RTX, Transmaniacon (Drag City)

My history with Royal Trux is a long and strange one. Right about the time Cats & Dogs came out, and I saw them open for Sonic Youth, I was in high school, and in the midst of probably the most wide-open time a kid can have for discovering music. Here was this band that both live and on record was totally shambolic, occasionally hellacious or pretty, depending on whatever mood they felt like putting across. I remember standing front and center, watching them, being totally bewildered by Jennifer Herrema’s uncompromising and confrontational stage presence: black Oakland Raiders jacket, platform tennis shoes, hair over eyes, and hand over crotch. That her partner Neil Hagerty generally exuded the opposite, a weird aloofness that sometimes obscured how fucking intense a guitarist he is, made it all the more confusing for me, then a pretty dumb teenager.

Over the years I checked out more Trux live shows, heard records, but there was something that still bewildered me, even though I started to get it. And then, in 2001 it all fell apart. Neil and Jennifer split, the Trux was over, broken up by the difficulties they always were rumored to have with drugs, perfect gossip fodder. At least, that’s what we thought.

While Neil has continued to make incredible music under his own name, it wasn’t really clear what Jennifer would do, or even if she’d be able to continue making music. Let’s face it, rock is still stuck in the realm of the sexist past; even for the most politically progressive rock fan it’s easy to assume that, in a male-female creative partnership, the dude does the heavy lifting. This is a whole ‘nother can of worms I ain’t gonna open.

So here it is, Transmaniacon, the first we’ve heard from Herrema in a few years, under the RTX moniker. And despite there being no Neil to be heard, continuity with the Trux years is evident. Yet at the same time, RTX is its own magnificent beast. Put simply, this is the best rock album I’ve heard in years, and stands up to any of the best Royal Trux material.

How’s that, you say? Well Neil and Jennifer always had an awesome way with production, and RTX continues that while taking off in a different style. Transmaniacon, as you could probably guess by the Blue Oyster Cult-ish title and butterfly skulls artwork, is a heavy metal record but it’s produced like a modern pop record (which was Neil and Jennifer’s secret strength: everything they did seemed influenced by pop radio, in the most brilliantly non-obvious ways). This record might be the first time a rock band has used computer production in a blatant and totally psychedelic way. We got crazy auto tuned vocals; layers of clipped, thumping drums; Jaimo Welch’s bizarre and twisted guitar riffs and leads and it all works through the force of its own internal logic. This music is perfect, from “Stoked” to “Low Ass Mountain Song” to the ending number “Resurrect” (whose coda sounds like Nicks/Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac on speedballs).

Last week, I was driving down a mountain in New Mexico, in my dad’s pickup truck. The sun was shining bright in the west, about an hour before sundown; the air was warm and crisp. I rolled down the windows, blasted Transmaniacon, and entered a state of perfect bliss. I can’t think of a more important function for a rock band to achieve.

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