You probably know Tony Buck as The Necks’ percussionist. Transit is his group in a more post-rock vein, where improv sensibility meets riffs and song forms. Cited influences are Glenn Branca, Shellac and My Bloody Valentine, and only the latter seems misleading. Buck plays drums and percussion, as in The Necks, but also guitar, and he sings, too.
The MO here is, as the press gloss has it: “start with a basic, minimalist idea – be it a driving riff, a syncopated melody or rolling rhythm – and build upon it with layers of sounds and harmonies.”
The album’s opening salvo, “Vinyl” is a blunt six-minute barrage of electric bass & drum ostinatos, wah guitar licks, and organ whorls courtesy of new band member Magda Mayas, who gets to solo unfettered over occasionally re-calibrated but remorselessly insistent rhythm. A bit like Bernie Worrell, say, in a more single-minded incarnation of Praxis.
I’ve heard Buck and Mayas together before, both through their duo recordings and in a trio with John Butcher, as documented on Plume (Unsounds, 2013). I also know her from Thread, an album she recorded with Annette Krebs and Anthea Caddy for the Another Timbre label. These are all edgy and cerebral works. Radiation is much more groove-centric, body music, but her focus is still on timbre, instrumental colour and textures.
The intensity comes down a notch or two on “Two Rivers”, which employs heavily syncopated, dynamically flat ‘tribal’ drumming and insistent bass as a rhythmic foundation for multiple skeins of solo guitar and organ.
Buck’s percussion is doubled throughout by Brendan Dougherty, an American expat resident in Europe. Among Dougherty’s other projects, OURSONGISLONG is an ensemble “dedicated to durational performance of improvised music”. They never play for less than twelve hours, apparently, making The Necks seem more like The Minutemen by comparison. On this spectrum, Transmit are virtually a pop group.
And they do do pop. On their debut album (Projekt Transmit, released in 2009 on Staubgold), they covered Bob Dylan, but here they go one stranger with a take on Ric Ocasek’s “Drive”, a streamlined new wave rock hit for The Cars in 1984. Transmit’s take is an enervated if intricate breakdown, all serpentine guitar figures and splashy percussion held together by broken bass drones. Just the way The Necks might do it in fact, albeit in less than eight minutes. Buck’s vocals are no match for Benjamin Orr’s on the original, but the same gloss wouldn’t be appropriate anyway, so that’s OK.
Gongs and chimes open “Swimming Alone”, taking the album about as far from the single-minded “Vinyl” as possible, and all instruments join in with the textural pointillism until James Welburn’s throbbing electric bass lines plump up to accompany Buck’s lucid guitar licks. Then Buck, unexpectedly, starts to sing again, and the group peels into a straightforward mid-paced rock groove that the group drive straight through to the end, and a breakdown amid scouring feedback and echoes of those opening chimes.
The album doesn’t hang together very well at all on first listening, but it makes more sense once you know to anticipate its dramatic mood changes.
“Right Hand Side” is a loose, ‘jazzy’ take on rock jamming that flirts with repetition á la minimalist music, a bit like The Doors. Mayas’ double-tracked organ and piano take drone, texture and lead parts, while the rhythmists lock into a steady groove, Buck’s guitar sticking tight to the tune’s melody.
The last piece, “Who”, was inspired by Pete Townsend. It’s brighter, with a more compulsive post-rock feel. Welburn plays insistent bass off a steady backbeat, and Mayas’ multi-tracked organ combines with Buck’s lead guitar to give the instrumentalism a lyrical feel. But ultimately it’s just Welburn and Dougherty (or Buck, or both)’s drums, locked together in a pummelling virtual run-out groove.
Welburn’s bass is perfect throughout, providing minimalist grooves with rich textures, and just the right degree of plasticity to distance the group sound from any suggestion of click-track lockdown. He recruited Buck for his debut album, Hold (Miasmah), which came out at about the same time as Radiation, and there the pair burrow even further down the noise/rhythm rabbit hole. But Transmit always shades the right side of wayward: no matter how close to straightforward it gets, it’s never predictable.
Tony Buck drums, percussion, guitar, voice; Brendan Dougherty drums, percussion; Magda Mayas organ, clavinet, piano; James Welburn electric bass.
Chris Abrahams – Fluid To The Influence.
The Necks – Vertigo.
Simon James Phillips – Blage 3.
The Ex – 33⅓ Festival Live at Cafe Oto, ‘And so Say all of Us’ (DVD).
Buy Radiation direct from Monotype.