by Jason Boucher
In the annals of indie rock, surf rock, and punk music, few bands have captivated audiences with their unique blend of otherworldly sounds and energetic performances quite like Man or Astro-man? Emerging in the early 1990s, this enigmatic quartet from Auburn, Alabama, brought an intriguing fusion of science fiction, surf rock, and punk attitudes to the forefront of the alternative music scene. With a discography spanning over a decade and a half, the band’s albums resonate with fans, raising the question: Are they merely retro or consistently ahead of their time? I have always been a fan but recently got back into their sounds because I have a 45-minute commute to work almost every morning and night. It’s allowed me to revisit some of my favorite music acts during college – the early to mid-1990s.
Man or Astro-man? burst onto the scene in 1993 with their debut album “Is It… Man or Astro-man?” (Estrus Records) Their music amalgamated reverb-drenched surf guitar riffs, extraterrestrial and race car samples, and a frenetic punk energy. The album’s opening track, “Taxidermist Surf,” set the tone perfectly with its catchy melody, intricate guitar work, and a spacey vibe that could transport listeners to another dimension. “Nitrous Burnout” is another all-time favorite with an excellent sample about the Indie 500. Their sophomore effort, “Destroy All Astromen!” was a collection of 45s released by Estrus Records over the previous two years. It solidified their status as masters of sonic experimentation. Tracks like “Intoxica” (Ventures cover) and “Bermuda Triangle Shorts” showcase their ability to create immersive soundscapes that simultaneously pay homage to the past while propelling listeners into the future. It’s like listening to the soundtrack for Mystery Science Theater 3000. The album’s combination of retro influences and forward-thinking production techniques demonstrated that Man or Astro-man? were not content with simply just recreating the past.
To truly understand the impact of Man or Astro-man? it’s essential to compare their work with other historic and contemporary bands that have embraced retro elements while carving out their own distinct identities.
• The Ventures: A seminal surf rock band of the 1960s, The Ventures’ instrumental prowess laid the groundwork for the genre. Man or Astro-man? took inspiration from their reverb-soaked Fender Stratocaster guitar tones and incorporated futuristic elements, creating a bridge between the past and the future and adding a little bit of comic relief.
• Devo: Debuting in the late 1970s, Devo’s quirky blend of new wave and punk resonates with Man or Astro-man?’s eclectic approach. Both bands share a penchant for sci-fi imagery and an off-kilter sense of humor, showing that retro influences can be a launchpad for groundbreaking innovation.
• The Black Angels: A contemporary band known for their psychedelic rock sound, The Black Angels draw inspiration from the past while infusing their Austin, Texas music with modern twists. Similarly, Man or Astro-man? exemplifies how a deep appreciation for retro aesthetics can coexist harmoniously with the urge to push creative boundaries.
As Man or Astro-man? progressed through their discography, they proved to be more than a one-dimensional retro act. Albums like “A Spectrum of Infinite Scale” (Touch and Go Records) showed a willingness to experiment with electronic elements and more complex compositions, expanding their sonic palette while retaining the core elements that made them unique. While it’s a great album, I’m still stuck on the first three. I love the rawness and the initial production they delivered.
As fans of 90s indie rock, we’re fortunate to have experienced the multifaceted journey of Man or Astro-man? Their music challenges the notion of what it means to be “retro.” They are not mere imitations of past styles; instead, they are pioneers who have consistently pushed the boundaries of their genres while paying homage to the foundations that inspired them. So, when we listen to those almost 30-year-old reverb-drenched guitar riffs and sci-fi samples, remember that their music is not bound by time. It’s a testament to the enduring power of creativity and innovation, reminding us that the best music is timeless, no matter the era in which it was created. My dad grew up with the Ventures, but he loves listening to Man or Astroman? just as much as I love listening to The Ventures.
In 1995, while I was still DJing in college, Birdstuff and Star Crunch, two members of Man or Astroman?, slept on my couch after a sold-out gig at The Elvis Room in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We played video games, drank cheap beer, and eventually passed out. Those were the days…