In 1997, Keely Hawkes, Eric Pressly, and Gary Clark banded together to release Transister by Transister. Originally gaining momentum in 1996 after being featured on KCRW’s renowned Morning Becomes Eclectic and reaching a modest #56 on the UK Singles Chart, it’s one of the more rare and hidden gems within the alternative rock & downtempo genres. Songs from the record have been featured in movies of the likes of Jawbreaker (“Flow”) and Never Been Kissed (“Look Who’s Perfect Now”), but all that seems to be left of the group is a Wikipedia page (which we basically restated in the this paragraph) and an unofficial Geocities website that is only traceable when using web.archive.org. It’s a strange absence considering their album is quite astonishing.
Mostly teetering the sonic realm of early Hooverphonic and sprinkles of grunge icons Garbage, Transister creates a perfect hybrid of moody electronic loops, trippy delays, creative panning, and uniquely combines it all with melodic vocal and guitar lines that make up the majority of the self-titled record.
“Weather Boy” distinguishes each of these qualities best. It’s beginning points out a despondent vocal mixing technique that focuses on stereo delays to create a sort of whirling effect, having Keely’s voice floating in and out of the left and right channels at timed increments. It’s at the bridge when the vocals moderately change to harmonized layers and a slight reverb, allowing the stereo paired/effected guitar track and supporting percussive elements to brighten up the track before the song is drastically altered at the chorus. When this portion of “Weather Boy” kicks in, distorted/sliding guitar drones fill the mix, while filtered vocals and drum samples support and drive the final swing home.
It’s such an evolving song that it would be hard to pull off if it weren’t for the light mixing that the debut album was accustomed to. According to the TT DR Offline meter, the debut itself sits at a not-so safe average dynamic range level of about 6dB, so it’s decently loud. However, none of the songs clip. As a matter of fact, there is sometimes as much as a full decibel of headroom as far as the peak of the tracks are concerned. We understand they’re two completely separate entities, but in listening to the process, it’s clear that mastering engineer Steve Marcussen (Smashing Pumpkins, Paul McCartney, Prince) took great respect with Transonic’s original production/mixes of the record and ensured that nothing, sonically, or emotionally got lost in translation.
(Contrary to popular belief, Transonic is not Robert Musso in this case, but is actually Eric and Gary’s production name on the album. Thank you to Gary for clearing up this issue!)
In regards to emotions, it’s “Stars Collide” that truly brings the shining light and emotional grip on Transister. It’s a light, fluffy downtempo recording, driven by flugelhorn and trombone recordings by Damon Brown and Paul Taylor. They bring a true jazzy feeling amongst the light whole note pads, eighth note rhodes, left panned light drumming, and warm bass. Hawkes seductively brings along nostalgic love notes, lamenting “I can’t have you the way I used to, but I still love you.”
Underneath and panned to the left, a pitched down male vocalist starts “stars collide and the rivers run dry/and everything grows, and everything dies/the people we love get locked inside..forever.” The changes continue throughout the song, with a pad build up that’s broken down by a crunchy, panned distortion sample and a calm, soothing DJ-scratch solo that brings the song back it’s original core.
“I never ever thought that I’d forget your face. I’ve been trying to get through but I can’t quite see you. I know you’re laughing in some other place and the stars laugh with you and I forgive you.” It’s an upfront tale of loss and one can even equate it to death. The great thing about “Stars Collide” is that it’s one of those songs that can truly take on multiple meanings and is so musically well put together that it’s melodic and percussive compliments are of the most impressive. At the end of the track, Keely lets out euphoric ad-libs while the entirety of the songs elements come together with the help of a string line to create one large atmosphere that plays off of the timbre of each instrument lined up and recorded into the track. To bring you down, the DJ samples play out looped, as if they’re breaking down and leave off in crackling silence.
The last of the cracking bleeds into the next track, “Day #1,” but is a quick segue that drops within the first second of the track. Once again, a nice mastering touch by Marcussen.
In complete opposition of the aforementioned tracks, there are more synth-trance influences and and grunge tinged songs such as “Head”. It’s a minimal and slowly progressing movement that recalls something of a the early days of Shirley Manson and co, but has it’s unique twist in featuring a phone call style break, complete with outside field recordings to aid to the ambiance of the song and rid of it sounding sterile. “Love me when I’m tender inside my..head” Hawkes playfully sings, before the track returns to it’s micro-chorus, followed by whole note pads that make their way into the midway section of the track, to bridge song back to it’s drive.”Falling Off The World” also falls in line within the same sorts of “Head”, but is more rock infused.
The most layered track comes toward the later half of the track and is also one of the more pop features on the track. “What You Are” begins strongly, with strong, confident and chorus vocals, that quickly lead into an explosion of polished melodic guitar lines, that fade off into panned pop melodies that flow out and into each other.
It’s “Flow,” however, that packs yet another emotional punch on Transister and plays out as the last song on the album. The track fades in and contains relaxed, delayed, and stereo imaged guitars that make up the bulk of the song. “I’m always swimming against the flow of the tide. Kissing the life into something that’s already died” is sung against delayed-electronic bloops that are reminiscent of sonic air bubbles. While the song writing on the record isn’t of the most in depth and metaphoric, it balances the line between being cliche and frank effortlessly, and all in all, compliments the entirety of the record’s musical playing great.
Mentions of sentiment throughout Transister take on an interesting twist as of late. Unfortunately, one third of the band, Eric Pressly passed away recently. This brings the feelings of the record to become a bit more mournful, but overall it still holds an extreme feeling of unity throughout it. The band, Transister, even though we will probably not hear another record from them in this form, put out on solid of a debut album and is one that should be celebrated for years to come.
It’s hard to come by, but the album can currently be obtained on Amazon when you’re looking in the Marketplace. (As a matter of fact we actually obtained a beat up, used copy from the Amazon marketplace years ago, which you can see here and just ordered the “Look Who’s Perfect Now” & “Dizzy Moon” singles, which have popped up on the website). We ask that you dig and find anything you can. Dig passed the countless mentions of the KoRn song and dig through Google constantly wanting to correct the spelling of the band to “Transistor”.
We’re telling you, they’re worth it.
Editor’s Fun fact: I discovered Transister while listening to a radio station VH1/MTV had on their website called The Blue Room. It’s unfortunately gone now, but it was a Downtempo radio station. I discovered a lot of music through it, but would always skip until I found “Stars Collide”. It’s one of my top songs of all time.
As of now, the remaining members are still very active in the music industry. Gary has worked with Liz Phair, Natalie Imbruglia, while Keely has provided background vocals for pop star Hilary Duff, T.a.T.u., as well as written for Jordin Sparks.