Post-Rock Darlings Kick Off

European Tour in Cardiff

Soft Feature

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Post-rock gets thrown out into the potpourri of endless sub-genre titles as often as Justin Timberlake occupies air-time on Red Dragon broadcasts, but it is a rare treat for a real live group from this American independent music scene to make its way to the Welsh capital.

Washington, D.C.-based Trans Am released their seventh album Liberation on Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records two weeks ago. Tumultuous times in post 9/11 D.C., and the rest of the world for that matter, have spurred plenty of acts to shamelessly produce work with a “political agenda” as every other press-seeker hops onto the same bandwagon of patriotism or dissent. But Trans Am might be quirky enough to pull this stunt off without ruining themselves.

Cardiff is a dubious city to live in for the avid fan of live music. “It’s a bit tough for some smaller venues because if they let more than two people on stage, they need a different type of license,” lamented Jim Sefton of Xpress Radio’s Jazzthetics show.

This week as dozens of English, Irish, and Scottish acts pack their bags and brave airport security on the way to the United States’ massive South by Southwest music festival, only the Melys and Culprit One make their way to the heart of Texas to represent Wales. This is not because there is no scene to speak of here, but admittedly Cardiff registers as, at best, a blip on the radar of British music.

“I went to the Welsh Music Awards yesterday. It was great. I’d never heard of any of the bands,” said beat punker/New York Times journalist Ed Hammell in a playfully sarcastic manner at his recent Barfly show.

“Cardiff just isn’t too big for touring acts. They usually make their way to Bristol then go north,” said Spencer McGarry of the Cardiff-based band Room Orchestra. “You know, the main road goes straight in and straight out of Wales. And you have to pay to drive in.”

This makes for even more of a treat to Cardiff, but an unusual move for the band, as Trans Am kicks off their European tour here of all places. Their show at Barfly will be one of only three performances in the UK before the band moves onto Belgium and the rest of the continent.

This primarily instrumental three-piece takes heavily from electronic music of the late ‘70s and ‘80s incorporating vocoder vocals, ambient guitars, disco bass lines and a mixture of beat programming incorporated in with Sebastian Thomson’s heavy handed drumming.

Liberation is a bizarre twist from the band’s previous release TA, which sounded like a Flock of Seagulls – Joy Division love child. This might have been too much of a curve ball for the post-punk, woops I meant post-rock, fans who are typically a bit too concerned about appearances to appreciate the humor and fun in such a musical experiment. However, this follow up tries to compensate in a way that is appropriate for reconciliation with their fans, but probably overkill for this sub-genre.

The band’s press release states that this is the first time that, “politics have crept into their music. Their position is unambiguous.” Recorded in their D.C. studio last summer, the series of sounds ranges from the screech of sirens to vox-pops of George W. Bush’s speeches during that time in 2003, and is an attempt to capture the, “culture of fear…omnipresent in Washington, D.C.”

The album begins with the whirling of helicopter blades accelerating to take off in “Outmoder” until the furious pitch blends into a mixture of synths, heavy bass lines and Trans Am’s signature sound of mixed live and programmed percussion. This sets the tone for the entire album as the tracks blend from one into the next as if it were a commute through D.C.

Meanwhile, titles like “Uninvited Guest”, “Divine Invasion” parts I and II, and “Total Information Awareness” aim to parody President Bush’s rhetoric on the War on Terror with re-cut sound samples such as, “Our commitment to weapons of mass destruction is America’s tradition,” and, “The Iraqi people love their oppressors.”

This method of cut and paste sound editing is rather worn out admittedly, but a charming twist exists here. It was the experimental group the Emergency Broadcast Network who brilliantly (and at that time, quite innovatively) re-edited Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s fireside “Just Say No” chat to make it a seamless “Just Say Yes” speech right on the cusp of the post-punk movement from which the post-rock genre steals heavily. But again, the charm of this retro technique is probably lost in its lack of fashion or technical savvy at the moment.

However, if the journalist/Factory Records founder Tony Wilson was right about musical movements shifting as a double-helix in that as soon as one declines another picks up, this jaunt into attempting political commentary by some of the more popular post-rockers such as Trans Am and Godspeed You! Black Emperor could signal new blood is coming soon.

In the meantime, an instrumental political statement is not likely to have a profound impact like the articulate and emotionally charged messages aroused by brilliant lyricists such as Phil Ochs or Woody Guthrie, but the album does rock.

Liberation harkens back to Trans Am’s widely popular Futureworld. This should appeal to the strong electronic tastes of Cardiff audiences as the musical trends in the states side have seen a merging of instrumentation with electronic music for the last several years.

Bands like The Rapture are just now hitting it big here in the UK with the release of “their debut album,” even though they have already bounced from label to label in the U.S. It seems the iron is hot to strike for a post-rock invasion of Europe. This would make for an interesting trend here as it was the American’s that started this latest sub-genre by stealing from Manchester’s post-punk movement.

On any account, the triple bill of Loguey, Rock of Travolta and the well-seasoned Trans Am next Wednesday in the intimate settings of Barfly’s basement venue is certainly worth the £6 investment whether you are interested in politics or just pleasant sounds.