Sharps and Flats: Trans Am

Robert Levine reviews Trans Am's release "Surrender to the Night".

Published February 23, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

perhaps because it's beginning to look like punk has hit some sort of aesthetic dead-end (the genre's best showing for 1996 was the posthumous live Nirvana release,"From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah"), critics have applied the futuristic but vague term "post-rock" to the meandering music of acts like Stereolab and Chicago's Tortoise. So-called post-rockers look outside the guitar-centric mainstream for inspiration -- ambient and krautrock are major influences -- but actually quite a few owe just as much to one of popular music's most experimental and excess-ridden genres: progressive rock.

One of the best progressive rock bands in post-rock drag is the trio Trans Am, which updates '70s-sounding instrumentals with ambient drift and drum 'n' bass beats on its inventive second release, "Surrender to the Night." The album's first track, "Motr," for example, mixes spacey guitar with a driving beat for an affecting groove that wouldn't be entirely out of place on a King Crimson album. The mellower "Night Drumming" has a cool, metronomic beat, but the drifting music underneath evokes Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as much as anything that came out of electronica.

So what keeps Trans Am from coming off like the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of the post-punk era? Mostly rhythm, which the first wave of progressive rock didn't even begin to understand. Trans Am's far-out experimentation is set to slippery, dub-influenced beats, which drive the songs forward even while providing a "cool" counterpoint to swirling synths. And while nothing here is exactly funky -- even the drum 'n' bass-heavy tracks appeal to the head more than the hips -- the avant-garde always sounds more appealing if it's got a good beat and you can dance to it.

The band's only weakness is that it sometimes falls prey to the same excesses that doomed prog rock the first time around (Did Yes' "Tales from Topographic Oceans" teach us nothing?). "Carboforce" is a soulless collection of bleeps and blips with some complex but pointless drumming thrown in for good measure, and the band occasionally opts for grand gesture when nuance would suffice.

Most of "Surrender" sounds original enough to make those complaints seem like quibbles. Post-rock shares with the black sheep member of its family tree an obsession with cutting contemporary music loose from its roots in early rock and the blues, and an interest in aural experimentation for its own sake. At a time when grunge has gone stale and indie-rock seems to be stuck on summer reruns, Trans Am points the way toward a possible sonic future by tapping into the past. It doesn't sound so old after all.

By Robert Levine

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