It seems like a lifetime ago now, but listening to the newly remastered edition of Trans Am’s Futureworld takes me right back to the wonderfully strange year of 1999. The end of The American Century was to be our last great party. The economy was booming, the Internet was still considered the wild West, and Millennium Fever was raging. It was the era of stained-blue dresses, boy bands, and a seemingly hopeless candidacy of Bush Jr., and not even the dreaded “Y2K Bug” was going to stop us from having a good time. Futureworld embodied all of this and more for me, and it remains a record I never tire of hearing.
A major reason for this is the fact that the album is not really of its time at all. From the primitive Tron-style graphics to the lo-fi electronic sounds, Trans Am were consciously evoking a retro-futurism. This was happening while Madonna was still trying to get her aging ass on the electronica bandwagon in the first place. Trans Am had already “been there, done that” long before the train left the station. Their vision of using the past to anticipate what lay ahead was genius, even if it had been borrowed from Kraftwerk.
The brief opening instrumental “1999” is a clear directive to check any preconceived notions at the door. Is that piercing sound a feedback-laden guitar? A would-be John Coltrane sax? Or just some masterfully manipulated keyboards? Who is to say it isn’t all three? The point throughout Futureworld is that Trans Am wish above all to confound our expectations. Everything is filtered by key components that miraculously paralleled my favorite records. These include early Cure, the first Killing Joke album, and the drums of John Bonham, among many others.
The Kraftwerk influence is most notable on the title track, which features vocoder-processed vocals, and a melody not unlike that of “Neon Lights.” Where Trans Am differ from their German heroes is in their desire to retain the human element in their music. This is primarily accomplished with some powerful drumming, especially during “Television Eyes,” and the coda of “Futureworld.”
The most monstrous drum sound of all is captured on the near-metal apocalypse “Cities In Flame.” This is where Trans Am break with the nerdy, electronic music pack once and for all. Or do they? On the very next track, “Am Rhein,” it seems they will have their cake and eat it too. Vocoder vocals meet the thunderous drum sound of John Bonham circa “When The Levee Breaks” for a stylistic mash-up worthy of “The Wait” by Killing Joke.
The journey through pre-digital music would not be complete without an electro-boogie encounter, and Trans Am deliver with “Cocaine Computer.” This instrumental nod to early Tommy Boy acts such as The Jonzun Crew and Afrika Bambaata is perfect, and rivaled only by The Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” for white boys getting it right.
“Sad And Young” closes the set on a completely different note. This melodic dirge recalls some of the best atmospheric music of the day, such as The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips or what Steven Wilson was doing with Porcupine Tree and their great Stupid Dream album.
The newly re-mastered edition of Futureworld will be available as a standard CD, but in keeping with the retro spirit of the whole thing, Thrill Jockey is releasing a limited-edition vinyl version of it as well.
In 1982, Prince wanted to party like it was 1999. In 1999, Trans Am partied like it was 1982, and somehow they made it work. It still does, and if you missed Futureworld the first time around, here’s your chance to check out one of the great lost records from the end of the world.
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