Now I Am Become Death
Showy surf rock combo Man or Astro-man? makes their dust-clearing return from an over 10-year furlough with DEFCON 5…4…3…2…1. In case you’re not hip to the band’s Atomic Age aesthetic—or their riotous, space-schlock stage presence—if the album’s clamped-down title happens to volley a salvo of early-NASA and Cold War images through your head, consider yourself clued in.
This is Kennedy-vs.-Khrushchev music, the ’60s sounds of twirling dials at an all-analog command center—like the Sandals’ Endless Summer with a pinch of McCarthyite paranoia. Produced by Big Black frontman (and proven surf fetishist) Steve Albini, its half-instrumental, half-sung makeup recalls the approach of halcyon forebears like the Trashmen or Kingsmen, but let’s not kid ourselves: Man or Astro-man? was borne out of the ’90s surf revival scene, taking Dick Dale’s m.o. and subsuming it with the untethered energy of punk, as well as a sizable obsession for the era of Barbarella and go-go sci-fi.
“Antimatter Man,” for instance, surges with a hyper-urgent tempo maintained, and even jacked up, through much of the record. The song’s big, mean guitar rumbles with Apollo 13 propulsion. “Break all my bones / Take off my skin,” sneers guitarist and sometimes vocalist Star Crunch, “You try to shake me down and then say / ‘It’s all pretend.’” In the passages with a vocal, as this one—though, as mentioned, much is instrumental—the singing is snotty and bothered, like an astronaut Thurston Moore fed up with the breakdown of Earthling-Martian relations. After Mr. Crunch reveals he is, indeed, an “antimatter man,” sweeping theremin whooshes are triggered, along with all manner of waveform pyrotechnics. Apparently, the surf is pretty gnarly on the Forbidden Planet.
Instrumental to DEFCON are its five “DEFCONs,” interspersed from track to track and starting at 5, increasing in danger and defensive readiness until “DEFCON 1,” by which time you’re already cowering under your middle school desk, waiting for the Iron Curtain to part and launch its be-all, end-all warhead. Opener “DEFCON 5” apprises the listener to a general state of alarm—as in, “I hope Castro doesn’t point his rockets at Key West”—whereas “DEFCON 4” churns with a low-grade, subterranean tension.
Definitely the most memorable is “DEFCON 2,” whose John Carpenter-style minimalism trudges with equal parts doom and determination. A mid-tempo number on an often hurried album, its woolly, staccato synth stabs play against a bespeckled nebula of white noise, as well as the stair-stepping sputters of R2-D2. As the sounds swirl about you, a feeling of inexorable danger finds evidence in your twitching face—but, between the frightful alien armada on the horizon and the ever-ratcheting threats of the Red Menace, the only way out is through. Such is the fun, though imperfect, of the latest from Man or Astro-man?, a whirligig composite of War of the Worlds-era culture. Spacesuit and ray gun not included.