A thematic consistency runs through the history and work of Trans Am that's almost archaic in today’s disposable Pop atmosphere.
The Post Rock trio (bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Nathan Means, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Philip Manley, drummer/sound sculptor Sebastian Thomson) began as a side project in the Washington, D.C. scene two decades ago. The lineup hasn't changed since their 1990 formation. For their eponymous 1996 debut, Trans Am signed with Chicago’s Thrill Jockey; the band’s album Thing, released this week, is its ninth for the label.
At the start, Trans Am took an ironic approach to deconstructing Rock iconography through electronic reinvention and tongue-in-cheek translation, with an emphasis on cheese-laden Casios and blippy analog synths woven into a nudge-wink Rock soundtrack.
Trans Am’s consistency shouldn’t construed as stagnation, as the band has certainly evolved during its 20-year history. Beginning as a strictly instrumental outfit, they began to incorporate Vocoder-bent vocals into their work and the smirking irony has largely given way to a focused yet still immensely enjoyable homage to the sounds of the ’80s, from Krautrock, Disco and Ambient experimentalism to Dub, Drum ’n’ Bass and walls of Post Rock noise.
The back story on Thing is that it was initially intended to be the soundtrack of a Hollywood science fiction film (Avatar gets a not-so-subtle namecheck), although that claim could be much press release chicanery to explain the album’s broad stylistic expanse, where Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Rush, Can and Daft Punk all seem to be taking turns as MCs in Trans Am’s manic electronic Thunderdome.
There's a lot going on throughout Thing, from Means’ robot vocals and swirling synths to Manley’s Space Rock guitar excursions and Thomson’s Neil Peart-like rhythmatics. Regardless of the reality of its birth, the album stands as an incredible accomplishment for Trans Am in their 20th anniversary year.
(Trans Am plays a free show Saturday at Northside Tavern. Get venue details here.)