Surf rock has always been one of the most unique genres, despite the tendency of acts to repeat the same old Stratocaster solos ad nauseam. Funny as it may sound, surf is a tough genre to master, one that can't fall back on a charismatic vocalist to cover up any instrumental deficiencies. It is virtually atmospheric, a sound that balances disciplined playing with a freewheeling West Coast attitude. Yet when rendered properly, there's usually a spark within those ethereal instrumentals. To some, there's even religion within them, particularly within the hardened fretwork of Dick Dale or the catchy numbers of the Ventures.

In the past decade, the style has made a comeback of sorts. Although retro trendsetters like Quentin Tarantino had to introduce most twentysomethingers to standards like Dale's "Miserlou," a host of brand-new acts has emerged to put a different spin on the patented sound.

Among the most innovative is Man or Astro-Man? With its undeniable affection for sci-fi and B movies, the band has carved out a cult following, which has glommed on to the group's tight arrangements, kitschy shows and cool album titles (Destroy All Astromen, Live Transmissions from Uranus). Gimmicks, naturally, have aided the likes of Los Straitjackets, but this Atlanta ensemble doesn't rely purely on such novelties: The guys' matching NASA outfits, onstage TVs (sometimes broadcasting old episodes of Astro Boy or G.I. Joe commercials) and stupid stage names (Blazar, Q Beam) take a backseat to their stern compositions, which are often reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock's spacier work.

Some might find the sci-fi themes and supercomputer props too kitschy for comfort, but underneath the comic book exterior, Man or Astro-Man? is a band with some solid musical ideas. Better yet, it's a band that has the chops to pull them off.

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Mike Emery