Monday, April 18, 2011

What Happened There? #1: Powerman 5000

So, the intention of the 'What Happened There?' theme is to look at bands that, at some point, went off the rails and strayed down a dimly-lit path into mediocrity.  Sometimes they emerge, normally they don't.  First up, Powerman 5000.

Powerman 5000, AKA PM5K, originally shot to prominence in the mid to late-90's.  Lead singer Spider One (known to his parents as Michael Cummings) is the little brother of Rob Zombie (known to the same set of parents as Robert Cummings).  Whether or not that had anything to do with PM5K's early success is arguable - while both brothers opted to go down the metal route they did so in quite different ways.  Whereas big brother Rob took a more industrial direction, firstly with White Zombie and then later as a solo artist, young Spider's leanings - at least on the earlier PM5K material - were probably best described as funk metal.  Both were also strongly influenced by film, but one suspects that the likes of Halloween and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension were constantly competing for the attention of the Cummings household VCR, with little brother clearly championing the latter.

PM5K's first major label release was 1997's Mega!! Kung Fu Radio, essentially a reissue of an earlier independent recording (The Blood Splat Rating System) with a couple of extra tracks.

  (incidentally, that was a normal way for bands to look in the late 1990's)

I will make no attempt to conceal the fact that this is one of my favourite albums of all time.  If nu-metal was the sound of the in crowd at school at the time, this was the sound of the rebellious kid with ADD who might be politely described as 'slightly unhinged'.  First and foremost it's a hard-rock album (I think the band described it as action rock), but there's a bizarre melting pot of influences sitting just behind that... forays into funk, a double dose of messy punk-rock energy, and the omni-present sci-fi references.  Spider One's vocals are really the glue that holds the whole mess together too... alternating between slightly creepy and scream-your-lungs-out-aggressive.  The great success of this album, in my opinion, is that PM5K walked the thin line between pushing the madness just far enough to create a really outstanding, addictive hard rock album, and the one-step-too-far that would've seen it all disintegrate into an incoherent shambles.  But it doesn't... from the kinetic funk-rock of Neckbone, to the full-throttle Car Crash, to the pseudo lounge-jazz of A Swim with the Sharks... there's not a single wasted moment.

Following this was 1999's Tonight the Stars Revolt!. A little more industrial and not quite as eclectic as its predecessor, but still a very strong album and one which also had a couple of very, very good singles in the form of When Worlds Collide and Nobody's Real.  The former really showcases PM5K's ability to pull off dynamic shifts with the best of them, whilst the latter showcases more of a mid-tempo industrial groove - which was at this point a new arrow in their bow.

Still a very good album, which many fans rate as their best, and it was a reasonable commercial success as well with over 1 million copies sold.

Then things went off the rails a bit.

The band had a full third album, Anyone for Doomsday? ready to go in mid-2001 but Spider One canned it at the last minute.  Exactly why is up for debate, but some of the mooted reasons include that he thought it sounded too much like the last album, that the label didn't like it, and that with a couple of band members leaving he didn't want to release an album with departed members on it.  There were also some suggestions that the September 11 attacks had something to do with it (given the name), but the album was originally scheduled to release in August so that doesn't really hold up.

Regardless, it turned out to be a straight-up bad call - and arguably a career-killer - for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it was actually a really good album.  Thanks to the joys of the interwebs, and more recently iTunes, it's not hard to track it down in digital form.  Doomsday has the same more-focused sound and sci-fi influences as TTSR, but with a bit more metal, a bit more force to it.  There's a few tracks on there that would have made brilliant singles.  It's consistent, it's kick-ass, and it's pretty widely acclaimed amongst those who have subsequently heard it.

Secondly, it saw the band - or more correctly Spider One and a revolving cast of musicians - spin off in a new direction, and unfortunately it was an inferior new direction.

2003's Transform was just that - a transformation.  Simpler songs, less aggression, none of the crazy sci-fi imagery, with the net result being an uninteresting album that sounds borderline pop-punk at times.  Not totally unlikeable, just mostly.  It was followed by 2006's Destroy What You Enjoy which was largely more of the same mediocrity, albeit with one or two good moments, most notably the up-tempo, edgy Heroes and Villains which has a metallic sound much more reminiscent of their older (=better) material. 

In between came a collection of early b-sides and out-takes mostly dating around the M!!KFR period, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Vol. 1 (2004).  Whilst it's a little patchy, there are enough really good tracks on here (including a great cover of Bjork's Army of Me) to remind one that PM5K's best days (amusingly, those where the album titles included punctuation) were fairly well behind them.

And then, just when I'd given up hope, along came a little glimmer of hope in the form of 2009's Somewhere on the Other Side of Nowhere.  The sci-fi influences were back, and the sterile sound of the last two albums was replaced by an up-tempo industrial sound.  It's not a great album and in places it's a little too reminiscent of big brother, but there's just enough to suggest that PM5K might still have a trick or two up their sleeve. 

But until they can prove it, I'll be spinning the early material and that's about it.

1 comment:

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