Trans Am never seemed like a band built for the long haul, but here we are, 20 years and 10 albums later. Turns out that Kraftwerk-meets-Rush schtick wasn't really schtick at all. Yes, they've always had a tongue in cheek approach to their mix of krautrock, new wave, prog, electronica, and whatever else they've thrown into the mix, but the band is also super-talented and come up with some really great songs. Trans Am was initially pegged as part of the post-rock movement that emerged in the mid-90s, primarily due to their association with Thrill Jockey Records, which emerged as the center of the scene. However, they had little in common with post-rock giants like Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. One the main features that sets them apart is the superb drumming of Sebastian Thomson. He can keep down a solid motorik beat in the manner of Klaus Dinger, handle quirky time signatures and fills a la Neil Peart, and just bash it out, John Bonham style. Multi-instrumentalists Phil Manley and Nathan Means are no slouches either, moving from keyboards and electronics to guitar and bass with ease.
The band peaked with 1999's Futureworld, which stands as not just their best but one of the very best indie albums of the late 90s. It was also their first album with vocals, though all are sung through a vocoder. After starting with the mood setting instrumental "1999" (not a Prince cover), Thomson kicks up a solid beat and the band launches into "Television Eyes." It's one of the more rocking tracks in an album that covers a lot of ground. The epic title track comes next and moves in quite a few directions itself. From a driving intro to a thrash-like chorus, everything suddenly bottoms out in the middle. After a spacey bridge, a funky bass theme emerges and they ride this out till the end of the song. "AM Rhein" ends the first part of the album with a building, anthemic slice of stadium rock. The second half of the album is mostly electronic oriented, starting with the retro-dance grooves of "Cocaine Computer." "Runners Standing Still" slows things down a little bit but still has a gorgeous melody. "Futureworld II" and "Positron" are the album's most experimental tracks providing a pair of electronic soundscapes. The band switches back into rock mode for album closer "Sad and Young." It starts out slow and quiet, yet slowly builds to a loud and dramatic climax. This is the closest Trans Am ever gets to a traditional post-rock sound, particularly that which Explosions in the Sky would have so much success with a few years later. Yet it sounds like Trans Am all the way and proves an epic conclusion to an epic album.
After Futerworld, Trans Am would expand their sound and ambition even further with the great double album Red Line. Other strong entries to their catalog include 2007's Sex Change and last year's Volume X. One of the great things about indie music of the past 20-25 years is that a support system exists for quirky, unclassifiable bands to have long careers where they evolve and change. Trans Am have gone in many different directions while still maintaining their unique sound and vision. Futureworld is both a classic for long time fans and great entry point for beginners.
- Adam Reshotko