Where are the fun bands?
Over the last few months, as I have been happily lost in a non-radio paradise of podcasts, audio books and my music collection, this is a thought I've had many times.
Where are the fun bands?
I'm talking about acts like David Bowie, Queen, The Talking Heads, Cheap Trick and anyone else who loved to play with their listeners expectations and experiment with new songs. Bands who didn't take themselves to seriously. Bands who were, in a word, fun.
I haven't found such bands on the radio; occasional surveys of the FM spectrum have revealed that commerical radio remains a vast wasteland. Fortunately though, I have come across I have come across one band that gives me hope for our musical present: the Atomic Swindlers.
With sound and style that can best be described as Ziggy Stardust meets The Fifth Element, the Atomic Swindlers' show that hey, creative rock'n'roll -- - even science fiction rock'n'roll -- is far from dead.
Lesbian Bikers from Outer Space
I first heard about the Swindlers -- and their first album, Coming Out Electric -- when I was contacted by their agent about a potential review. I surfed over to the band's Web site, and checked out the video for "Float (My Electric Stargirl)". I listened to the sexy, catchy tune about a space biker chick fighting to free her lost and imprisoned girlfriend, loved its Samurai Jack-like visuals, and found myself humming the song in the shower the next day, and wondering irately how long it would take for the review CD to show up.
By the time it arrived, I had a little audio distance from my first listen, and set myself up for disappointment: the video track could have been a fluke and the rest of the album could suck.
The first thing that's apparent just from looking down the track list to "Coming Out Electric" is that the album's utterly infatuated with science fiction, with tracks names like "Space Bandit", "Intergalactic Lesbian Love Song", "Jupiter's Falling" and "Stars In My Pocket". Loading the album onto my iPod revealed that this was more than just a passing romantic fancy: the entire album passionately and unapologetically soul kisses the genre.
Check out these lyrics from float:
I wanted to shine like the silver surfer
A cosmic queen of the stars
Now I'm just a killer on a wave less sea
Weightless and free
Your voice is all that's left of me
How can you not geek out when reading (or hearing) that? I mean, when was the last time you heard someone mention the Silver Surfer on your Top 40 or "classic rock" station? Hell, have you ever heard someone sing about that former herald of Galactus? Superman? Sure. Batman? Once. But the Silver Surfer? That's a new one on me.
And then there are these lyrics from "Space Bandit"
Magnetic Lands of the Zen moment
Down telepathic alleyways
Disappear in their own image
Invasion magic primal state
Psychic chaos for the taking
Loves distortion shimmering
Deprived of air like space and bandits
Star links open out of dreams
Trippy eh? The entire album is like this -- great imagery, amusing science fiction references, and just an all around fun sound. There's what word again - -- fun. It's what I've found so lacking on the radio nowadays, and it can be found here in spades.
When I said that the Atomic Swindlers sound like a fusion of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the strange-but-fun movie The Fifth Element, I meant it; listening to the album for the first time, that’s the imagery that sprung to mind: “Starman” playing while Leeloo slinks around in a white leotard saving the universe. Other reviewers – with musical backgrounds no doubt far more diverse than my own—have compared the band to a mixture of Blondie, Adam Ant and of course David Bowie—and to that line up I’ll thrown in a little Rush (particularly the sci-fi rock opera “2112”) and Meatloaf (the duets; no, that's not a bad thing).
The actual style of music varies considerably over the course of the album, though it all stays true to its fundamental late 70s/early 80s sound. “Float” is the only really laidback, Pink Floyd-like track on the album, which I initially found disappointing because I really enjoyed that freaking song. On repeated listening though, my disappointment faded as my appreciation grew for songs like "Drag" (a sort of power ballad) and "Jupiter's Falling" (a great, mild-mannered song with lots of acoustic guitar)
“Space Bandit” and “Sex66” are fast-paced rock songs, with fast and strong guitars carrying the lyrics along. Neither are particularly hardcore – they're not the sort of thing I’d blast while speeding down I-78 – but they’re definitely enough to get the adrenaline pumping.
"Diamond Dreamer" has a campy Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of feel to it, but you’d kind of expect that from a song whose lyrics include:
Jukebox Tom lives in a hydrogen bomb
He was a replica of himself
A Broken Astronaut with invasion shock
He forgot to light his other half
As his capsule drifts into a black hole shift
I had a lot of fun listening to this album, which is more than I can say for the last few rock albums I bought. I may have enjoyed those albums on a strictly musical or lyrical level, but Atomic Swindlers' songs have that extra kick that makes listening to them extremely amusing, even if a particular song isn't catching your fancy. Heck, they actually made me want to read the lyrics!
At this point, you're probably waiting for me to throw in the "But…", so here it is: I liked this album a lot. It's a blast to listen to, and it's very different from anything I've heard on the radio in ages. But while I liked this album, I didn't love it. Only one track -- "Float" reaches that level of affection, and while I've found myself walking around humming some of the songs, the albums not so stellar as to launch itself onto my A list. It is, however, very, very very strong B-list material and I'm never disappointed when iTunes serves it up via "Party Shuffle"
Why is it B-list instead of A? I've been thinking about that, and I can't pin it down to any one thing. I'd love to see more songs along the lines of "Float", and I think more of the songs could use the same level of refinement and polish associated. That said though, "Float" clones might cause the album to lose some of its edge, making it more Dark Side of the Moon and less Ziggy Stardust.
In any case, it's a close thing, and honestly, this could grow into a 9/10 with repeated listenings. If nothing else, the album is a heck of a lot of fun to listen to, and I do recommend picking up a copy, particularly if you're into Bowie and music of that ilk. I, for one, will certainly be looking forward to their next release
If you're looking for an rock'n'roll band that isn't afraid to take risks, that has a sense of fun, and whole-heartedly embraces the science fiction genre, then you'd do well to buy "Coming Out Electric".
Editor's Note: As readers may have noticed, the Atomic Swindlers are advertising on Nuketown this month. I want to assure folks that my rating independently of the fact that they choose to advertise.