When I bought Trans Am Thing back in 2010, I thought I knew what I was getting. I knew Trans Am were label mates of, my beloved, Tortoise and they were a more synth based band and that Thing had apparently started life as a full-on sci-fi soundtrack before the band were cut adrift from the project*. So, I was pretty darn sure I was buying a tasteful synthy ambienty spacey Thing … which was noThing, like the Thing I got**.
It all started as expected with the noise of a space port and departures/arrivals being announced on ‘Please Wait’, where they even hit a couple of Blade Runner chords in the background; this being a VERY GOOD thing in my view. Then, wallop! we get thrown straight into a polyrhythmic growler – ‘Black Matter’. Sure we get snarling synths and vocodered vox, but the real defining feature here is Sebastian Thompson’s drumming. That really is no bad thing because the man is a simply astonishingly good drummer, reminding me of a harder hitting Stewart Copeland at times.
Next up is the sparse, spacey (as in roomy) astro funk of ‘Naked Singularity’, where amongst stabs and swathes of synths, Thompson contents himself by thrashing the living bejesus out of an electronic kit. The result is riveting – if this were the soundtrack to a sci-fi epic there would be a pod of aliens busting some real honest-to-goodness future moves on us to this tune in a sleazy cantina. Searing noises and distortion follow in ‘Bad Vibes’, whereas the cacophony that bursts out of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ sounds not unlike electronic speed metal*^, featuring some fine existential guitaring from Philip Manley. The bit where ‘Heaven’s Gate’ slows down after all the fuss is worth the price of admission alone.
We get more and even better extra-terrestrial grooving in the wonderful funking ‘Arcadia’, which comes on like a choppy Eddie Hazel track – when I form my soon-to-be-seminal hip-hop crew 15-37 Boyz, this track is so getting sampled^. My favourite track on the LP ‘Apparent Horizon’ is next, in which Nathan Means pulls off the mean trick of managing to sound mournful through a vocoder in this understated poppy motorik gem – I know I keep piling up unmatched genres in my descriptions, but hey Trans Am started it!
Just as soon as ‘Interstellar Drift’ lures us into a false sense of melodic security by showcasing driving, jazzy semi-acoustic guitar over a light-footed groove, that can only be the sound of a trip to the pleasure moons of Kraal, we get the slam down of ‘Maximum Yield’ – the sound of a crew finding something very nasty in the rear cargo hold. Then Thing gives me what I thought the whole album would be about, the drifting, synth-driven ambience of ‘Space Dock’. It is absolutely and utterly magnificent of course.
Now this all left me reeling the first time I played Thing in a darkened room after readying myself for some tranquil spacing and I was left in the daft position of being put off an LP by own preconceptions rather than anything the artist was doing. Idiot. This LP was challenging, engaging and complex – which I clearly wasn’t ready for all the way back in, umm, 2010 – I’ve obviously matured hugely since then.
I really like the way that Trans Am clearly do not give a flying fuckarooni what anyone else wants from them^^ and have made a fascinating, at-times difficult album. This is certainly no post-rock Vangelis, they are far more intricate than that, especially rhythmically and the musicianship is as expert as you’d expect from anyone knocking about on Thrill Jockey Records. Us armchair space captains can certainly plot their own sci-fi epics within this record’s span, but there will definitely be an unusually high number of dance sequences and storms in the meteor belt than you usually get.
*I can’t remember, can’t find anything out about which film it may have been. Or alternatively I may just have dreamt it all after a heavy night on the sauce.
**See the Thing I did there? it was even better than the real Thing. No, no applause please, it embarrasses me.
*^that’s not original thought, I think I copied that from somewhere.
^on the title track of my concept LP about climate change/economic inequality and religious intolerance, Big Booty Space Bitchaz.
^^I’ve investigated their back catalogue a lot now and know this to be true.