Friday, August 5, 2016

Neil Young - Trans (Original TC Review)

Geffen Records: 1982/1997

(2016 Update:
Eighteen-hundred words. That is the count. That is the amount of verbal splooge I spattered out almost a decade ago in my first attempt at writing a Neil Young review. Could it have been helped though? It was during that year's summer wherein I 'got' ol' Shakey's music, diving deep into his discography, unable to sate this craving for more of Young's work... more... MOAR! There was honestly no good reason for me to use a trance music review website as a glorified outlet in proclaiming how much awesome I heard in his music, but I had to tell 'em, Johnny; I had to tell the world. When would I ever get another chance? What, a personal blog where I review everything I own? Hah, 2006 Sykonee laughs at such a silly notion.

So of course a ton of information in this review is hilariously redundant to any consistent reader of mine, and the fanboy gushing does get tedious the deeper you go into this behemoth. Was funny reading my little pseudo-script again though, as lately I find my sentiments drifting closer to Aging Hippie as opposed to self-insert Hip Teenage Son. Time really does slip away the older you get and- oh my God! I just realized I'm currently the same age as Neil Young was when he made this album! I gotta' get me in on some of that Artistic Experimentation vibe, pronto. Maybe a review written completely in binary? Ah, no.)

IN BRIEF: A true oddity.

You can’t keep a good rocker down. No matter how many times it’s appeared Neil Young would sabotage his career, alienate his fans, or simply fade away, he comes roaring back into the spotlight, as relevant as ever, his protest album Living With War released with great controversy earlier this year. With such charming songs titled Let’s Impeach The President, you bet it raised a stir.

Whereas almost all of Young’s musical peers sustain their careers with Baby Boomer nostalgia, Neil has managed to once again draw the attention of us younger folk, regarding him as ‘one of us’ rather than an honored elder; an impressive feat for a sixty year old. And not only by appealing to current Fight The Man mentalities, but also by realizing the potential of the internet as a communication tool, something this technologically savvy generation is quite adept at. In this way, he’s snared numerous new fans who’d normally dismiss him as some old musician, and many have discovered a vast discography containing more diversity than any member of the Woodstock generation. From grungy rockers to folksy crooners and dabblings of much, much more, there’s quite a bit to check out. However, few of Young’s albums are more unique and confused more fans than his electronic one.

Just imagine the following scene in 1982:

Aging Hippie: Well, most of my old favorite bands suck these days, but good ol’ Neil’s managed to remain consistent. I’m sure this new album of his won’t disappoint.

*Throws Trans on the record player*

Aging Hippie: Hmm, this first song’s kind of weak. Never been much of a fan of this new country rock, but still kind of catchy. Maybe the next one will be better.

*Computer Age starts*

Aging Hippie: What the...? What’s with those synths? They’re so bloody loud. And that drum beat’s so repetitive. Ah, well, at least Neil’s got some good guitars and... HEY!! What the fuck’s with his VOICE!!?? What the hell did he do to it??? Is this some kind of JOKE!? ...the hell? This next song’s got it too!! What’s going on here? Hey, son, get in here!

Hip Teenage Son: Yeah, Dad?

Aging Hippie: I’ve heard you listening to stuff like this before. You have any idea what Neil’s doing here?

Hip Teenage Son: THIS is Neil Young!? Haha! You’re joking, right? It sounds like Kraftwerk. This can’t be Young.

Aging Hippie: It’s Neil alright. Do you have any idea what’s going on?

Hip Teenage Son: It sounds like he’s doing New Wave, although really heavy on the vocoders. This stuff’s popular in Europe right now.

Aging Hippie: New Wave? Hell, why’d he go and make an album like this?

Hip Teenage Son: Well, he’s said he’s a fan of Devo, so-

Aging Hippie: God, this sounds like shit. Who’d want to listen to this crap? Hell, rockabilly would be better than this, even twangy country. Why does all music suck now?

Hip Teenage Son: Hey, this stuff’s really cool, y’know. It’s the sound of the future. It’ll probably be super-popular in the 21st Century, with massive concerts and festivals being thrown to play electronic music. People will take wicked drugs that put your 60s stuff to shame, and we’ll use computers to talk to one another and revolutionize the way music is made. You’ll be able to store your huge record collection in the palm of your hand! It’s going to be great!

Aging Hippie: ..........

Aging Hippie: Son, have you been into my acid again?

It’s ironic one of Young’s most despised albums by his old fans has gone on to become something of an intriguing curiosity with his new ones, because let’s face it: even if we all don’t like it, we still get this computer music; our parents mostly don’t.

Unfortunately, because the album flopped in 1982, Trans was deleted from American circulation. You can only find it in Europe now, and not always cheaply due to the growing mysticism surrounding it. Were the songs really as bad as our parents thought? Did Young do Kraftwerk justice? Does it hold up today? With a growing number of electronic music fans curious about Young’s foray into synths and vocoders, now’s as good a time as any to shed some light on the subject.

It helps to understand Young’s mind frame at the time, as he’s always been one to put every ounce of impulsive emotion into his music. As with many rockers of his generation, the 80s were a scary place to be: synthesizers, drum machines, and tech-savvy producers were making regular old bands passé, especially since the general public didn’t mind this tinny new wave of music. But whereas his peers cowered in their safe, traditional corners, Young, ever fearless in his endeavors, tackled synth music head on, gleefully embracing everything it had to offer.

So, yes, Trans is more concept than novelty, and boy does he throw himself into the role of Robo-Rocker. The aforementioned Computer Age bridges the gap between humanity and the digital, with great synths and super-catchy guitar riffs. And through vocoder effects, you can hear Neil’s apprehension of a synthetic future. Interestingly, only with the lyrics “And you need me; Like ugly needs a mirror” does his voice briefly return to normal. He’s accepted this future, and from here on the robots rule most of the album.

A couple of harder rockers follow. We R In Control plays on Orwellian fears, with a great combination of gritty guitar work and aggressive vocoder effects. Less effective is Computer Cowboy, as it isn’t nearly as catchy as the rest, and sounds far too muddy. It is funny though, in that Neil absolutely butchers cliché Spaghetti Western themes with the robotic surroundings; those clippity-clop sound effects are a hoot.

Offering a bit of yin between these two yangs is Transformer Man, a song about Neil’s son who was born with cerebral palsy. As pretty a piece of robo-pop as anything Kraftwerk made, this song also was part of Young’s inspiration to make an electronic album, as he could only communicate with his son through such technology. It’s a very touching song; even if Young’s synthesized voice is at times difficult to understand, the emotion that cuts through the effects is remarkable.

Sample And Hold is Trans’ ‘dance’ single. While no Blue Monday (really, how many songs are?), it’s still a mesmerizing piece of work. For one thing, at eight minutes in length with a relentless steady rhythm, Sample And Hold has a hypnotic quality that sucks you into a choking industrial setting. From sludgy guitars to dispassionate synths to mechanical percussion, this is a cold, unfeeling song, which given the subject matter makes sense. Delivered with frank yet aggressive vocoder tones, the track is about the impersonal service of finding love in an uncaring future (specifically, at an android dating service, if you interpret the lyrics literally). All this and Neil still managed to make an ultra-catchy hook. You’re guaranteed to be humming “I need a unit to sample and hold; New design; New design” long after this plays. Sadly, it bombed in the dance clubs and was quickly forgotten, but I suppose clubbers weren’t quite ready for it; even Gary Numan, who’s work this track bares the most semblance to, struggled in America. Had Sample And Hold been released a year after New Order’s seminal record rather than a year before, things might have been different.

The track can be exhausting on your psyche though, so it’s rather nice to hear a simpler song follow Sample And Hold. Kind of an electro remix of his old tune Mr. Soul, Young seems to be having a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun at those who would criticize Trans. Not only is he ‘butchering’ an old favorite but the lyrics fit the idea as well. Neil’s voice remains normal for this track, with vocoders harmonizing at various points.

That’s the electronic tracks out of the way. Do you want me to review the ‘normal’ songs, then? Do you even care? I guess I should touch on them, but fact is they weren’t really a part of Trans’ concept; story goes they were tracks for another album, but tagged on here to fill it out. It’d make sense to include some regular rockers or ballads to offer a thematic contrast to the robo-rock, but aside from Like An Inca, these tracks are just simple songs about love, and have nothing to do with the theme of Trans. Even Like An Inca, despite being a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology impeding on Mother Nature, is a far-fetched tie-in. Amusingly though, the incredibly weak 80s production on Hold On To Your Love actually works within Trans’ atmosphere, which is probably why it ended up lodged in the middle of all the other tracks.

The big question now is how much I should recommend this album. Despite all the synthy surroundings, Trans still is very much a rock album in spirit. Few people could see past the computer effects just because they were such a novelty in the early 80s. In the here and now though, such sounds are common, and we can enjoy it based on its musical merit rather than the dressing it comes in. Some electronic purists may despise it for the rock overtones, claiming Neil had no business dabbling in sounds he wasn’t known for, but they be fools. Bottom line is Neil created some incredibly catchy pieces of music that holds up in an age they make more sense in. But, and this is important, Trans isn’t by any means a great album, much less a classic. Even with some strong singles, there are weak moments as well, and if you come in only looking for the electronic tracks, the regular ones will be of little interest (even though a couple of them are alright). If you are only curious about it, I’d recommend downloading some of the better tracks to get a feeling for what you’ll expect to hear. Only pick this up at its regular price if your samplings intrigue you further.

Young’s electronic phase was merely a passing experiment, as he never went in this direction again. But, as with so many of his albums, he certainly created a stir with Trans, even if it caused unintended reactions from his fans. At sixty years of age now, it’s safe to say we’ll never see a Trans 2.0, although now that he has a growing fanbase that would actually understand the idea behind such an album, a sequel to this definitely strikes me as a fascinating possibility. And when it comes to Neil Young, you never know how he’ll surprise you next.

Written by Sykonee for, 2006. © All rights reserved.

Computer Age
Transformer Man
Sample And Hold

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