Silent Scene

The instrumental rock revival with Man or Astro-Man?, the Mermen, Pell Mell, and more

How many times has jazz “died”? Does anyone really believe we've rid ourselves of heavy metal? Punk is back for its second (or third) go-round, and the smell of mothballs is wearing off of the arthritic fashions known as jump blues and swing. New styles of popular music sprout regularly like weeds, while others that have seemingly run their course are left pushing up daisies. But decomposing organisms eventually make very powerful fertilizer: Another crop that has blossomed anew is the rock/pop instrumental, a virtual goner since the advent of FM radio. Although most of these instro revivalists sport both a grounding in tradition and a sense of humor, few of them should be dismissed out of hand as back-catalog raiders or court jesters.

New variations on surf have brought that music back a third time, a decade after its second visit during the punk-launched trad-rock revival. The original surf blueprint — derived from 1950s caveman rock and bittersweet lovers ballads — called for reverbed guitar or organ leads that scooted and swaggered across double-time blues progressions, inspiring later instrumental styles of the '60s such as spy, go-go, and soul-jazz. Fitting, then, that '90s revisionists like Man or Astro-Man?, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and Laika and the Cosmonauts should spearhead today's renewed interest in nonverbal rock 'n' roll.

The original surf instrumentalists recorded during an era when science seemed limitless. Their families often worked in the burgeoning West Coast aeronautics industry, while these kids played at hot rodding, skateboarding, and surfing, all of which involved speed and/or innovation. In the news were daily reports on Apollo vs. Sputnik, with ads hawking mandatory newfangled appliances.

The trappings of so-called “lounge” music come from this period, too, but modern surf's Man or Astro-Man? recognize the aspect of the early '60s that really speaks to the '90s: not its swanky iconography, but its substantive futurism — its sheer sense of hurtling forward. With riffs that are simultaneously ominous and frivolous, Man or Astro-Man? articulate the idea that no matter how foreboding or out-of-control it sometimes seems, technology is inevitably rendered impotent by the passage of time — and replaced in turn by some new anxiety-inducing development.

As if to drive the point home, the band members — based in Alabama, of all places — infuse the surf form with the white noise of jammed frequencies, bashing out chaotic songs spliced together by snippets of dialogue from farcical sci-fi films. Project Infinity, Man or Astro-Man?'s latest release on Estrus, includes songs with titles like “Inside the Atom” and “Philip K. Dick in the Pet Section of a Wal-Mart,” which speak volumes about the group's mute ideology. When words do edge their way onto a few cuts, the effect evokes Thurston Moore's detached vocal turns in Sonic Youth, reinforcing Man or Astro-Man? as the surf group most likely to succeed with an underground audience.

Two local bands are set to weigh in with their own modifications on surf tradition. Joining the Aqua Velvets on the roster of Atlantic's Mesa/Blue Moon imprint, the Mermen will find their meandering, nearly hallucinatory A Glorious Lethal Euphoria (Toadophile) reissued on Mesa in September. While purists sometimes grouse about the Mermen's liberal interpretation of the genre, the band has achieved strong word-of-mouth success.

“People are tired of being told what to think about when listening to songs,” drummer Mar-tyn Jones reasons — an opinion that could just as neatly apply to the rise of ambient, new jazz, or dub as to surf.

Comprised of seasoned veterans of disparate bands — Those Darn Accordions, Chuck Prophet — the Aqua Velvets' take on surf is to flavor each track individually. On the brand-new Surfmania, that means jalape–o (“Mexican Rooftop Afternoon”), coconut (“Martin Denny Esq.”), and curry (“Kashmir Sweater”). Barely hidden in the playlist are such hackneyed hits as “Peter Gunn,” but as their “neo-retro” tag would indicate, these musicians make a point of fashioning their own hooks as well.

All these acts would gladly sit at the knees of Shig and Buzz: Peter “Buzz” Miller was lead guitarist for the Jaywalkers, a British instro band that fraternized with the Beatles and the Stones; “Shig” Komiyama pounded skins for the Plastic Ono Band. On Double Diamonds, the duo's Mai-Tai Records debut (recorded in S.F.), the primary lead guitar is a “white 1962 Fender Stratocaster played through a 1958 tweed Fender Bandmaster amplifier containing three 10-inch speakers.” That's the kind of vintage hardware that makes gearheads swoon, assuring Shig and Buzz of an authenticity that's integral to the instrumental revival.

Another musical harbinger of the hereafter, circa 1960, was free-form jazz. Always two steps ahead, free-form was toned down and made palatable by the same martini-sipping jazzbos whose album covers, if not their contents, are revered today. The Denison-Kimball Trio, actually a duo consisting of the Jesus Lizard's guitarist (Duane Denison) and Mule's drummer (James Kimball), plays a cross between light-fingered lounge and avant-garde lite that doesn't belittle either style.

Like the D-K Trio, Sub Pop's Friends of Dean Martinez are a group of alternative-rock refugees. Though decidedly un-futurist, these Friends deserve mention here as traditionalists who aren't merely sponging off a trend. Nee the Friends of Dean Martin, the band added the “ez” to avoid legal skirmishes. Just as well, because the original phrase would've stretched the Cocktail Nation concept to the breaking point. In fact, the Friends, featuring Giant Sand alumni, compose steel-guitar and brush-drum instrumentals with an eerie spaciousness that's much more ghost town than Tinseltown. A recent appearance at the DNA found the group playing the syrupy side of its debut, The Shadow of Your Smile, but their music has an abundance of alluring touches — chilly cabaret, sweet washes of imagery — that might not make themselves evident on a cursory listen.

One current instrumental group making music a lot less rooted in the past is Pell Mell. This quartet differs from most of the aforementioned groups in that theirs is a linear, non-blues-based rock not particularly suited to necking or frugging. With chiming guitars and burbly bass parts, Pell Mell is more inclined to echo modern rock (sans, of course, the vocals). If it's retro, their hindsight reaches only as far back as the heyday of “college rock.” The pristine, angular melodies of Interstate display this band's knack for precision without scrapping the warmth of spontaneity. Signed to the major label DGC, Pell Mell may be the future of the backward-looking format known as instrumental rock.

To hear many tell it, the instrumental music revival consists largely of a pair of rediscovered oldsters, Esquivel and Martin Denny, and their reformed-rocker champions Combustible Edison. The part-time vocalists and full-time futurists in the latter group should expand the scope of their nonverbal efforts in the fall with their soundtrack to the movie Four Rooms. In the meantime, however, a wide array of groups are striving to have their music recognized in the here and now.

Man or Astro-Man? play Sat, Aug. 5, at Bimbo's in S.F.; call 474-0365.

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