Album Reviews

Trans Am – Volume X

(Thrill Jockey) UK release date: 11 August 2014

Trans Am - Volume X Over the course of 20 years, Trans Am have diligently stuck to their task of producing constantly surprising and enthralling music. Volume X is, as the title suggests, their 10th album and serves as something of an encapsulation of what it is they do best. It’s a collection of songs that, whilst slightly incoherent as an album, nevertheless touches on every aspect of Trans Am’s oeuvre.

The tag of post-rock has never really fitted the band comfortably and although it has frequently been used to describe them, they’ve always operated on the boundaries of multiple styles. There are rock elements to their sound certainly, but they’re tethered to synth-pop leanings, motorik beats, and peculiar kind of futurism (the kind that has wonky sets and tin-foil suited heroes).

On Volume X, it’s the rockier aspects of their sound that initially appear to be the band’s main concern. Opening track Anthropocene might fade in gently, but it’s not long before tumbling drums and serrated guitars attacks take over in relentless fashion. Yet there’s a fundamental opposition at work as the song undulates between the brute force of rumbling drums and incessant riffing and almost angelic vocal motifs. It’s wonderfully reminiscent of Secret Machines early work and First Wave Intact in particular.

Backlash meanwhile seems to have been transported in from the Bay Area circa 1984. A full on blast of intense riffing and thunderous drums, it marks the point where bands like Metallica were taking NWOBHM, twisting it, and sowing the seeds of Thrash. Indeed, there’s a sneaky little nod to The Four Horsemen/Mechanix thrown in during its blistering solo. Megastorm is as threatening as it sounds, coming across like cyborg portent of evil. Moody synth lines squall and swirl menacingly over a tight drum pattern that indicates there’s no point in avoiding the inevitable.

It’s not all in thrall to full on rock, naturally. Reevaluations is a primordial synth track with a bass line that bubbles like a hot spring mudpool. At the other end of the spectrum is the vocoder treated vocals that are apparently beamed in directly from a Vogon spaceship (futuristic but still primeval). The guitars meanwhile funnel sparse Prince funk and Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall. It’s a curious mix perhaps, but it works. There’s elegance at work on Night Shift where angelic prog-synths (not a common phrase, granted) are driven along by a drum beat that at first seems to be emulating a rickety train before settling down into a driving rock pulse.

All of which is nothing compared to the heart-breaking robo-balladry of I’ll Never, a song with its heart in the right place, even if it is a little mawkish and in danger of short-circuiting. Closing song Insufficiently Breathless stands bravely on its own as an graceful acoustic 12-string instrumental. Occasional synth squelches break the calm, but for the most part it finds the sweet spot between John Barry‘s Midnight Cowboy theme and Angelo Badalamenti’s work on the Twin Peaks soundtrack.

Admittedly, there are a couple of occasions where things don’t quite work out. Although brooding and slightly menacing, the creeping dread of Failure never fully reveals itself and feels a little like an idea that never really developed. Similarly, K Street is short, sweet, and fun, but doesn’t really anywhere. It does however garner some respectability for sounding like a lairy clash between the Smash Robots and Metal Mickey with the line “what’s your fucking problem?” delivered in a clanky robotic voice.

These slight niggles aside, Volume X finds Trans Am in rude health and still delivering fresh exciting music. As an introduction to the band this is a good starter for 10.

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Trans Am – Volume X