Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Trans Am. Surrender to the Night (Thrill Jockey, 1997)

The mid to late 1990s witnessed the emergence of post-rock, a genre which briefly distracted indie hipsters from straightforward verse-chorus-verse guitar noise before ultimately boring them nearly to death and sending them running back into the arms of hooks and riffs. Post-rock filtered Eno experimentalism, progressive jazz, and electronic bleepscapes through a more or less standard rock lens, shedding what many believed were the constrictive rules of rock 'n' roll to forge a brave new path. It was supposed to be the future of music.

The tools were guitar, bass, and drums, mainly, with lots of synth flourishes and studio trickery. The final results were decidedly mixed: for every classic post-rock LP like Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die or The Sea and Cake's The Fawn, there were dozens of drone merchants with more buttons and knobs than good ideas, peddling album after album of remixes and warmed over jams. By 2000, the movement had seen its heyday, and melodies were back in style.

Trans Am's second LP Surrender to the Night, however, is one of the genre's crowning glories, a testament to the potential of the form. These eleven tracks fuse arena rock, Jan Hammer-esque '80s TV chase themes, shoegaze, krautrock, dub, and who knows what else into a mind-blowing melange of instrumental magic. It's an album bursting with eureka moments, startlingly smart and awesomely rocking.

Trans Am were from DC, but the District indie labels at the time weren't really supporting their sound. Instrumental semi-electronica -- no matter how good -- wasn't the fashion in a scene so strongly tethered to its hardcore legacy. So Trans Am looked to the Midwest, where they found a home on the Windy City's Thrill Jockey, a staunch supporter of all things egghead. They released their first eponymous LP in 1996, and have been with the label ever since. Thrill Jockey put out Trans Am's latest album, Sex Change, in 2007.

Surrender to the Night, from first song to last, never ceases to excite. Eschewing vocals, the trio -- Nathan Means (bass, keyboards), Philip Manley (guitar, keyboards), and Sebastian Thomson (drums) -- is forced to rely on instrumental dynamics and phrasing to get their thoughts across, and the notes speak volumes. These dudes are masters of composition, building intricate, tightly interlocking tunes and delivering them with gale force. John McEntire -- of Tortoise fame -- produced the record, giving the tracks a rich sonic sheen perfect for headphone headnodding.

Motr is a brilliant opening gambit, steadily building tension with soaring synth lines, clarion single note guitar cries, and pounding toms until everything bursts into the light at the 1:32 mark, a crashing mid-tempo giant. The beat -- played entirely on kit drums -- doesn't let up, and Thomson abuses his cymbals for your listening pleasure. Finally, the band dials it down, and the tune bids farewell quietly.

Album standout Cologne is a stunning bit of chilly faux-euro gloom, buoyed by a g-funk-cum-casbah keyboard line and echoey blips. It's the Knight Rider theme as imagined by indie nerds, constantly moving forward, shark-like, for its 4:05 running time. "Illegalize It" is built around Coke-bottle percussion and smoothed-out guitar washes, sufferable jazz.

The blown-speaker beats and damaged Spy Hunter guitar lines of Rough Justice are a bracing palate cleanser, stripping your ears of whatever you've been listening to forever. "Tough Love" is a skittering, bouncing delight, deep bass tones and keyboard lines breaking through the digital darkness with some welcome fresh air, while "Night Dreaming" is a lovely, spaced-out nocturne. "Carboforce" is probably the album's most straight ahead rocking track, with gnarled guitars and flailing drums giving way, eventually, to a more reflective, downbeat, dubby dialogue.

Post-rock is best left half-remembered. A lot of it amounted to little more than self-reflective navel gazing from guys disappointed with the post-grunge doldrums. But there are some gems left over from the era, and Surrender to the Night is one of the most precious. In the years since releasing their second LP, Trans Am have reinvented themselves several times -- going from post-rock to cock rock, basically -- but they were never any better than they were here.