Written by: Dave Cantrell
There are any number of factors that can exert existential pressure on a band’s viability. One of the most tangible, while made less onerous in our digital age, is the simple imposition of geographic distance. Even with the world-shrinking advantage of file-sharing though, there’s still the not inconsiderable issue of playing live, the costs associated with accommodating the most modest rehearsal/tour regimen putting significant strain on any group no matter their level of success or renown. Another, somewhat less obvious threat to a band’s continued health is the developing trademark of a sound that’s rich, complex, luminously dark and darkly addictive to a point where the threshold of listener expectation only rises with every release, a status that, in turn, invites such a concomitant devotion to maintaining that quality of sound by its primary architect that delays are not just inevitable but seemingly mandatory. Rabbit holes beckon everywhere, trap doors snap open underfoot with a troubling regularity, as if the spirit of the process itself is laughing at the futility inherent in any attempt to see it to fruition. Through brave, perhaps terse smiles, that person answers polite inquiries as to progress – ‘How’s the new album coming?’ – with as much esprit de corps promise as an increasingly frayed optimism allows, their jaw maybe clenching a bit until, eventually, the dread of fielding those questions accumulates to such a degree they doubt not just the wisdom of venturing out at all but the very idea of their sanity. Virtual hermitage cannot be far behind, complete with senseless gibbering and a shrugging disregard for personal hygiene. Put those two conditions together in one band and you’ve got either certain dissolution or…Trance To The Sun, who we find here blinking into the light with their ecstatically realized new album Via Subterranea in hand.
Long trading in something of a psychedelicized post-punk with epic shoegazing dreampop tendencies – as well (gasp!) a touch of prog – the fact that TTTS has withstood the double whammy career hits just described will be neither a mystery nor a miracle to those many that have followed their sinuous path over the last twenty plus years (from a Santa Barbara genesis in 1990, through an 11-year hiatus in 2002 – during which numerous comps and anthologies would appear – to the current resurrection featuring all original members, Trance are on their ninth album and have a fanbase that girdles the globe), but for the benefit of any new initiates reading this, know it’s nothing too complicated but instead comes down to that most fundamental of precepts: power. There’s a spiritually moving drive that inhabits these (mostly long) pieces, animating them with an intrisically captivating grandeur that spans the spectrum from the sinister to the sublime and explains how the now Portland/LA-based band (Ashkelon Sain guitar bass keys, Ingrid Blue vocals, Daniel P Henderson drums) can not only overcome whatever band-killing obstacles thrown in front of them but attract while doing so the type fans that tend to display cult-like allegiance. Evidence as to why permeates Via Subterranea.
Layered thick with nimble filigrees of swirling synth and effects-laden guitars, anchored by a moody beast of a rhythm section and never shy with melody as alluring female vox are textured into the the mix with a living breathing ghostliness, the album, despite its tricky gestation at the hands of a capricious Fate, makes a convincing case as the band’s most accomplished. Not always the case, of course, when a noted and much-loved band reconvenes for a shot at one of Fitzgerald’s infamous second acts but when it succeeds as Trance To The Sun has here the joy beheld is ever that much sweeter.
Erasing any concerns anyone might’ve harbored for the band’s legacy due the delays, the distance, whatever, lead track “Max Mystic” just gets immediately down to the business of being beguiling, clustering its sheets of reverbed guitar, silver atmospheric synth and husky sibilant voice around a snaky persistence of a bassline that could lure the most resistant of us into our own stoned Sufi dance. “Railcar to Tasmania,” with something of a janglier intent, answers the unasked question of what it might have been like had the Byrds emerged in the late 80’s in thrall to Lush’s earliest stirrings. And then the record just all gets more broadly illustrious, goes deeper, falling into one dreamy abyss after another and filling them with a sharp ethereal inventiveness unique to this band.
The haunted flow of “Eons & Ions,” while spacious and acid-washed (Sain’s guitar approach could be described as a more brightly bedazzled cousin to Helios Creed’s), maintains its tension via a hounding bass augmented by subtly incessant rhythm guitar and piano lines, “Mammoth Capsule,” even with the album’s most shoegaze-indebted vocal – lovely melody, by the way – traffics in a pounding, curiously goth-shadowed wah-wah psychedelia, the popping drum-led “Loch Ness Square” transits from headlong relentless, the percussion and mutil-tracked electric furiously goading each other along, Luna’s sure, gauzy vocal their guide and referee, to a fraught hiatus, a satori of sorts, then back again, a thing of tumultuous beauty all told.
Trance To The Sun, from the beginning, have been in pursuit of textural – and contextual – solutions to mysteries they themselves create, throwing together with a reckless faith a sorcerer’s stew of their multiple elements and knowing that one day the results will bear extraordinary fruit, gems held in a bothered but exquisite suspension, existing as testament to both a tense harmony and a splendidly controlled chaos. Consequentially, there’s a level of inherent risk-taking that finds the occasional cut or two teetering dangerously close to the brink, their plans so grand the entire enterprise threaten to collapse into discord, the center unable to hold. Tantamount to tightrope walking, it’s the fact they allow themselves to flirt with falling that’s as – if not more – exciting than the fact they never do. While evidence can be cited anywhere in the band’s catalog, it feels ratcheted up on Via Subterranea, repped perhaps most boldly on the lengthy back-to-back tracks “Aviatrix (The Sudden Birds)” and “Where Smoke Blows Across.” Occupying spots seven and eight on a 10-track outing, it’s the point where, should it not have occurred yet, the hard- and long-fought gestation process, Ashkelon being so obsessive about the mix and the master (the material itself having been written since the band reformed to tour it in 2013), makes unquestionable sense.
“Aviatrix (The Sudden Birds),” dense with a lush menace, percussively on edge, the bass’s heavy presence in a league with JJ Burnel, guitars alternately chopping at the body of the song or arcing overhead as if in chase of the title subjects, is already a serviceable epic in no need of further confirmation when, just a tick ahead of the 6-minute mark, it breaks free into a melodic resolution that simply ranks among the most rapturously beautiful I’ve heard. Takes the breath away and one can only imagine the magnitude of a smile that came over its creator’s face when he came upon it. Naught but a moment in a nine-minute piece but it’s those moments, of course, that we live our lives for.
Though more deliberate in its unspooling, initiating at something of a bucolic pace, “Where Smoke Blows Across” is also the more impressionistic, lulling with an understated persistence as it passes through an hypnotic reverby fog that conjures a more refined yet emotionally roiled MBV, a soar of guitars slashing with an increased fury through it’s dovetailed series of movements, vocals hanging djin-like. There are, as the song picks up steam and ghosts, evocations at play, unshakable aural hints of exoticism, from tones of breezy warmth suggesting the dry tropics where the desert meets the ocean to snaking through the market stalls of a Moroccan souk through pounding pursuits down narrow dusty alleyways, arriving finally at a sustained catharsis, cinematic synth chorus on high, every element coalescing with a tapestry-like exactitude. A triumph in every sense and not least because one can almost tangibly feel the beast of multiplicity being tamed in an elegantly unleashed manner.
In the best instances what best defines a band is what challenges them, and while those two central tracks offer widescreen examples of Trance To The Sun’s penchant for tackling the demands of their own immodest, ambitious impulses and wrestling them into a coherent, often glorious submission, the truth is this has always been their way. What surprises here, again, is how they’ve managed to create perhaps the best album of their existence despite the presence of added stressors like a thousand-mile separation and the curse of dodgy masters, which isn’t to mention the unspoken but palpable weight of their own legacy. One can only conclude, then, based on what’s presented here on Via Subterranea, that theirs is the type extravagance that thrives under duress and the provocations of fate. To which we can only say, ‘whatever works.’