Spacemen 3 – the last time I listened to a Spiritualized CD I almost fell asleep!), the great Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet and Television.
MOA originally came out of the good ol’ South: Alabama, to be exact. But, they are part of a newer, more educated and diverse/diverging group of Southerners. Nowadays, when you think of “Southern Music” you don’t have to think of Lynyrd Skynyrd. There are plenty of bands who’ve already been around a while that have changed that paradigm a lot in the past 30+ years, especially from college town, Athens, GA, including the B-52s (which were a good band up until Ricky Wilson died), R.E.M. who were a great band when they made records for I.R.S. and went downhill fast after signing with Warner Bros. (Green was the last good album they made). Now, the new breed of Southern bands includes such unique enigmas such as of Montreal, an androgynous, experimental, neo-glam revival, led by front man and songwriter, Kevin Barnes.
Anyway, getting back to MOA and Defcon 5. As I was saying, the opening cut is also called “Defcon 5”. After that there are a few other tunes, and then song number 5 is called “Defcon 4”, then, three songs later, appears “Defcon 3”, then two more songs and “Defcon 2”, then one more tune (“New Cocoon”, followed by the final installment and finale, “Defcon 1”. That is what I meant by its quasi-concept aura: it starts out at the least “dangerous” defense condition and, gradually, moves, bit, by bit, up the ladder, until, at the end, all hell breaks loose and we reach the ultimate (nuclear war? Armageddon?): “Defcon 1”. Along the way to doomsday, though, we get taken on a hell of a ride! And some of that includes the interloping songs, such as “Antimatter Man”, “Disintegrate” “Communication Breakdown, Pt. 2” (and no, that is NOT a “sequel” to the Led Zeppelin song of the same name from their debut album -this is a completely unique “Communication Breakdown, Pt. 2” – and I haven’t heard “part one”, so I can’t compare. “Electric Arc” is also a very heady brew of a space-surf song. In fact, to put the two styles together – the edgy, space electronics and the groovy surf-guitar sounds, you could say that this is the perfect soundtrack for surfing on Mars – that is, when there was plenty of water on which to surf! Then, on “Defcon 2”, MOA do a really electronic-based but retaining that punk-edge to it – lots of pops and crackles as well as synthesizers with backing guitars and the booming bass and bombastic drumming. And, don’t forget “New Cocoon”, which is a slow, precise, technical rocker which is followed by the albums grand finale, the very surf-y “Defcon 1” – on which it sounds like the world is going to go out with a bang that is riding a slick wave of apocalypse. It is both supersonic in its intensity and the symbiosis between its surf-genre riding the wave of the electronics embedded inside.
This is a lovely ride, from start to finish and the more I listen to it, the more I love it. It’s just so great to know that these innovative workhorses have returned to give their fans as well as a new generation a taste of the great stuff they’re known for. It’s also great to know that Man or Astroman? has worked with the great Steve Albini, late, of Big Black, Shellac as well as an uber-producer who shuns all the music-media’s hosannas due to, as he said, once, in an interview, years ago, that when newer, less established bands read in magazines that Steve Albini is this “rock god” who’s making all these great and, as a result, fabulously famous albums with bands who get a lot of press and notoriety, including a few such as the Pixies, Nirvana (on In Utero), The Breeders, Joan of Arc and even the awesome, aforementioned (and MIA) Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (Sport Fishing). Albini has shunned all these accolades and “important guy” label for the simple reason, he said, because newer, lesser known bands are the ones that he wants to work with most and if these guys read all this showering praise on him in the once-great-but-now-irrelevant SPIN Magazine or the ridiculously over Rolling Stone, they get scared off and shy away from even asking for his help and this is exactly what he doesn’t want those types of bands to do – he wants to work with and help develop new and interesting bands, not only work with established bands that guarantee record sales and profit,etc. This is something that has made me respect the man all that much more, besides his raw talent and energy and ability to tweak a few knobs here and there, add a beat here, take away a little something there and end up with a great-sounding album at the end of it all. Albini lent his help to MOA while they went to Chicago. They also worked with old pal, Daniel Farris in their home of Birmingham, AL. So far, of the albums I’ve reviewed so far this year, I’ve mentioned in at least two, that they’d make my “Best of 2013” list of CDs that came out this year and Defcon 5 is another one that I will definitely add to that list! Welcome back Man or Astroman? please! It’s been 12 years in the making, but now that the wait is over – it turns out that it’s been well-worth waiting for! -KM.