Classic Rock Review

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Neil Young Trans (1982)


I’d like to think that by now most of you understand where I’m coming from. Be that as it may, there will likely be a percentage of you who will not understand why a writer who has chosen to focus on progressive music would have anything to do with Neil Young. 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 include Neil in our stroll through the history of prog, 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 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, which, while it did feature the proto-grunge elements of Rust Never Sleeps, 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 speech, Young combined the reality of the then emerging and 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 entirely indiscernible. The fruit of this brilliantly progressive concept is 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 prog mutated and survived throughout the eighties. Although most hardcore prog fans consider the emergence of new wave and electronic music as anti-progressive (believe me, most of it was just fluff created to entertain a mindless pop-culture majority), I find it very difficult to write off intelligent concepts that used the emerging popular sound as a tool to make intelligent concepts heard rather than dismissed. The song begins with a synth beat that will sound familiar to haters of the current electropop resurgence. For the love of prog, try not to think of it this way! I’ll say it once so that we’re clear: the modern electro-resurgence is entirely made up of mass-produced tripe that makes money because little girls can dance to it and say ‘hehehe, that sounds funny!’ and spread it around the net in the form of the ever-popular meme… and the only self-respecting male that can listen to it is only listening to it to get girls. In this way, it is akin to disco. For heaven’s sake, the difference between that and the handful of intelligent experimental electronic composers from the late seventies and early eighties is night and day! Neil Diamond and Tony Iommi both used guitars, are they the same? Pardon the outburst; I’m sure the majority of you are mature enough to understand this album.

The aforementioned beat brings us into a strikingly bleak sound and then to one of the most beautiful guitar hooks I have ever heard. The whole sound before we even get to vocals is perfect for the growing sense of the emergent cut-throat big business dystopia that so populated the eighties underground (i.e. Blade Runner and anything by author William Gibson). 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.

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 and all the rest are wholly typical Neil Young tunes if that they are 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, while quite dancy (cringe), contains subtle and atmospheric guitar playing that I bloody love. We are eased out of the synth stuff with “Mr. Soul,” a song that to me is pretty much a straight-forward electro interpretation of a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll tune. The album’s coda is the bitchin’ “Like An Inca,” the nearly ten minute track that makes this album a must even for fans who will skip the electronic stuff. “Like An Inca” is the third non-concept track intended for Island in the Sun and it is seventies Neil all the way!

Because I feel it is one of the neatest, the album’s cover must be mentioned. As one of the first to be drawn on computer, it is nothing short of progressive 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 if you’re an astral traveller who has been wandering through the depths of prog space and never ever thought to set the controls for Neil Young, you now have good reason to.

Categorised in: Album Reviews, Reviews
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2 Responses »

October 18, 2012 • 5:19 pm
Neil Young’s musical journey took a few detours from his style of folk rock/grunge that he was known for. These stylistic sidelines took him to rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’), R&B/Blues (This Note’s For You), Pop/New Wave (Landing On Water), and Electronic (Trans). These sidetrips were negatively accepted by both critic and fans when these albums were released. But now, these detours can now be perceived in the proper perspective as Young’s experimentation with other genres for whatever reason they served the artist.

Experimentation – this is probably one of the reasons why Neil Young is one of the last holdovers from the classic rock era. For this, he has earned my respect and admiration.

February 20, 2013 - Posted by | Neil Young Trans |

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