The man machines

Trans Am crosses the Red Line

When the ghost of '70s rock virtuosity came back to haunt the disgruntled youth of the '90s by way of indie, post- and math rock's affinity for technical distinction, punk rock's garrison resembled a doomsday cult on the day after the deadline for the end of the world. The true believers awoke to the realization that the revolution they'd portended had been co-opted. In underground rock, crass lyrics coupled with the same three chords strummed repeatedly gave way to a classic rock renaissance that consumed the genre while making use of its DIY aesthetic. While bearers of the punk rock torch still thrive, the vanguard has drifted to a new breed of flawless rock characteristic of trademark '70s influences such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Rush. Although it may seem unnatural that punk's chaotic rumblings would evolve into offerings by acts such as Tortoise, the Dirty Three and Stereolab, for Washington D.C.'s Trans Am, this merging of cultures came as the next logical step in the music's evolution. Since forming in 1990, the group — Philip Manley (guitar/keyboard), Nathan Means (bass/keyboard) and Sebastian Thomson (percussion/programming) — have fused prog-rock stylings with heavy-metal guitar riffs and deviant electronics, resulting in a body of primarily instrumental rock.

"I liked punk rock when I was growing up, but I never took it to heart so much that I hated and rebelled against everything else I listened to," Thomson says. "When I was 16 years old my three favorite bands were the Ramones, Yes and Kraftwerk. Not to mention the presence of breakdance music everywhere I went. I saw something very cool and interesting in all of these things, and I still do."

The group's 1993 debut, a split 7" with Thigh Masterson, offers a rendition of Kraftwerk's "Man-Machine," a telling metaphor for Trans Am's future output. As the band progressed through a self-titled 1995 release, 1997's Surrender to the Night and 1998's The Surveillance (all on Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records), electronics mingled with the band's human-powered side. The result is a cacophony of lush drums and guitar washes combined with spiraling keyboards, rubbery bass lines and high-end techno squalls all assembled under an arena-rock flag. But this industrial-strength marriage of unlikely influences can be misleading.

"Sometimes kids come to our shows and think we're making a joke by playing hard rock," Thomson says. "Phil, Nate and I all have strong classic rock backgrounds and we all love Van Halen just as much as we love Fugazi. To us, it doesn't seem like a stretch to combine these influences."

With last year's Futureworld, Trans Am began incorporating unexpected, albeit heavily disguised, vocals that indicate a new direction and songwriting growth. This fourth release creates a cohesive bond between rock and electronics, while the presence of vocals give a voice to the "man-machine."

This year, Trans Am assembled its own recording studio, National Recording Studios, to facilitate the making of Red Line, the band's fifth and most eclectic release to date. "This is the album that we've always wanted to make but weren't able to until now," Thomson says. "Red Line was recorded in our own studio with the same kind of freedom we had with the other albums, but now we're working with the technology of an actual studio, as opposed to an 8-track in our basement."

Opening with the appropriately titled "Let's Take the Fresh Step Together," Red Line redefines the band's sound by introducing new instruments such as a sitar, acoustic guitars and unaffected vocals to its trademark musical approach. Songs like "I Want to Play in the Summer," "Slow Response" and "I'm Coming Down" give rise to an even greater human element in the group's music. Other tracks, such as "Casual Friday" and "Diabolical Cracker," focus on percussion, while the muffled "Village in Bubbles" and "Lunar Landing" offer ambient perplexity. Spanning more than 73 minutes and 21 tracks, Red Line is a vast work that lunges forward at every turn while keeping a firm grasp on the band's original vision.

In support of this expansive addition to the band's discography, Trans Am has embarked on a huge world tour that will require machine-like endurance to sustain. "It's a totally insane tour," Thomson says. "We're spending one month covering the U.S. and Canada, and then we're home for one day. Then we're off to Europe for a month and then we're home for two days and then we're going to New Zealand and Australia. After that we're all anxious to go back into the studio again, but I'm sure we'll need to take a break from each other before doing anything else."

Trans Am plays the Echo Lounge, Thurs., Sept. 7. Show time is 9 p.m. Tickets are $8. For more information call 404-681-3600.