Found-sound constructivists, pop deconstructionists, or just electronic goofballs, one thing is certain about the excessively named They Came from the Stars I Saw Them—they’re their own beast.
What Are We Doing Here? is a surreal, bizarre menagerie of beats, instrumentation, and sound effects that finds the band melding pop melodicism with an open, free jazz sensibility and an avant garde experimentalism to produce a chirpy cacophony that assaults the ears as much as it engages.
The disc opens with a track that shares the band’s name, and more or less lays out the group’s manifesto. According to the TCFTSIST (the Stars for short) mythology, this music is inspired by alien visitors who asked these musicians to bring this music to the people as a means of establishing a new communication. All sci-fi campiness aside (although losing this sense means losing the Stars’ sense of humor), this is a pretty lofty statement of purpose, and sets up the band to be more meaningful than it perhaps has any chance of being. However, the Stars’ assertions of populist aesthetics and the elimination of taste, combined with the group’s affinity for invented biography and psych-out humor makes the statement an in-joke if anything. Against this MUFON-like lyric, the music on the track is a kind of spare space-lounge, though more skittering electronica than Esquibel. Take it seriously? Nah.
In contrast, “The World Turned Upside Down” seems straightforward, at least in that is adheres to pop melodies. The song hinges on the theme that a world turned upside down flips everything at the edges, but the middle remains in the same place. Obviously more than a little aiming for a psychedelic surreality (and reflecting their influences in the old Canterbury scene), the track is built on a bass line and horn fills, intermixed with warped-vocal samples, lyrics about mice and fish, and a bevy of sound effects, yet it all still manages to sound like something that Was (Not Was) might have recorded if they’d done everything on computer.
But the two-part “Sunshine Coach Episode” songs that follow prove that the Stars’ are more than happy to push the boundaries of song. The stop-start of part one finds chanting bands members giving way to jammed-together studio effects in rounds, including some ear-splitting feedback at max volume and a space of dead silence. Part two has the band melding all of these elements together in one cohesive song of rhythm and melody, but so filled with sonic debris that it would make Soul Coughing balk.
And the rest of the disc proceeds apace, with the Stars’ bouncing back and forth between patience-testing collages and standard pop formula. “I Am Not Afraid” is a relatively normal affirmation against paranoia, but that is quickly followed by “Beer of the Gods”, which uses what is almost certainly the sound bites from the old Donkey Kong arcade game to deconstruct and reconstruct a full song. And then there’s the crowning glory of “The Holy Mountain”. At nearly 25 minutes in length, this track is They Came from the Stars I Saw Them expanding the bubble to its bursting point. Starting with a rapid but fairly standard bass-and-drums skeleton, the song adds noises and instruments until it truly feels like scaling a mountain, ascending bit by bit as the instrumental picks up rhythm. By the time you finally reach the peak it seems like relief, until you realize full minutes later that this is the longest crescendo in the world, and even when that is finally over the song just will not end. It’s epic to the point of absurdity.
Definitely self-indulgent, What Are We Doing Here? is not for everyone. Still, in its unabashed over-the-top-ness, They Came from the Stars I Saw Them possesses a certain amount of charm. You can chew on these tracks and mull them over, but that takes the kitchen-sink-and-all fun out of it. Instead, brave listeners are encouraged to let the sheer audacity wash over you and grin.