Tonight the Stars Revolt!, Powerman 5000's latest record and second major-label release, comes in some crazy packaging. The title and cover art call to mind 1940s pulp sci-fi: Everywhere are robot men, rocket ships and mechanized destruction.
These fantastic motifs makes sense once you understand Powerman 5000 wants people to think of it as a band of superheroes hell-bent on saving the world from mediocre music.
In an environment in which every metal band is concerned with being either "down" -- chronicling the miseries and perceived injustices of being young -- or satanic and lascivious, Powerman 5000 just wants to have fun, good escapist fun.
If that philosophy sounds familiar, perhaps it's because Powerman lead singer Spider One is the younger brother of Rob Zombie, whose own metal instincts lean toward the holy triumvirate of sex, comic books and bad TV. Years ago, while big brother Rob was building White Zombie on New York City's Lower East Side, the younger was in Boston forming Powerman 5000. Rob may have hit the big time first, but as so often happens in such sibling affairs, Spider is gaining ground fast.
For the record, Powerman 5000 is not a Zombie knockoff. (If you trace each band's history, you'll see they evolved independently.) While Zombie has taken heaviness in an even heavier direction, Powerman 5000 has twisted it into something with shock, power and '80s keyboard atmospherics.
Tonight also differs from the now L.A.-based band's DreamWorks debut, Mega!! Kung Fu Radio. Powerman 5000, on the new record, steers away from rap vocals and into a song-driven direction. The switch is a large departure for Spider, who, even before Powerman 5000, was performing as a solo rap artist with loops and samples and drum machines -- but never a band. When the band came along, the "rap part of it sort of stuck around for the first album," says Spider matter-of-factly. "We were all a little uncomfortable with it, actually, because it wasn't what we really wanted to do. It just sort of happened."
With the new album, Powerman 5000 wanted to break away from the maddening crowd of rock-rappers. (And no, the irony of leaving a genre right as it's becoming popular isn't lost on Spider.) More than anything, though, what has helped set Powerman 5000 apart, regardless of styles, is the organic feel of the band. Even with a layer or five of sequencing and other electronic gimmickry, polished to a major-label sheen by the likes of Silvia Massey (Tool) no less, Powerman 5000 sounds like five guys -- Spider, Adam 12 and M.33 on guitars, Dorian 27 on bass and Al 3 on drums -- just banging out tunes. Spider attributes the band's immediacy to its makeup. He also says that music comes first, then the effects are added, a recording order that "lots of people have reversed" lately.
Much has been made of the escapist attitude of both Tonight and Powerman 5000 generally. But it seems the band is being typecast: The members actually attempt to address a number of real-world concerns. Though "The Son of X51," off Tonight, draws its title from comic book character, its lyrics -- "Sitting with your eyes shut tightly / Waiting for the time you must leave / Surrounded by people that you'll never know / Still you must go and transmit the sound" -- aren't necessarily cartoonish.
"One thing I try to do with lyrics is present a bit of a duality," says Spider, "where maybe on the surface it appears to be this imaginary fantasy storytelling, but if you actually take the time to consider it, there's more there. It's more interesting to make things work that way, both for me and the listener, than to write in a more obvious way, like 'This song is about my heartache' or whatever."
Spider proceeds to link this approach to '70s films such as Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and Jaws. Each boasts a compelling narrative on the surface, but each also reveals layers of personal and social subtexts. "What does the shark represent?" Spider asks rhetorically of Jaws. "On one level it represents the movie studio. People look at our artwork or at the title of the album and say, 'Oh, you guys are that funny superhero band, right?' No. That's part of what we do, and it's part of the way we represent what we do, but it certainly isn't the end of it."
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Powerman 5000's current tour is its first as a headliner. It's also the band's initial opportunity to stage a full-production show tied into the music. Spider says the whole process is a little nerve-racking, headlining venues at least twice the size of previous outlets and wanting to put on the best show possible, always limited by both time and money. But it's a challenge that so far has been met.
This has kept Spider busy. In addition to writing all of Powerman 5000's lyrics and fronting the band, he also plays a leading role in every aspect of promotions, from helping write and direct the band's videos to creating all of the band's CD packaging, ad copy and T-shirts. "A lot of times bands don't seem to care about that sort of stuff. They figure they've written their 12 songs and now they can let somebody else worry about that," says Spider. "To me, it's both as important as the musical side and as much fun to do. That's why I like to do it. But it's also important because you can't just spend as much time and energy creating something as we've spent and then just hand it off to someone else.
"It's also part of the master plan," says Spider. "Being in a band is great. But as we all know, it doesn't always last forever. And I don't know if I'd want it to last forever," he says with a laugh. "There're a lot of other things I'd like to be able to do. And a finite amount of time in which to do them."
Powerman 5000 performs Wednesday, February 9, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Avenue. For more information, call (713)629-3700.