The Astronauts: LP - Album Review (2024)

The Astronauts: LP - Album Review (1)The Astronauts – LP (Grow Your Own)

Out 27 August 2023


The final recordings from the timeless weirdo Mark Astronaut and his backing band were released on his birthday. Completed after he had passed away, this album is a fitting tribute to a man defined by his decades of music and poetry writes Nathan Brown.

The Astronauts deserve the cult band moniker. They were definitely their own beast. There was no-one quite like them. And the final ingredient of the cult band is the fluctuating levels of appreciation. Often until it is, sadly, too late. At times all but ignored, while at others commanding respect and feted as a vital influence, the various incarnations of the Astronauts led by the poetry of Mark Astronaut kept ploughing their furrow. Their dogged determination demanded your attention.

They are a band who defied easy description. We knew they were our people and even though the punk scene was their domicile they seemed tangentially connected to the world of punk because they brought so much extra to the party. Like some of their fellow travellers, you always got the feeling the punks were just one part of their Venn diagram.

Seeing though the simplicity of thrash, shouty anger and 2 fingers in the air cliches they were unafraid to do what they want, and were among a number of bands during the anarcho-punk heyday who helped push the boundaries of what punk means. This is not to say you wouldn’t find anger, angst and rebellion in what they did. Far from it. Their messaging – while also poetic and often fragile – was antagonistic to the “system”, the powers that be and societal norms that would crush those of us who are different. Their anarcho-punk came with a generous dose of humanity. As I have written before, Mark (Wilkins) Astronaut was able to start a song or live set with an unassuming wistful pondering approach and wind himself up into some kind of shamanic frenzied warlock bringing forth all kinds of hellfire and damnation.

I always heard the ghost of Olde English folk in what the Astronauts did, like they were dredging up ancient memories at the same time as playing their upbeat jaunty take on punk. Almost as if they were the musical outlet for the psychogeography of this country as its people suffered repeated attacks from various governments of the day. I’ve seen them referred to as anarcho-folk which sounds about right, but also seems to over-simplify a sound that drew on more than folk. There are moments when The Astronauts rival their 80s label mates Blyth Power in the punk-folk stakes. At other times the stripped back and anger of pure punk rock a la ATV comes to the fore. There was always a touch of that hippy cross over from cheeky pre-punk pranksters and esoteric performers like Gong and Here and Now. It’s like the Astronauts were saying don’t forget that before the mythological year zero of punk, space cadets and freaks were already doing what the punks were.

This final Astronauts album, simplistically titled LP, is in keeping with all that has gone before. The appearance of an echoey cello, swooshing keyboards and some of the backing vocals definitely give off a free festival vibe. The jaunty, folky tunes are in evidence. Mark’s voice occasionally betrays his failing health but the beauty of recorded music is that the artist lives on forever, crystalized into a time capsule of vinyl, Compact Disc, MP3, WAV or FLAC. The music is complemented by kind words from Mark’s friend Steve Lake (Zounds) on the inner, a lyric booklet and an intricate full colour cover by artist Joshua Levitas.

Despite only being composed of 6 tracks, this clocks in at a respectable 37 and a half minutes – double the length of some albums you’ll pick up by thrashy punk outputs. This is partly due to the fact that 16 and a half minutes of side B is taken up by the magnum opus Open Prison.

Don’t Tell Me kicks off with a How Much Longer? style guitar riff and turns out a melodic, upbeat, jaunty song of ATV meets Blyth Power for Mark to spread his message. The chorus has an uplifting quality to it, yet the words themselves juxtapose this with a lyric about a “sort of light that makes your nightmares bright” which I find incredibly chilling. A crisp guitar solo, vocal harmonies and synthesizer build the soundscape. In a song where he seems to be saying “stop talking sh*t”, Mark’s anger, disdain, melancholy and hope all shine through. I was particularly struck by the way he hones in on one of those key issues that seems to underpin everything wrong in this society when he sings “Don’t pretend the distribution of wealth is fair.”

Tearaways starts off with a keyboard flourish that could be lifted from a 1980s video arcade game, reappearing throughout the song. The song itself then gets going with what I consider the archetypal Astronauts sound – a stream of consciousness delivery of words with barely time to draw breath, interspersed with a catchy chorus of “We’ll be back again tomorrow”. Then, as if heralding the end of the song, Mark threateningly hollers “Just you wait and see” and the songs tails off into a space rock style mid-section. However, it’s not the end and the song returns after a middle 8 based around the phrase “Tearaways” before returning to the space rock riff, complete with Hawkwind style twitters and rising synthesizers.

Death of An Idealist has the quirkiness of the Planet Gong Floating Anarchy album or the wurlitzer-esque circus music of the Cardiacs. The song is a peculiar little narrative featuring the inhabitants of a Typical English village and to my mind is a metaphor for the way our society is descending into barbarism and those who don’t go along with it are struggling. But, that’s probably just me projecting my own neuroses!

Waiting For The Trial has the feel of ATV playing a bolero tune (ya know, like psychedelic trail blazer White Rabbit?). At once it appears to be about the highs and lows of live performance with a sideways look at the good and bad of the music scene which Mark inhabited. There are some wonderful couplets like “You were always gonna be confused, that was position number one. Just because it’s serious doesn’t mean it isn’t fun”, “Are we all in tune? Is my hair looking right? Is the stage on fire? Is it a trick of the light?” and “It was always gonna be a joke standing on a dodgy stage. Thinking that the words you spoke could reignite some latent rage”. I particularly chuckled at the tongue-in-cheek ghostly moan as a response to the line “When it gets weird you only moan”. Again the songs tails off with spacey sounding synths and echo treatments on the vocals.

Open Prison winds a journey through a number of different phases and tempos. It manages to stitch together political analysis, societal tropes and what seem like personal reminiscences. In this way it is not unlike the Subhumans album-side length song Crade To The Grave. Is it partly autobiographical or purely metaphorical? We’ll never know. Having built up to a frantic crescendo half way through, the sound dissipates to a slower pace, becoming atmospheric, even employing cello before gathering momentum again.

The final song Shoulder starts with just Mark’s vocal, soon joined by an acoustic guitar. It is a poignant, fragile moment to end the album and rightly so.

It can’t have been easy for his band mates to work with his voice after he was gone. I thought the same when The Mescaleros did a similar job for Joe Strummer’s last album. For a man whose life was so defined by his music, The Astronauts and Grow Your Own have really done the most fitting thing to ensure we hear Mark Astronauts voice from beyond the grave one last time. And the release date would have been his birthday. Dulce et decorum est pro memoriam Astronaut.

CD in gatefold cover, comes with 16 page lyric booklet in printed envelope, limited to 200.
LP with printed inner cover, comes with 16 page lyric booklet, limited to 500

There is a “friends and relations” tribute to Mark’s memory on 21st October 2023 in the You’re All Weird festival at Club 85, Hitchin. It includes The Astronauts Songbook – songs performed by The Astronauts with Wasp from Rites of Hadda singing Mark’s words.

Find the artist and label on Facebook: Astronauts / Grow Your Own

Also on Bandcamp


Words by Nathan Brown. His Louder Than War author archive can be found here

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The Astronauts: LP - Album Review (2024)
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