TRANS AM Surrender To The Night (City Slang)

We may be barely six weeks into 1997 as I type this, but here’s the first contender for album of the year. Trans Am are an American trio, and "Surrender To The Night" is the successor to their allegedly almost unlistenable debut mini-album. Their chosen furrow is a bizarre instrumental alchemical meltdown of just about every musical genre imaginable, that works wondrously principally because it has considerable quantities of surprise on its side.

Take the opening track "Motr", for example. It begins as a stadium-strangling slab of AOR, a bit like an REO Speedwagon or Boston single played at 33 rpm. Then strange things start happening, as the guitar solo moves through hints of Kraftwerk’s "Neon Lights" and New Order’s "Your Silent Face". Rather predictably, it’s fabulous. But what is it doing on the same album as tracks like "Tough Love", with its bouncy breakbeats and Enoesque melodies? Or the aptly named "Zero Tolerance", ninety seconds of hardcore white noise, probably the most frightening crime against harmony since the Aphex Twin’s "Ventolin"? Speaking of whom, the likes of "Night Dancing" magically evoke memories of Richard D James at his balmy best circa "Selected Ambient Works 85-92"/"Surfing On Sine Waves"/"Analogue Bubblebath 3". And given the space jazz air these proceedings have, it’s no surprise to see John McEntire of the equally wonderful Tortoise listed among the credits. Heck, "Rough Justice" even tumbles from a nifty guitar stomper into exactly the same kind of distortion my old CD player used to plaster over everything before it finally shuffled off to the great Maplin’s warehouse in the sky.

"Surrender To The Night" is a very important album: not since the likes of the late lamented Colourbox have so many genres happily coexisted within the space of three quarters of an hour. If we accept the hypothesis that what makes, for example, Underworld so successful when they’re on form (e.g. "Rez" and, admit it, "Born Slippy"), is that they’re dance music producers with a yearning to rock, then Trans Am are approaching the same deal from the opposite direction: they’re a long-haired guitar trio (well, the bit about the hair is conjectural, but it wouldn’t surprise me) who have a total understanding of what makes perfect techno. These are men you don’t meet everyday.

But sack the theorising: "Surrender To The Night" is one of very few albums that repeatedly bring this listener out in a fit of ear-to-ear grinning. Aphex Twin and Tortoise fans should pick up on Trans Am straight away, but even if you aren’t that way inclined try and give it a listen, because if this isn’t the direction rock ‘n’ roll should be heading the only excuse it has is that it’s too dim to follow the map.

TRANS AM The Surveillance (City Slang)

The third album from this American instrumental trio, "The Surveillance" sees the Am serving up some kinda concept album about the gulf between liberty and security or somesuch idea, at least as far as I can tell from song titles such as "Armed Response", "Access Control" , "Home Security" and "Extreme Measures". The music veers wildly from guitar/bass/drums workouts that sound like ZZ Top soundchecking in a shoebox to melody-free hardcore techno not dissimilar to Panasonic’s remix of Acid Brass’ cover of "What Time Is Love" on the 2K single I reviewed a few issues back.

Elsewhere Trans Am regurgitate a few ideas from their eponymous mini-album in the hope that you haven’t heard them already, witness the ‘97 version of "Prowler" and the lockgroove closing to side one on "Endgame" (just like side one of "Trans Am" ended with a lockgroove track entitled "A Single Ray Of Light On An Otherwise Cloudy Day"). Sadly "The Surveillance" is an out-and-out clunker - how much of this is due to the absence of the sweetening influence of Tortoise’s John McEntire, a shadowy figure on their first two albums, I can’t say - which, from a band who, last time round, were a hairsbreadth away from the perfect amalgam of heavy metal and techno, is a great disappointment.

TRANS AM Futureworld (Thrill Jockey)

"Futureworld" is Trans Am's fourth album, and following the unsteady progress of their career so far (1997's "Surrender To The Night" a benchmark in AOR stadium techno heavy metal, whatever that may be, 1998's "The Surveillance" little more than a minimalist, migraine-inducing mess) it could swing either way. Adding vocals (or, more precisely, vocoders, since no voices appear on "Futureworld" that haven't been thoroughly mangled by technology first) and guest musicians (on trumpet and saxophone) for the first time seems to have revitalised the trio's interest in tunes. The title track, for example, whilst not covering any lyrical territory not more elegantly tilled by Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home A Heartache", rattles along quite pleasantly, and "Runners Standing Still" seems to be their attempt to out-Tortoise Tortoise (whose John McEntire was a key backroom boy on Trans Am's first two albums). "Am Rhein" is a stark tale of seduction that soon lapses into vocoderised German (their Kraftwerk homage, perhaps), which sounds a little strange set against Trans Am's trademark cavernous drumming. "Positron" is quite a funky, synthy instrumental, and "Futureworld II" ladles on the expected crashing, terrifying white noise, just for old times sake. So, in sum "Futureworld" is almost a goodie, better than Trans Am's last album, and certainly closer to their avowed intention of making "lawful evil beats, nature documentaries, car chases and rock and roll anthems".

TRANS AM Liberation (Thrill Jockey)

Responsible, on the barnstorming "Surrender To The Night" album, for the most seamless blend of Kraftwerk and Kyuss that you could hope to hear, the Washington D.C. trio's subsequent work has found their invention sapped by vocoder obsessions and dubious concepts. Now reinvigorated - like a lot of the American musical underground - by the activities of their president, Trans Am have turned in their finest work in half a decade.

Opener "Outmoder" distorts a helicopter's waking rotors into an insidiously funky guitar instrumental, whilst "Uninvited Guest" cuts Dubya's speeches up into new and arguably more revealing forms, telling an applauding audience, "In the battle of Iraq we destroyed hospitals and schools" - not a new trick, of course, but a neat one. Shockingly, "Music For Dogs" is a conventional song - with lyrics and everything! - dangled over a turbulent cauldron of guitar and percussion. The wailing sirens that introduce "Divine Invasion II" secede to a cyclical, distant melody that descends as if to hell by way of M C Escher. "Total Information Awareness" is The Kinks' "See My Friend" in shiny post-rock couture, and the bleepy, breathy pop of "Remote Control" suggests early Aphex Twin at his fluffiest, with distant vocals floating past like clouds on the horizon. "Divine Intervention" is a thumping revision of its counterpart, like Joy Division going disco. A burst of television static is followed by the sound of the set being turned off, followed by a synth blur that buries itself into the runout groove.

It might sound like thin gruel, but in the context of Trans Am's recent work "Liberation" represents a stirring semi-return to form. With Tortoise in hibernation and Godspeed You! Black Emperor currently more concerned by matters of punctuation than music, the underground is theirs for the taking.