Review Summary: A private little victory
Once upon a time, Powerman 5000 felt the need to reinvent itself with each release. Funky proto-nu-metal became extraterrestrial industrial before spacesuits were ditched for leather jackets. When incarnation number four, a shallow adaptation of then-trendy pop punk, failed to gel, the frontman swallowed his pride and came crawling back to the style that filled seats. The nostalgia act version of Powerman 5000 became even more of a rotating cast of background musicians than previously - a bassist was in the band for two of the three progressively faded original albums, but that's it. The hounding comparisons dropped a tier. Nobody accused the band of ripping off the frontman's more successful older sibling Rob Zombie anymore, they'd get called out on being a shadow of their former selves. New Wave was a nauseating affair, all the more puzzling given the nipping of the original band's budding career in 2001 over not wanting to rehash Tonight the Stars Revolt!! It doesn't get much more "fade away in disgrace and irrelevance" than that. And then for once the line-up didn't splinter, merely shedding the rhythm guitarist, and stayed around for another album.
Apparently a little stability goes a long way, as the musicians gained some confidence to explore realms that weren't a blind rehash of the space metal of old. Powerman 5000 has always had a delicate 80s undercurrent, e.g. manifested in their prior flop's title, and this time around they decided to fully embrace it. The predominant textures become drum machines and retro keyboards, with guitars usually relegated to more subdued chorus appearances. Spider One's immobile delivery is right at home in this goth-tinged landscape, add in some of the man's more focused lyrics capturing the pins-and-needles zeitgeist of the turn of the decade and you've got yourself a rejuvenated performance. When the stuff works, it's the best material the band has put out since Transform. While far from a roaring triumph and flawed even in the highlight reel, it's still a private little victory for Powerman 5000 given their prior trajectory. "Play God or Play Dead" is bleak and haunting, and could have been even better if the brief screeching, echoing guitar frenzy wasn't buried in the mix. "Black Lipstick" cranks the new constituents to 11, and undercuts a tale of sexual conquest with a bitter interlude about solitude that works as an oddly apt introspective take. It's also a nice touch that the music video has the band replaced with the sort of period-appropriate vixens that the lyrics could be pertaining to. "We Got the Beat" is a major tonal shift from the sunny original, yet survives the transformation. "VHS" bases on a lovely subdued piano melody and processed vocals, but would have worked nicer if the backing understood that and went at about half the speed.
Unfortunately, the record is not without potholes. Predictably, things go furthest south when the band veers closest to their worn out clichés. "Cannibal Killers That Kill Everyone" barely manages to overcome the idiocy of its title with a spirited guitar melody and more stinging introspective lyrics, slightly outweighing the drab dominant riff and ending up acceptable as a result. "Special Effects" is not so lucky, and the textural whammied wails are not enough to save the phoned in track from being a scorch mark on the record. The quality drop from one of the best songs on here is all the more discernible, and it's the rare case of a tune that manages to make everything that comes after it sound worse - the following three tracks are little more than filler, and lack any sort of high point to cleanse the palate after the stinker. In turn, "Brave New World" fails vocally, with Spider One attempting a barking rap outside of his register. Watching the frontman's struggle with the technique is oddly fascinating, as by now he's busted out more dismal than successful applications of it. The last time he pulled it off he was still rocking his natural brown hair, yet he's been periodically revisiting it for the past fifteen years after taking enough time off to forget how to do it.
Who would have thought that a frontman hellbent on evolution would wilt when trying to relive the glory years and staying stylistically put for a decade? Even in this reanimated form Powerman 5000 is hardly anything to write home about, but it's a major step up from their prior dire outing. Hopefully The Noble Rot is the start of an era rather than an isolated fluke. An era where the band manages to retain some membership coherence, and understands that being a touring nostalgia act does not need to carry over into the studio. There are bands like Electric Six and Convulse that are happy to relive former glories on stage while doing whatever they feel like on record. This sort of duality is proven to work, and can hopefully find another home here. Give the people "When Worlds Collide" and "Bombshell" live, and explore whatever fulfilling territories on future releases. If you could cancel an album and derail your career over a thirst for diversity 20 years ago, you sure as heck can indulge it now.