Live Review: Man or Astroman?

by Mitch Goldman

RKCNDY, Seattle, WA 4/12/97

Surf music may be back, but Alabama's Man or Astroman? ain't exactly Dick Dale. With a set laden with old TVs, odd, bulky cables wrapped around the mic stands, and jumpsuits that make them look like nerds from Venus, this southern quartet is more of a '90's DEVO than a modern version of The Ventures.

Claiming to be space aliens who were weaned on Earth's radio signals and then came back in time (landing in the wrong era!), Astroman play surf music with a punk edge. Most of the music is instrumental (the rare vocal tune is usually a cover), and this intense little band has been cranking out records in furious pace; since 1993 they've released seven albums, a handful of EP's, and countless vinyl singles. There seems to be no end to MoAM?'s wellspring of surf rock.

Plowing through a number of tunes from their Steve Albini-produced album of last year Experiment Zero as well as some old favorites (and upcoming treats from a soon-to-be-released EP), Astroman hit the RKCNDY stage after showing a 12 minute video that featured Star Wars action figures in a retelling of the film of the same name. Bass player/central figure Coco The Electronic Monkey Wizard (yes, these are all fake names!) wore a space/jumpsuit like his bandmates (Star Crunch, lead guitar; Birdstuff, drums; and Dexter-X, rhythm guitar for their live shows), plus a helmet that concealed his face (for a song or two, until he got too hot). The band is endlessly entertaining visually; Dexter and Coco dance in synchronous fashion during Star Crunch's solos, the myriad old TV sets pump out a variety of black and white programming, and the set even ended with Coco dragging out a huge Tesla coil which emitted arcs of electricity across the stage. Clearly MoAM? have created a visual appeal that somewhat mitigates the sameness of the surf genre.

But ultimately the band lives or dies by its music, and what music it is. With all the energy of punk and the precise melodicism of surf music, the band is one of the finest surf outfits ever. Dexter and Coco anchor the proceedings, BirdStuff keeps the pace, but Star Crunch…well, he deserves his "out of this world" reputation. His Mosrite stranglings could be compared to Dick Dale at his finest. This is clearly a musician's genre, and the talent needed to play the precision surf leads with such tonal control is huge.

Sure, the fun theatrics overshadowed the music at times (Coco lighting his helmet on fire during the climax of "Nitrous Burnout"; his onstage antics while he played his variety of homemade theramins), but it's the sheer irrepressible nature of the songs that makes Astroman work. Their onstage appearance and stance may be a gimmick, but the music is first-rate; Man or Astroman?, despite being otherworldly, understand the very physical nature of surf rock. The next time their spaceship touches down in your town, hop on board…trust me, you'll enjoy the ride.

Copyright © 1997

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