Never mind that he was a driving force behind the proto-grunge movement and helped in no small way to define the Seattle Sound… and that he has, for that matter, hopped around from genre to genre leaving his mark in each one for the better part of forty-five years. Forget that he’s a Canadian national treasure and, though I normally don’t buy into that sort of thing, I love him for it. No, if there’s any one reason to acknowledge Neil Young in a crowd of forward-thinkers, it’s his criminally underrated album Trans.
The seeds of the album were sown in his third album with his sometimes backing band Crazy Horse, 1981′s Re.ac.tor. While trying to find therapeutic ways to relate to his second son (both of Young’s sons were born with cerebral palsy), Neil acquired a synclavier and a vocoder. The synclavier made its way onto Re.ac.tor, which, while it did feature proto-grunge elements similar to those of his Rust Never Sleeps record, was written off by most die hard fans as an attempt to merge with the popular new wave movement, a dominating force in the post-punk landscape of the early eighties.
After signing with David Geffen in 1982, Neil briefly began work on a more familiar-sounding record which was to be called Island in the Sun, but Geffen expressed that he would like to hear something a little stronger. Young’s focus shifted once again to the sessions with his son. He quickly built a concept out of the boy, Ben’s inability to speak. Using the vocoder to mutate his own speech, Young combined the reality of the then emerging computer age with his son’s struggle to communicate to create a work that would depict the irony of the ‘information age.’ Though three of the tracks from Island in the Sun would be included as something familiar, the six remaining tracks would feature vocoder-processed lyrics which, with a few exceptions, would be all but indiscernible. The fruit of this brilliantly progressive concept was Trans.
The first track on the album is one of the ones from the Island sessions, and I can only imagine it caused a great deal of confusion among the man’s loyal fan base. “Little Thing Called Love” is a very familiar type of Neil Young track, even going so far as to include a very “Harvest Moon”-like guitar hook after the chorus. I suppose this track was placed first on the album to remind everyone that this was in fact a Neil Young album. The next track, however, hurls us directly into the grand Trans concept.
To me, the album’s second song, “Computer Age,” is one of the greatest examples of how progressive music mutated and survived throughout the eighties. Although most hardcore prog fans consider the emergence of new wave and electronic music as anti-progressive, I find it very difficult to write off intelligent concepts that used the then emerging popular sound as a tool to make intelligent concepts heard rather than dismissed. The song begins with an electro-pop beat and leads us into a strikingly bleak sound and one of the most beautiful guitar hooks I have ever heard. The whole sound before we even get to vocals is the perfect cyberpunk omen, setting the scene for some Blade Runner-esque opera. The vocoder-filtered vocals finalise the picture and illustrate well the oft-explored concept of a future where humanity comes in clips and sentence fragments. “Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)” includes themes that are eerily similar to those of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
This dystopian concept is even more prominent in “We R In Control,” and by this point, if you aren’t familiar with his guitar tone, you likely won’t recognise this as a Neil Young song. However, even with the electro-saturation, one can still hear Young’s ingenius ability to implement catchy hooks in any and all types of music. This one, along with all the rest, is a wholly typical Neil Young tune, if that it is cleverly disguised on the exterior. One needs only to closer inspect the compositions. As proof of this, “Transformer Man” has been performed in acoustic form, notably on his MTV Unplugged album.
The second side begins with another, more familiar-sounding tune (complete with the infinitely more natural sounds of pedal steel and electric piano), but then we’re right back into the prevailing concept with the sprawling “Sample and Hold” which is quite possibly my favourite tune on the record, although only if we’re talking the CD version, which has a far superior mix of the song on it. The 8+ minute one trumps the short vinyl version easily. Along with a blistering and acidic industrial cyberpunk atmosphere, “Sample and Hold” contains subtle and gnarly, atmospheric guitar playing, and brilliantly simple electronic hooks that I bloody love. We are eased out of the synth stuff with “Mr. Soul,” a song that is pretty much a straight-forward electro interpretation of one from Young’s back-catalogue. The album’s coda is the bitchin’ “Like An Inca.” This nearly ten minute track makes this album a must, even for fans who will skip past the electronic stuff. “Like An Inca” is the third non-concept track intended for Island in the Sun and it is classic seventies Neil all the way!
Because I feel it is one of the neatest, the album’s cover must also be mentioned. As one of the first to be drawn on computer, it is nothing short of forward-thinking in its own right!
If you’ve heard the album before and put it down because of its notorious departure from previous works, take what I have put down here and give the album another listen. I, and to a far greater extent I’m sure, Neil would love for you to appreciate Trans for what it’s really about. And even if you’re an astral traveller who has been wandering through the depths of prog space and never ever thought about setting the controls for Neil Young, you now have good reason to.
(This article was originally published by Wave Maker Magazine in October 2012. It has been altered slightly from its original form. – Editor)
RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.