White Zombie's 'Astro-Creep 2000': 20 years of love and destruction
Once upon a time, there was a show on MTV called Superock. It was typical of the network’s video-based shows in the alt-rock era: A host (in this case Jackie Farry, who had become famous for being Frances Bean Cobain’s nanny) introduced some videos and spent time with a show-long guest for a few interview segments. Similarly-themed shows 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation operated the same way; in fact, a lot of artists (Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, the Offspring) appeared on both Superock and Alternative Nation, and the two series’ playlists shared a lot of overlap. I think the only video that I saw on Superock that I didn’t ever see on Alternative Nation was Fight’s “Blowout in the Radio Room,” and that might have been because it sucked.
Superock didn’t run very long, and it’s hard to find traces of it on the Internet. (It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!) But it was on just long enough to make an impression—and one late night in 1995, an episode of the show completely recalibrated my headbanging brain.
The show aired at midnight on Saturdays, which probably contributed to its absurdly short life on the network . But I was curious about it—so I stayed up well past when was reasonable to check it out, even though I was also making a VHS copy of the broadcast. The guest that night was Rob Zombie, who was premiering the new White Zombie video “More Human Than Human” and plugging the forthcoming album Astro-Creep 2000—which turns 20 years old tomorrow.
The full title is actually Astro-Creep 2000: Songs of Love, Destruction, and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head. That’s a long, unruly title that I can still recite from memory two decades later—because what ended up being White Zombie’s final proper album became the most important release of 1995, at least to me.
One of the reasons I liked the idea of Superock was that it put all rock music on the same level. It’s difficult to imagine now, but among fans, bands, and radio programmers, there was a genuine divide between “modern rock” and stuff that was considered “hard rock” or “metal”—even though the two camps had way more in common than they wanted to admit.
But the prevailing narrative at the time—a time before the Internet ruled as the primary tool of narrative construction—was that Nirvana’s Nevermind (and the rest of the grunge revolution) had arrived to sweep the evils of metal off the face of the Earth forever. The sins of Guns N’ Roses and Dokken had infected any music that fell under the metal category, relegating it to the back seat while plenty of alt-rock heroes who were basically metal bands (especially Soundgarden and Alice in Chains) reigned supreme over the arena-filling landscape.
Among my group of friends, the idea that you could like both Pearl Jam and Megadeth was mildly blasphemous. Again, these are distinctions that make no sense in today’s polyglot music landscape, where genre divides have completely broken down and nobody bats an eye when the Shins, OutKast, and Sepultura all end up on the same Spotify playlist. But the early ’90s commitment to some sort of authenticity actually hardened listeners’ ears, galvanizing them into much stricter camps. (And among my group of friends, anything wavering from the accepted post-grunge menu resulted in being deemed a poser, the cool kids’ catch-all put-down circa ’95.)
But when White Zombie unveiled “More Human Than Human,” I went nuts, and the fences began to fall. At its heart, the first single from Astro-Creep 2000 is undoubtedly a metal song, built around a chugging riff and Zombie’s full-throated half-rapped snarl. As I peeled away the layers, it became infinitely more complex. There was a bubbly funkiness underneath, a bunch of hip-hop-style samples in the mix. And that see-sawing guitar bit after the chorus sounded an awful lot like something noise merchants like the Jesus Lizard or the Melvins would commit to tape. As a rockist teen who was only just starting to explore the underground, White Zombie seemed like a gateway to a kind of platonic ideal that bonded together all my favorite things that did not seem to overlap in any meaningful way.
I have rarely in my life anticipated an album the way I did Astro-Creep 2000. In my memory, there was something like a six week gap between when I first saw the video for “More Human Than Human” and the actual release of the album. In the interim, I prepared myself for the coming onslaught: I purchased their mildly underwhelming 1992 release La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One, which contained the awesome groove-metal pumper “Thunder Kiss ’65;” I sought out music by Exodus and Testament, the two previous bands backed by new White Zombie drummer John Tempesta; I started to dive into industrial music after an older guy I knew lumped “More Human Than Human” in with Ministry’s Psalm 69; I regularly called in to my local modern rock station to request both White Zombie and Filter’s “Hey Man Nice Shot” (they only ever played the latter). I even bought the expensive “More Human Than Human” import single, which contained a pair of remixes that I did not care for at all. I was ready and primed to receive what I assumed was going to be a revolutionary album, both for me and for the rock world at large.
(As an aside, 1995 was a peak year for anticipating albums for me. Some of the strongest memories I have as a music buyer are riding my bike to the local Coconuts as soon as school let out so I could purchase stuff like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute, Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Lisa Loeb’s Tails. I often lobbied record store clerks to sell me albums before their official release dates, a tactic that never worked. Now every album leaks, and the ones that don’t show up without any warning, removing the build-up process entirely. I’m not saying my old experiences were better, but I miss that mild anxiety I used to get—it was like waiting for Christmas, except Santa arrived every Tuesday.)
When Astro-Creep 2000 finally arrived, it did not necessarily take the world by storm—though it did go double-platinum. And for me, it did become an object of obsession for a good long while.
I picked apart that album in ways that simply do not exist anymore. Obviously I listened to it on repeat, typically spinning “More Human Than Human” multiple times and regularly skipping “El Phantasmo and the Chicken Run Blast-O-Rama,” which remains my least favorite track. I also obsessed over the artwork, which filled the CD booklet with hand-written lyrics, dense collages, and character sketches all from the mind of frontman Zombie. I tried to figure out the hidden meanings buried in the art and concocted my own narratives for the various creeps who appeared in the booklet. (I was particularly drawn to the hook-handed clown that graced the page that held the lyrics for “Grease Pain and Monkey Brains.”) I tried desperately to track down the sources of the samples, though we were years before that sort of thing was Google-able—so I was left to play the intro to “Electric Head Pt. 2 (The Ecstasy)” to people to see if they could place it. (I found out years later that the line “I just said, ‘Up yours, baby!'” was from Shaft.) I even joined the group’s fan club (dubbed “Psychoholics Anonymous”), though I cannot recall ever getting a dispatch from them despite the promise of “the latest news, tour dates and mind blowing exclusive White Zombie merchandise.”
Sonically, Astro-Creep 2000 holds up extremely well. It’s got the rugged, low-end thump that was the hallmark of co-producer Terry Date’s golden era. Date took heavy rock bands (including Soundgarden, Pantera, and Deftones) and made them sound like bulldozers, laying a bedrock of guttural industrial mud and stacking all other elements on top. The unsung hero of Astro-Creep is undoubtedly bassist Sean Yseult, who kept each of the album’s 11 tracks in the pocket even as they strayed wildly across the sonic spectrum. She’s especially effective on the single “More Human Than Human,” but she’s also the backbone of the churn of “Creature of the Wheel” and the mania of “Super-Charger Heaven.”
The latter track was a particular favorite of mine, because it not only locked into a groove that foretold my obsession with the boogie metal of Sepultura and Gojira, but also contained the album’s most straightforwardly “evil” chorus. “Devil man! Devil man calling!” barked Zombie during the hook. “Devil man! Running in my head yeah!” I didn’t realize until much later that the invocation of Satan was meant to be something of a cheeky joke—Zombie does not actually worship Beelzebub. But it did invoke the kind of casual panic I enjoyed inspiring in my parents. (This type of reaction became even more pronounced when Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar came out a year later.)
As Zombie made clear in his Superock interview, pretty much everything that happened with White Zombie came from his head. He took care of all the visual elements, directed the video for “More Human Than Human,” plotted the band’s stage show, and was the clear musical director. (He noted how much he loved new drummer Tempesta because he basically never talked.) Despite his gruff exterior, Zombie seemed like a genuinely deep and sensitive thinker. (I got confirmation of this when I interviewed him years later.) He told a story about being able to appease neither the metalheads nor the cool kids with his music, which really hit home.
I never felt like I belonged to any particular group in school, whic often manifested in a deep feeling of alienation even when I was around people. I felt like I contained pieces of a lot of different personalities that weren’t easily definiable—and for that reason, Astro-Creep 2000 was an eye-opener. Sure, it rocked and dealt in super-cool badass imagery. But it also didn’t belong to any one thing, and reveled in its scattershot nature. The fact that it was made up of a lot of disparate parts is exactly what made it cool. Astro-Creep 2000 contained multitudes, and in cranking up grinders like “Real Solution #9” and “Blur the Technicolor,” I felt like it could keep me whole.