Man or Astro-Man? has been breaking through the somewhat-restrictive boundaries of what defines a surf rock band for almost ten years now, building a catalog of songs and sounds that are often as inventive as they are infectious.
Following “Made From Technetium” (Touch-N-Go Records, 1998), the band’s boldest and most brilliant step away from the tired formulas of the surf-rock genre, guitarist and key songwriter StarCrunch exited stage left, and the band’s follow-up, “Eeviac” (Touch-N-Go Records, 1999) was, a few songs aside, a less-than-satisfying affair. While “Eeviac” tried desperately to hold onto much of the adrenaline and craftiness of the band’s earlier recordings, many of the songs were vague, watered-down sketches when compared with previous work.
Now, it’s one year later. Enter Man or Astro-man’s latest, “A Spectrum of Infinite Scale”
(Touch-N-Go Records, 2000), a 13-song set that dares, much like “Eeviac” did, to hold onto the band’s signature sound and style while expanding into new horizons. While clearly shining brighter than its predecessor, the end result is still less than flawless: the band presents the listener with a set of some really great songs but somehow can’t manage to get the whole record to equal the sum of its parts.
The surf rock traditionalists will be thrilled to death by “Song of The Two-Mile Linear Particle Accelerator — Stanford University, Stanford, California,” one of the band’s best and tightly-structured to date, and the seventh song (represented in the liner notes as a trapezoid), which sets land-speed records while managing to keep the guitar, bass, and drums all tightly wound together.
The band is sharp to realize, though, that there’s only so many times you can plug your Fender into an old amplifier and just crank up the reverb, and one of the most impressive traits of the record is in its ability to branch into other styles while staying somewhat true to their established sound.
“Preparation Clont” has a pounding, angry edge to it thanks to a bottom-heavy bass and drums line and “Many Pieces of Large Fuzzy Mammals Gathered Together At A Rave and Schmoozing With A Brick” hides some pop hooks underneath its sometimes-psychedelic exterior. Another surprising gem, entitled “Um Espectro Sem Escala,” viciously rips and tears through its stops and starts with enough venom, punch and fury to make former Touch-N-Go label-mates The Jesus Lizard proud.
Throughout, though, despite all of the stylistic experiments, there’s never a doubt that you’re listening to a Man or Astro-man? record, and a really good one at that.
Unfortunately, though, the record is not without its lulls and downsides. While there’s something to be said for a band that will consciously deconstruct its style by, literally, breaking down songs in the record’s second half, it doesn’t always make for fulfilling listening. Some songs take longer than usual to get off the ground and some never quite get off the ground at all (The song’s closing track gives new meaning to the term “white noise”).
It’s an interesting experiment, but, as a concept for a record, it doesn’t always fly.
In the album’s closing 10 or 15 minutes, the band is more likely to record the interesting – though ultimately somewhat-repetitive — bleeps and gurgles of a dot matrix printer (as they do, unaccompanied, on “A Simple Text File”) than it is to let many of their songs toss in their two cents and that’s a shame.
One can only wonder what a great song like “Obligatory Part 2 Song In Which There Is No Presently Existing Part 1, Nor The Plans To Make One,” featuring phantom notes on a piano and frighteningly-effective use of digital delay, would have sounded like if they would have given it twice the room to find its voice.
In the end, “A Spectrum of Infinite Scale” is a good record, though sometimes inconsistent, and a strong step in the right direction for a band that is constantly looking for new ways to experiment with sound and structure. It might not be “Made From Technetium,” but any band that continues to be as mind-numbingly unique, energetic and prolific as this definitely deserves a round of applause and another listen. – The Montclarion, Oct. 5, 2000