Trans Am Thing

[Thrill Jockey; 2010]

Styles: post rock, electronica
Others: Six Finger Satellite, Matmos, Tortoise

Kudos to Trans Am not only for sticking together for 20 years, but also for sounding so idiosyncratic throughout. Straddling always on the cusps of experimentation, absurdity, and isolation, the trio of Philip Manley, Nathan Means, and Sebastian Thomson have forged their futuristic soundscapes within the seldom-trod fault-line that separates fame from obscurity. In concept, their music is nothing new — Kraftwerk-inspired electronics blended with a standard rock setup — but in practice, the results have been insanely original, with foot-to-floor metallic beats, Krautrock angularity, and grating measures of vox followed in kind by ambient keys, samples, occasional danceability, and a pop song or two for good measure. Regardless of theme, which has spanned realms as diverse as Bush-era politics and 1970s rock homage, Trans Am have remained loyal to both the sound and their longtime label Thrill Jockey, who delivers their latest release, Thing.

Accompanying Trans Am’s career-spanning creativity has been an occasional tendency to pay the piper with moments of reaching. Fortunately, that payment on Thing is made upfront with the compositionally-skewed sample track “Please Wait.” The rest of the album recovers nicely as a rocketship ride across both dangerous and serene alien landscapes. Playing to the inner vid-kid (that all of us possess to some extent), the tracks shift adventurously from cosmic maelstroms (“Heaven’s Gate,” “Maximum Yield”) to trace-inducing wonder (“Naked Singularity,” “Thing”) to moments of triumphant heroism (“Space Dock,” “Black Matter”). These tracks make apt use of nearly every device from their discography, resulting in both a patient and surprisingly short album of predominantly instrumental tracks.

Most compelling here, however, is Thomson’s versatile live drumming, which tempers fits of rage with near-robotic rhythms. On “Silent Star,” the drums lurch aggressively, churning an otherwise pristine synth melody to the point of coming apart. Thomson plays well within the confines of structure on “Apparent Horizon,” the album’s only jaunt toward pop territory. Elsewhere, the dirge “Bad Vibes” is a slight misstep in the middle of the album, with its repetition veering toward redundancy, while the expansive, polyrhythmic closer “Space Dock” feels like a destination when it’s reached, similar to so many of the sounds and space-age angst that compose Thing.

Surviving on the crest of both post-rock and something else altogether indescribable, bands like Trans Am (and label mates Tortoise) seem to transcend the “veteran band” label, regardless of their age. Their music is uniquely and remotely focused on the concepts of time and space rather than the people, material, and technology therein. For the duration of their career, Trans Am have described landscapes as if from a balloon, as if the universe is readily recognizable, and yet they’ve continued to do so with an oddly hued and surreal perspective. Thing welcomingly continues this delicate balance between the strange and the familiar.

Links: Trans Am - Thrill Jockey

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