Man or Astro-Man?
Some years ago, a young collective of extraterrestrials arrived on this planet and happened upon a small college town in Alabama. Home to both otherworldly jazz guru Sun Ra and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, it is clear that Alabama is a direct linkage to outer space. In order to integrate into human society, these aliens would disguise themselves as a rock band, the perfect vehicle in which to traverse the globe and further their research. They would soon be known to the people of Earth as Man or Astro-Man?.
Unearthing thrift store records by the likes of Link Wray, The Ventures, Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, The Marketts & The Safaris – Man or Astro-Man? began to formulate their own blend of the retro-futuristic inspired by their offbeat musical discoveries. Innovative stage sets and designs by Kraftwerk, The Spotniks, The Residents, Devo, Sun Ra, and The B-52s also had an impact on the emerging ensemble.
Man or Astro-Man? began playing countless shows in the Southeast with bands like Southern Culture on the Skids, The Woggles, Hillbilly Frankenstein, The Subsonics, and The Flat Duo Jets. The group soon caught the attention of Estrus Records' owner Dave Crider who released their full-length debut, Is it...Man or Astro-Man? (1993). The label's design aesthetic revolved around the other-wordly concepts of designer Art Chantry whose works melded perfectly with the Astro-minds. Destroy All Astro-Men (1994), Project Infinity (1995), and several EP's were also released by Estrus.
Touch and Go Records released all later Astro-transmissions. Experiment Zero (1996) was recorded in three days with engineer Steve Albini at Zero Return Studios in Alabama. Now drawing influences from the future (as well as the past), the band began to extend their use of samples, computer programming, homemade instruments, electronic gadgetry, tape splicing, and other bits of Earth technology. Both the 1000X EP (1997) and Made From Technetium (1997) were darker steps into the futuristic soundtrack realm.
Now, Man or Astro-man? have returned to Earth and unveiled their finest recorded work to date. Defcon 5...4...3...2...1 is here now with a striking validity that the band is unquestionably as both tuneful and energetic as they ever have been. The record combines ever-familiar Astro audio tones and the well-established playing ferocity that the band is known for, but yet now, there is an undeniably evolution to the band that is both intuitive, logical and well crafted. Man or Astro-Man? has arrived in the present (and future, of course) with imminent purpose. And of course, they still bring an over-the-top, sensory overloaded show, which has always gained them a reputation for always being an undisputedly amazing band to see live.
The Pack A.D.
"We never really consciously have a plan of action. If you call a plan of action 'just get better,' then that's the plan we went with for this album."
So says The Pack A.D. drummer Maya Miller of the process that led the hard-slogging East Vancouver duo to its fifth album and Nettwerk debut, Do Not Engage. And it's hard to disagree. Long celebrated on the fringes of Canada's endlessly fruitful indie-rock scene as a feral live act non pareil and a band destined to eventually make that one record that finally puts it over the top, The Pack A.D. has delivered the album that should finally, genuinely – yes – put it over the top. The tirelessly hard-working and hard-touring duo of guitarist/vocalist Becky Black and powerhouse drummer Miller doesn't even consider Do Not Engage as a fifth recording, in fact; it's moved so far beyond the primal banshee-blooze of its first two albums, 2007's debut Tintype and 2008's Funeral Mixtape, that they no longer considers them part of their catalogue. "I don't count the first two anymore as they feel so far away from what we do now," Miller told the Vancouver Province earlier this year.
Miller's selling The Pack's past achievements a bit short in that statement, but whatever. Black and Miller have pretty much lived in their van for the past six years – two vans, actually, as the first succumbed to exhaustion on the point of disintegration after steering them to a couple hundred shows within the year between 2010's noticeably focused step up, We Kill Computers, and 2011's exceptional Unpersons (accurately described to the Toronto Star by Miller at the time as "a really loud, fun punk record"). But, with Do Not Engage, The Pack A.D. did indeed get better. Much better. Much harder, much nastier, more versatile and much more confident.
Lead single "Battering Ram" maintains a tether to the stormy alterna-Delta dystopia from whence The Pack first sprang. But the band's repertoire has expanded to take in the churlishly infectious stoner-rock of "Creeping Jenny," the bittersweet pseudo-shoegaze ache of "Airborne" and the post-Pixies retro-grunge fuzz of "Big Shot," which sounds like Weezer being joyously molested back in the day by Babes in Toyland and Hole at the same time. "Rocket," for its part, proffers a concise picture of how far The Pack A.D.'s self-imposed program of conscientious self-betterment has brought them: it announces Black and Miller's arrival as nuanced, pop-savvy arrangers and masters of dark lyrical wit, and also Black's maturity into a heart-tugging emotive singer.
"We've been getting more straight-up rock, I think, and I guess a little weirder," says Miller. "It's sort of a natural evolution, how we've changed," adds Black, crediting some of the new record's advances to a habit shared with Miller of "listening to too much psych-rock and zoning out. I really like that genre of music."
"I guess some bands never change but, I don't know, I think most bands do. You've gotta keep trying new things or it's just boring."
Do Not Engage reunites The Pack A.D. with Detroit producer Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Electric Six, The Mooney Suzuki, Dirtbombs), a friend-turned-collaborator who insisted upon working behind the boards for Unpersons – a record that would go on to earn the band its first Juno Award nomination in 2013 for "Breakthrough Group Of The Year" – and has proven himself something of an ideal "ghost" third member by coaxing Black and Miller to their finest work yet on Do Not Engage. Within the bleak confines of a converted Motor City chicken-processing plant, no less.
"He's very easy to work with," says Miller. "He really gets us. All his instincts are very much anything that we would think of at any given time. We're all sort of organically working together and it's really easy. It's just like friends hanging out. We didn't go out looking for a producer, let's put it that way. That came naturally. We were friends first and it kinda went from there, and that's how we try to approach everything with our music."
"We like the same things, I think," adds Black. "We have the same ideas. He likes to bring out a lot of low end and every choice that he makes, I'm like: 'Yeah, that's a great idea.' There's a good connection there, I guess."
With its most confident and original recorded calling card to date now in hand ("Let's put it this way," says Miller wryly, "I don't hate this album yet, and I usually hate them fairly quickly") The Pack A.D. will continue to do what it has relentlessly done since the beginning – albeit this time on a larger, more international scale.
"We're probably gonna tour this one even harder," says Miller.
"We record an album and then we kinda have nothing to do except tour," affirms Black. "This is our only job. We're itching to tour."
Wray isn't afraid to revel in repetition, churning (like butter) confident, seamless grooves firmly in the tradition of NEU!, Faust, or Can. Their shimmering, headphone-ready tones owe much to Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and even The Cure, but without the crippling self-absorption of chillwave, dreampop, or whatever all the sad bastards are listening to this week. It's music for an audience, for a rock show. It's got a beat and you can dance to it. The band is Wray and the album is Wray and you can play it at a party and people will like it.