Thursday, 13 October 2011

Astro Al – The Purple Mushroom

Should we even ask the question of this outfit ... "which one is Al?" Nah, thought not! Their website biography posits it in a different way in any case. "Is Astro Al a band or a character in a series of sci-fi comedy stories? Imagine if William Shatner replaced Jim Morrison in The Doors..."

Well, Astro Al is Paul Angelosanto and Debbie Nash, the both of them providing vocals and a delivering a variety of electronic-based instrumentation, loops and samples. There have been live appearances with Nik Turner and with Spaceseed among others, multiple CD releases, appearances on compilations such as the My Outer Space series, and The Purple Mushroom is their latest recording, four tracks of science fiction short story narrations variously recited across soundscapes of drifting space rock and radiophonic effects with cellos and toy pianos ... you get the eclectic, eccentric picture – but there's a really good interview with Paul and Deb here that explains it all.

I'm unusually perplexed in so far as I'm not entirely sure just what I make of Astro Al; I've had a couple of their discs here for some time, planned a review and got lost in what I wanted to say about them and so that review, of their discs Naughty Kitty and Psychedelic Drive-in Music, didn't ever appear. The Purple Mushroom is, then, an opportunity to pull those recordings out as well and get under the skin of what Paul and Deb are doing.

We'll take it from the top and work backwards. The Purple Mushroom is the most concentrated sci-fi of the three: 'Ancient Astronauts', 'Frozen Mass', 'Interspace' and even 'Ripples in the Puddle' could all be titles of science fiction stories from one of the Gardner Dozois Year's Best SF collections. 'Ancient Astronauts' would have been an F&SF pick, 'Frozen Mass' and 'Interspace' stories out of Analog and 'Ripples in the Puddle' might have derived from Asimov's. The words themselves, I'm not so sure where they'd sit since, and I think this is my accessibility problem with the stylistic delivery here, I find it difficult to divorce the words and the music, or rather it's hard to focus on the words in separation from the music since the reverse isn't so much the case. There's some really good space rock sounds going on here – not the full-on sonic assault that they promise on their web pages but actually a very well-realised sense of mood that really takes control of each of these four tracks and leaves the words as some sort of additional instrumentation in that you know they're relating a story of characters and incident but actually those words embellish the sounds when you'd expect the sounds to do that for the words. And so I'm not sure on the intended tone, because they celebrate B-movies and 50s sci-fi, shlock and bubblegum and psychedelic weirdness but you also feel they want to put across a serious and thoughtful work – so it's less obvious what their intentions are on this one whereas the earlier discs possess a more focused madness – if that's not too contradictory a notion?

Naughty Kitty, on the other hand, is peculiar in an inventive and creative sort of way; that's not to say that coming out of leftfield and being extravagantly off-the-wall should be a cover for doing just anything, but it does give us something that is absolutely on its own and of itself and I find that rather appealing even if I don't get everything that they've got going on in this winsome and strange collection of songs and recitations. So 'Liquidating Lemonade Street' is like a High School chant along that devolves into B-movie sci-fi, 'Where The Worlds Collide' a slice of lo-fi psychedelia with a vaguely dark folk string accompaniment and 'He Moved Through The fair' has a bucolic air ... but the truth is that you never quite know what's around the corner, where the next twist or turn is going to lead – to the piano-led 'Romantic Farts' or the simple strumming of 'You're Dead. So Shut Up' which, aside from the bizarre middle section could be early Blondie turned into a nursery tune. Complex simplicity with a wry twist – curiosity didn't kill the cat!

I wonder if I should have saved up the word shlock, preserved it for a record with tracks like 'The Burning Witch', 'Vampire Hookers From Outer Space', 'Cult Of Frankenstein', 'Mansion Of Dracula' and 'Attack Of The Prehistoric Beast'. Oh yes – Psychedelic Drive-in Music. Well, again, it's fundamentally lo-fi music and effects with spoken word reciting and a lot of experimental stuff – experiments in nonsense perhaps, but not nonsense in a negative sense but nonsense in a chortling mad scientist sort of way except here it's not which SF magazine that we reference but some alternative time stream where Edgar Allan Poe possesses the spirit of Robert Calvert... singular and curious.

So, to me, Astro Al are all about being mad and wacky, trying things out, not taking it seriously but poking around their touchstones and styles and seeing what works and what doesn't – and recording it all anyway for posterity. Not everyone's can of coke, and bloomin' hard to get a handle on – but it's their stuff done their way and it's absolutely original and Astro Al ... one of kind! Both of them!