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Posted on May 12th, 2010 (4:59 pm) by Crawford Philleo

Is it a difficult thing to be a true Trans Am fan? It’s not that the band isn’t talented. To the contrary, the veteran Thrill Jockey trio has enough mega drum fills, frenetic synth lines and gnarly guitar work to fill that basket nicely. It’s not that they don’t have great songs. Coming up on 20 years of life and nine full-length albums deep now, the band has been known to put together a plethora of punchy, positively catchy tunes. They pull from familiar places—krautrock, classic rock, prog, electro—and they combine them in a way that is geek-meets-muscle, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes motorik, and often sweaty, electrically charged and intense. So why aren’t these guys as popular as, say, Tool—their unlikely headline-buddies on tour a couple of years back? What’s kept Trans Am with the same label for such a long time? Why does the band fail to truly grow?

It might be that Trans Am is a bit ridiculous. Just look at the album artwork for Thing. It’s full-on 80s future-retro sci-fi horror. Look at the silliness of the song titles—”Naked Singularity,” “Interstellar Drift,” “Maximum Yield,” to name a few. Listen to what’s going on in the album—odd time signatures for the sake of odd time signatures, way over the top drum cadenzas (with roto toms... remember those?), and weird, dated vocorder vocals. The key to Trans Am is to recognize their inscrutable sense of humor, and Thing succeeds largely along these lines: the band has found a consistent path following their tongue-in-cheek, unabashedly nostalgic ways, and exploding that course in ways that are technically bewildering, unapologetic and focused and showcase a seasoned tightness that can only come from having such a long and storied past. Therefore, Thing’s pitfalls are only apparent if you haven’t bought into the Trans Am phenom first. As is often the case, the best way to get into the band would be to pick up their earlier records before attempting to fully digest Thing’s wide-eyed science-fiction-fried tracks. Trans Am takes some work, but the labors are rewarding on many levels. So I’ll give you a minute to check out their self-titled debut, Surrender to the Night, and Red Line before we continue.

Got it?

OK, now, isn’t Thing a rad album, you Trans Am fan, you? Granted, there’s nothing here that one would call remotely revolutionary, even (and especially) by the band’s own standards. Twenty years have given the group a solid formula, and it’s one that stays largely intact throughout Thing’s twelve tracks. Drumming is predictably top-notch, the bass drum absolutely locked in to the swerving syncopation of the staccato’d synth-bass stabs (see “Bad Vibes” specifically). The tones used are more of the same too—the band does little to explore the sonic palate beyond simple Korg synths that are saturated with buzzy, scuzzy effects and phased with moderation between right and left channels. Guitars take a more prominent stance toward the end of the record, which offer the album’s more accessible (if you can call them that) and rewarding tracks, like “Interstellar Drift” which harkens back to jams as old as “Ballbadaos” from their debut.

Other mainstays pay off yet again for the band here as well, such as the fact that they’re so unafraid of going big. “Heaven’s Gate” is monolithic—a sweaty orgy of drums dropped directly within walls of synthetic, phaser-affected noise, and blasting out in all directions with sheer power: a straight-up four-minute mind-fuck of raging guitar solos and cymbals that blasts finally into a krautrock wind-down. If this is heaven’s gate, I’m scared to see what’s on the other side.

Trans Am’s history has had its share of ups and downs. Peaking with 2000’s flat out amazing Red Line, a record that hinted toward the band riding an uptick in consistency and potency, was followed by TA, a sadly disappointing-by-comparison follow-up. After that, not much has been expected of Trans Am, so to hear them putting out a record this solid is a real gift. In 2010, Trans Am sounds like a band that refuses to be ashamed. Stone-faced in their quest to do what comes naturally and sounds right to them. The best part about Thing is that it fits so well into the Trans Am saga—they’ve created yet another record to add to the growing list of “essential listening” moments of their career, and its guaranteed to draw smiles from those in the know.

Track List:
1. Please Wait
2. Black Matter
3. Naked Singularity
4. Thing
5. Bad Vibes
6. Heaven’s Gate
7. The Silent Star
8. Arcadia
9. Apparent Horizon
10. Interstellar Drift
11. Maximum Yield
12. Space Dock

Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

73 / 100
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