LIVE REVIEW: Trans Am @ The Empty Bottle, Chicago


One of the most prolific bands in post-rock, Bethesda-based Trans Am, are still going strong with the release of their latest album, Volume X, which was the primary focus of their Sunday night show at Chicago’s The Empty Bottle. Opening for them were local favorites Kava and CAVE, who have a lot more in common than just very similar names. Both pedaling an appealing brand of psychedelic rock, Kava began the show with a more minimalistic take on the genre, while CAVE played a set of classic, repetition-based head-bobbers against a glowing, geometric curtain. Then it was Trans Am’s turn. Still anchored by the motorik-driven, krautrock aesthetic that’s been behind their signature style of sci-fi prog ever since their debut almost a quarter of a century ago, they just can’t let go of the past.

As their name suggest, the Thrill Jockey trio played a set driven mainly by the idea of an imagined, old-school 80s mixtape. Thrashy metal, “Kraftwerkian industrial complex” and “Devo does ballads” were all stylistic themes, making for a disjunct Walkman-era hodge-podge of a set. And while Trans Am are arguably the originators of cerebral, genre-defying electronic music, at this particular moment the band just seemed like they were experimenting with too many clashing aesthetics. The sheer talent of this experienced trio was probably the only thing that really kept the show on track, as everything else reminisced on cultural touchstones ranging from Depeche Mode to the Dallas theme song.

Though it felt distracted and discombobulated at points, it was at the very least an entertaining revisit to your parent’s cassette collection circa 1985. However, this also meant that it was quite clichéd in certain parts, due to an onslaught of computerized synths layered atop noodly guitar riffs and robocorder vocals. A touch corny, it was an entire mélange of throwback musical styles that felt messy and misplaced at times. It was like Trans Am took the chameleon approach a bit too seriously, because while it was admittedly fun, I was personally irked by the setlist’s short attention span and lack of overarching focus.
Simultaneously formulaic in its stylistic inspirations, said corn-factor made parts of the set feel like Garrett Hedlund spinning to the Tron soundtrack. And it all wasn’t really aided by the fact that an 80s-synth production was infused into almost every single song they played. Misplaced funk bits that just seemed like an exaggerated encouragement to groove didn’t really do much for the rest of the audience either, who kind of just jammed to themselves. Not a bad show by any means, just one that definitely deserves a more definitive musical direction.

Listen to “Futurworld” by Trans Am here via Soundcloud.

LIVE REVIEW: Chad VanGaalen @ The Empty Bottle, Chicago

Chad VanGaalen Jonathan Fisher

With his Lynchian aesthetic and fondness for romanticized macabre, Albertan singer-songwriter Chad VanGaalen performed a simultaneously tender and surreal set to a buzzy crowd at Chicago’s Empty Bottle last Thursday.

On tour with fellow Canadians COUSINS and Bry Webb of Constantines fame, VanGaalen’s performance brought a crushing sense of heartfelt sentimentality filled with his signature warble and fuzz-ridden lo-fi recordings, which continue to drive the sound of his most recent release, Shrink Dust. Drawing upon stylistic elements reminiscent of 2008’s lurid Soft Airplane and 2011’s spasmodic Diaper Island, VanGaalen’s latest effort is still peppered with hypnagogic lyrics, wind-in-the-willows whispers and enough synthesized reverb to swallow the entire room.

Lyrics full of allusions to disemboweling deaths and ghastly implications plucked straight out of an Un Chien Andalou-induced fever dream, VanGaalen is brilliant at fusing different melodic styles ranging from gentle, whirring balladry to rambly steel guitar folk. And despite a marked lack references to oozing vitreous humor, VanGaalen’s off-kilter banter in between songs, earnest smile and sweet, rambling stories made up for any disappointment involving a flashier stage presence and more of his renowned homemade instruments.

A true “mixed media” artist in every sense, VanGaalen blends soft acoustic strumming with jammy electronic interludes, creating what many have dubbed a “grab-bag” of melodies plucked, diced and sliced from his many garage recordings. And his live performance held much of the same intimacy and intensity as one of these DIY jam session. Simultaneously grotesque and gorgeous, his wavering vocals projected perfectly across a simmering crowd of what seemed to mostly be composed of long-time fans.

I myself have fond memories of making “Molten Light” mixtapes for high school beaus, and was just one of many audience members singing along to the surprisingly thorough repertoire he performed. Of course, there were songs off Shrink Dust, but VanGaalen made enough room to incorporate old favorites like “Rabid Bits of Time,” “Willow Tree” and “City of Electric Lights” into his set, a rare treat for artists usually more concerned with promoting their latest release. And though I realize that speaks more to my own personal affinity to Soft Airplane, it truly was a genuine, heartfelt performance by a singer-songwriter who has the strange ability to invoke an incredible sense of nostalgia occupied by crust punks and tweed-donning professor types alike.

An excellent show for the devotees of his back catalogue, it pulled off the unforeseeable feat of being both beautiful and bizarre and everything in between. A wistful, touching performance that may have showgoers, old and new, incorporating “Molten Light” and “Monster” into their future mixtapes.