When we look back to the ’90s, back when something that was called post-rock was as vital a part of the musical landscape as Britpop or grunge, we might find ourselves wincing at the apparent uselessness of this subgeneric category, or we might find ourself wincing at the uselessness of all subgeneric categories, or we might find ourselves just not caring either way.Post-rock was described somewhere apocryphal as what happened if you ditched your vocalist and hired John McEntire to produce your album. And as far as it goes, some of this was true of Trans Am; the McEntire production credit was there, also the lack of songwriterliness and the lack of a singer too; at least initially. Back then, if we were to attend one of those very serious gigs where people with glasses, dressed in black, would painstakingly appreciate those re-imaginings of fusion and krautrock via of-the-moment electronica that were Tortoise gigs, one would often see Trans Am on the same bill playing a very different take on genre-defying hybridity.
What Trans Am had, and still have here on their tenth album, is a perverse sense of humour. If Tortoise were the tasteful dinner party face of post-rock, Trans Am were its jokers. Straight-faced comedians who would dare you to groove to classic rock motifs, electro and eerie ’80s library music. As with their sister band, The Fucking Champs, there is often a sense that the band are laughing at, as much as with, the audience. In that everything that they have ever done is so immaculately realised only exacerbates this absurdity in their programme.The album Volume X opens with “Anthropocene”: it’s what might approximate a blueprint Trans Am groove. Unrelenting, cold-edged, that phart rock bass rolling their juggernaut out towards the teleological vanishing point. But what has happened here? There is no vocoder on Nathan Means‘ vocals. What has happened to the trademark robot voice? Is this a sign that The Am have finally grown up and are willing to embrace their frail humanity? Probably not.
Fortunately the vocoder is back on “Reevaluations,” a tight electro funk number that is probably impossible to dance to without a sleeveless T-shirt. It’s a killer hairspray commercial of a track, po-faced but irresistable. The tumbling arpeggiator that follows it in “Night Shift” is deeply keyed-in to ’70s synthesizer virtuosi, and in the wake of Phil Manley‘s debut with his other project Life Coach, (not to be mistaken for his solo album Life Coach) we suspect that the coach himself is responsible for this pineal eye-enlarging opus.And speaking of vocoders, as we were, the discotheque continues to pulse on “K Street,” which interrogates its subject with the very timely question: “What’s your fucking problem?” My fucking problem with this track is that it is too short. I’d like more of it. But then again, as they tear the quotidian a new one with the technology-thrash of “Backlash,” we are reminded of The Fucking Champs revisioning of metal; although the hyper-speed riffin’ here also reminds us of Ministry at their least tedious.
If there’s a weak track on this album, it might be “Ice Fortress.” Not because it’s a weak track — on any other album, especially an Ozric Tentacles album, it would be an absolute blinder — but here it feels a bit filler-ish. A track called “Failure” follows it. It isn’t. It’s an outstanding technical exercise, which in the days when post-rock was still in its youth would have been a stylistic statement of great beauty.The most beautiful thing on this album, “I’ll Never,” is like an entropic power ballad from a lovelorn remake of Tron. It’s a bonafide hit single — something that post-rock bands certainly don’t do. It is also lean, mean and due to become your favourite song for several weeks at least. Ahead of the launch of the album, Trans Am released an alternate Jesus & Mary Chain-styled version of the song, which casts an interesting sidelight upon the album track, but achieves neither the glacial majesty of this version nor the teenage moshpit swagger that it was perhaps intended to. Following this, “Megastorm” picks up the blueprint groove again with a proper red-faced rock out. There’s a touch of John Carpenter in there and the usual steel grey eight-bit skies, driving rain and fast cars. But it is on the final track, “Insufficiently Breathless,” a title which resembles a cryptic crossword clue and the only real contender to the crown of “I’ll Never,” that we glimpse the pastoral vista of twelve strings and Mellotrons, tasting as much of folksy Led Zep as Amon Düül II. It’s a long drift in an air balloon across patchwork landscapes, where the scent of spiced bathroom candles rises to meet the aeronaut as she is carried to her next incarnation.
Whatever might be said about Volume X as Trans Am’s tenth album, as a summation of their career so far, or a foretaste of what is to come, it’s a very strong set of recordings. If anything, the stylistic melange and playful hybridity of The Am makes more sense now in 2014 than it has ever done before.