With 20 years worth of experience under their belts, Trans Am don't exactly fall into the novice bracket. Yet, in some circles, they're still something of an unknown quantity, a mind-boggling state of affairs considering they predate obvious contemporaries such as To Rococo Rot, UNKLE and Battles by several years. It goes without saying that they also possess one of the most extensive, and consistent back catalogues of any artist in recent years.
With Thing, Trans Am returns to its robot rock ways after the often brilliant detours the group took on Sex Change. Despite the album's cryptic title, the band sounds more straightforward than they have in years: "Black Matter" is a quintessentially Trans Am track, all vocoders and drummer Sebastian Thomson's masterful rhythms, with a name that reflects the album's fascination with the darker side of science fiction and science fact. But this band rarely sounds predictable, even when it explores familiar territory (the time they spent on other projects in between albums, including playing with Jonas Reinhardt, probably has something to do with this).
Pulsating with synths and guitars and buttressed by determined stomp, Trans Am’s latest robotic brain-fry is a study in sudden sound. Power-trio freakouts of “Heaven’s Gate” and “The Silent Star” explode into noise. The machine funk of “Naked Singularity” and “Black Matter” arrives and departs without incident. “Apparent Drift” and “Arcadia” are humming interstellar jaunts, while “Space Dock” is atmospheric in hypoxia.
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.
Trans Am turn 20 this year-- the original trio of Nathan Means, Philip Manley, and Sebastian Thomson is still together. It's hard for a band that operates on their level-- semi-prominent in certain circles with the odd stab of almost-fame here and there, such as when they opened for Tool-- to keep people interested for that long. They seemed sort of on their way in the late 1990s, when they were at their peak, making records that in hindsight anticipated some of the trends of the following decade at the crossroads of rock and electronic music.
After a three-year hiatus, Washington, DC’s standard bearers of tongue-in-cheek synth-rock have returned with Thing, a record that shows they may have finally outgrown flippancy after all. Or least they’ve found a way to showcase their sc-fi obsession without getting embarrassed about it. Trans Am has always been a brand built on irony, a band whose “ZZ Top gets sponsored by Casio” shtick made them all the more unique in the Dischord-dominated local scene of the 1990s, when journal entries passed for lyrics and dancing, it seemed, was the last anyone would ever consider doing to music.
Rumor has it (and the band’s press materials semi-seriously suggest) that Thing was supposed to become the original soundtrack to a Hollywood film, and if someone also said that the film was going to be a Coen Brothers remake of Tron, it would have been equally believable. As in a movie score, there are plenty of atmospherics, such the rocket sounds that kick off Please Wait, and thus many of the album’s pleasures lie in anticipation. Some tracks, like Silent Star, barely register as songs, and Heaven’s Gate sounds like an aimless electro-rock version of a Sonic Youth freakout.