Man or Astro-Man?

The Pulsars

Oh No, It's Devo!

One of the odder aspects of postmodern life in the '90s is retro-futurism. What that means concerning these three bands is that they all look back to the sci-fi worlds of yesteryear and revive yesterday's conception of tomorrow. In practice this entails hauling out outdated synthesizers that were cutting edge back in 1979 but now are the equivalent of an Atari 2600. Thing is, lots of folks couldn't accept these futuristic sounds back then and still can't, preferring good old-fashioned guitars. And you know what? Those folks have a point. Aside from the piano, there is no known instrument that can compete with the electric guitar in terms of the sheer pleasurable variety of sounds you can squeeze out. Synthesizers generally sound pretty dorky placed in the wrong hands, as they are too often, and they ruined much of '80s pop. They don't call it cheesy 'cause it comes from the moon. However, synth-pop has its place, and while I wouldn't to hear too much of it, I don't have an allergy to it like lots of closed-minded folks do. I'm glad synthesizers exist - hey, we wouldn't have Roxy Music without them, who are tops in my book. We also wouldn't have much New Wave, either, which sometimes I believe might have produced in sheer volume of good records the greatest era of rock.

All three of the bands on this page owe loads to that New Wave era, but all are clearly '90s bands with original sounds. Two of them rely almost entirely on synths and one relies mainly on guitars with synths just for spice (they're the surf band). All three are worth hearing, and all three are decidedly different collections of memory chips, so let's examine the coated aluminum.

Brainiac: Bonsai Superstar (1994) ***1/2

These Ohio berserkers put on one of the most intense shows I've ever seen about a year ago - no wimps with keyboards here, they were one of the loudest and most musically violent acts I've ever pogoed in a sweaty crowd to, putting your average punk band to shame. The opening acts weren't as good. U.S. Maple were flat-out unlistenable, what these days they call "math rock" which apparently means trying to reproduce Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica with less tuneage (hint: there are no "tunes" on Trout Mask Replica). Delta 77 were properly loud and sweaty as a soul-punk band should be, but the whole time I kept thinking that they were way too derivative of Jon Spencer (someone in the crowd actually shouted "Blues Explosion!" in the middle of their set). In the middle of Brainiac's set someone (maybe the same heckler) shouted "Devo!" Well, that is a very obvious reference point for the band, as are another weirdo electronic Ohio band, Pere Ubu.

So I did the right thing and bought this CD the week after the show, and like a lot of great live bands their studio work doesn't really do them justice. It's loud, alright, and tuneless, just like the live show, but what made sense at 1:00 in the morning in a club basement just sounds noisy on record. However, as my memory of the live show fades, this record gets better. It is an extremely annoying record to listen to when you're not in the mood, but hey, so are the Stooges. Who says there aren't original and innovative bands anymore? Brainiac are one; their sound is quite unique. Basically they sound like Devo on crack. Basically Brainiac are a punk band that employs weird synth effects to bring the noise instead of guitars. If you think all synthesizer bands are foppish wimps, then you haven't heard Brainiac. This is one of the loudest CDs in my collection and the guitar is only a secondary instrument.

I wish the band's songwriting was a bit more consistent, but by saying that I am implying that Brainiac write some real songs instead of just sounds, an actual rarity in the '90s. Not that those songs aren't hard to make out most of the time - Tim Taylor's vocals are constantly being distorted by tape looping and when they're not he's singing in an incredibly warped manner himself. "Hot Metal Dobermans", "Hands of the Genius", "Radio Apeshot", and "Sexual Frustration" (which sounds like it) are all supremely twisted slices of hard rock. It's a bit hard to describe what this record sounds like - like sandpaper, like metal objects clanging together (but not industrial, a genre I have no use for), like a band of chimpanzees playing with lasers ( "Juicy (On A Cadillac)"). Very abrasive, like finding yourself stuck in a game of Pong with your head bouncing between the paddles. Very original, too, which counts for quite a bit in the overly derivative '90s, and worth a listen.

On a sad note, Brainiac are no more. Tim Taylor died in a car crash several months after I saw their performance.

Brainiac: Hissing Prigs in Static Couture (1996)

I've got this, and it sounds a lot like the other one, except I don't seem to like it very much, don't know why just yet. Wait for a few more listens and a review.

Man or Astro-Man?: Experiment Zero (1996) ***1/2

Who said there aren't good surf bands anymore? You thought Duane Eddy and the Ventures said all that could be said with twangy guitars? Go talk to the Pixies, then. Man or Astro-Man? are a band from Alabama that update surf dynamics for the '90s in an interesting and creative manner. Surf music tends to suffer from homogeniety - I couldn't tell a random cut from most any surf band apart blindfolded - and let's face it, surf is a rather limited formula musically (so's the blues, but at least in the blues you've got vocals to keep the same old chords interesting). Man or Astro-Man? must know this, so they spice up their sci-fi surf updatings (that are generally louder and more driving than traditional surf) with cool packaging and plenty of neat sound effects. No band currently gigging on this planet has cooler packaging than Man or Astro-Man?; their records are almost worth purchasing on vinyl for the album covers alone, even if you never put the record on. But you should put the record on, of course. Man or Astro-Man? are fond of sampling spoken word, and this one starts out with a man from the '50s demonstrating a "Stereo Phase Test". Later on you hear corny sci-fi dialogue lifted from either Ed Wood movies or B-movies that would make Ed Wood proud. Theremins and Moogs also keep things interesting, and they cover the Talking Heads' "Television Man", and "Test Driver" by some outfit called the Bunnies. Man or Astro-Man? have several other albums that probably sound the same as this one; as with most instrumental combos, sometimes it's hard to tell the songs apart without words to help. This record is a gas - if you like surf music at all, don't hesitate to check out these guys, especially if they pull into your hometown.

The band personnel: Star Crunch, Birdstuff, Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard, and Dexter X-Man from Planet Q.

The Pulsars: The Pulsars (1997) ****

It looks like '80s nostalgia has come upon us like a black plague. This duo wants nothing more than to keep the flame of OMD and the Pet Shop Boys alive, which in theory should revolt me - how good can second-hand Thompson Twins be when it wasn't that great first-hand? However, amazingly enough, the Pulsars justify their project by releasing a more consistently enjoyable album than almost any early '80s synthesizer band ever released. True, there aren't really any singles here that top the heavens like "Lay Your Hands" or "If You Leave" but nearly all the cuts here are solid, something you most definitely could not say about a Duran Duran album. Some of it's tongue in cheek - "Technology" laments buying a piece of machinery in 1985 that's obsolete within a few years. The Pulsars even meet the devil at the crossroads, just like Robert Johnson, a smart move because Johnson, far from being a rustic reactionary, was employing the cutting-edge technology of his time, too. Only by now the cutting-edge technology of the early '80s isn't so cutting-edge anymore. My favorite song consists of the first three cuts, which all bleed into each other and concern driving through a Wisconsin tunnel.

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