In their 13 years away from the studio, Man Or Astro-Man? have grown disconcertingly punchy.
A friend of mine was actually taking a tour of Electrical Audio studios the day before Defcon 5...4...3...2...1's sessions started. After showing him around and answering a few general questions about recording, Steve Albini wrapped up their chat by saying, "I actually need to prepare for Man Or Astro-Man? tomorrow." This story perked my ears because there was a name I hadn't heard in a long time ... Man Or Astro-Man?
Man Or Astro-Man? is one of those bands that took too long of a hiatus. A sci-fi indie-surf cult favorite that hit the ground running in the '90s is not a likely contender for prolonged hibernation, but that's what happened. After touring for 2000's Spectrum of Infinite Scale, Man Or Astro-Man? took a long vacation. Their next gig wasn't until 2006 for a Touch and Go anniversary festival, and after that, a few performances at some high-profile festivals in 2010. Now it's 2013 and the band are finally back in the saddle with Defcon 5...4...3...2...1. The experimental noises of Spectrum of Infinite Scale have been trimmed back considerably and the lean, mean crunch of 1999's EEVIAC (Embedded Electronic Variably Integrated Astro Console) has become leaner and meaner. It's a startlingly assured album from a band that has little to prove anymore. But if anyone was ever turned off by Man Or Astro-Man?'s obsession with and use of science fiction kitsch will be pleased to learn that Defcon 5...4...3...2...1 is a very musical album – all 35-plus minutes of it.
Defcon's instrumental countdown is broken up across the 12 tracks, but inching closer to one another toward the end of the album. With "DEFCON 5" starting the album, the surf guitar is out in the open almost immediately. By the time you reach "DEFCON 2", the countdown has progressed to a spacey synth-void. If only they would have kept things going down the abstract path, though. "DEFCON 1" ends the album roughly the way it began, with a hard driving instrumental (with a bass synth that wanders dangerously close to Van Halen's "1984"). I guess if you're going to play tricks on your audience, you shouldn't do it right after 13 years of studio silence, huh?
Defcon 5...4...3...2...1 comes with a dark hue, one not shrouded in playfulness. "They put you in a plastic room / Inside a new cocoon / So the doctor can see you," goes the chorus of possibly the most disenfranchised take on a butterfly or some other appropriate metaphor. "Pumped you up full of lies / Capture the firefly / And throw you in a cell." At least they aren't trying to sugarcoat the lyrics of "Cocoon" in something peppy-sounding. Even the NIN-esque vocal treatment suits it well. And speaking of "Cocoon", many song titles on Defcon 5...4...3...2...1 have become much more straightforward. "Antimatter Man", an antagonist meant to negate all that we value in the physical world, just does not care if you "break all [his] bones." "You try to shake me down and say it's all pretend." One protagonist even admits that interstellar travel makes him "Disintegrate". Hardly the disciplinary trait one is looking for in an astronaut.
We live in a time where the gaps between non-jazz albums are stretching out to four or five years. Band hiatuses tend to be longer than the amount of time most kids spend in elementary school. But when said releases finally get around to our ears, they usually don't signal any kind of growth or change for the artist. They sound the same they did four, five years ago. But Man Or Astro-Man? is like that hawk that flew away long ago, witnessed some kind of trauma during its travels, and has returned with different colored feathers. "Check, check, check / Something's going wrong / Radio is down, we've lost communication." Whatever happened, long may it continue. A punchy Man Or Astro-Man? is a surprisingly good thing.