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TRS-80 - Shake Hands With Danger

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Artist: TRS-80

Album: Shake Hands With Danger

Label: File 13

Review date: Feb. 5, 2004

Most reviewers of the Chicago-based electronic trio TRS-80 can’t help but reminisce back to the early 1980’s, and I’m no better – it was a superior era, a younger time, a more innocent experience than that of the somewhat foul present. Reganomics were in effect, the Internet had yet to break, and Radio Shack had a share in the PC market with its at-the-time enviable TRS-80 home computer.

Things have since changed, but there is still a core of die-hard TRS-80 enthusiasts out there, hacking their aging machines with the antiquated BASIC programming language and demonstrating that in an epoch of gigahertz processing and terabyte memory, beauty can still be found in the technology of old. Perhaps the metaphor of TRS-80 the computer for TRS-80 the band is a bit dried up by now, but it still rings true – on Shake Hands with Danger, their fifth full-length album, TRS-80 demonstrate an able mastery of the tools and techniques of both present and past, mixing analog synths and live drumming with found-sound sequencing and digital processing into a pleasing and ever-shifting stew of breakbeat, soft-core glitch, drum-and-bass, and dub electronica, among other things.

The disc opens with mysterious and soothing synthesizer flutes reminiscent of the soundtrack to some seventies classroom 16mm about hormones and body fluids – seagulls squawk in the background, and a soft voice asks, "Cleo, what have you been daydreaming about today?" This pleasant passage abruptly gives way to a heavy breakbeat, laced with whining and farting synthesizers. Such sudden shifts in tempo and tone are one of the hallmarks of TRS-80’s style, and they sometimes employ this particular technique to great effect, such as the stop-pulled church organ chords that suddenly hammer their way into "Phantom Power," imparting fugue-like resonance to an already-insistent drum and bass progression.

Track six, "Motoki," is one of the album’s most unique – a cheezily distorted guitar plays a metal riff through a 4" x 4" Marshall pocket amp, accompanied by explosive, hyperbolic drum lines. The impact of the song comes from its subversion and unexpected reappropriation of an otherwise flat and formulaic musical cliché. When TRS-80 are on with this technique they are quite successful, and they're interesting even when they're not.

The best tracks of the album are "I Am Energy" and "Nylon." On the first, swirling nighttime synths and broken beats provide a platter for a spooky sci-fi spoken-word sample that manages to stay just a hair shy of being too ironic – moments of quiet pause soon launch into warped and twisted whirlpools of analog waveform breakdown. The latter track, "Nylon," imparts a similar tone of nocturnal mystery, and like the previous tune, it also juxtaposes a coolly introspective, mysterious guitar riff with passages of blissfully tweaked and morphed scale-descending synthesizer meltdown.

No one review could wholly capture TRS-80’s unique sound, as they both layer and leap from one style to another with regular frequency – the resultant mutated compositions are more often than not quite successful. Unlike their aged computer counterpart, TRS-80 the band has continued to evolve since their 1997 inception, and with no obvious limits to hinder them, it seems that there will be great recordings to come from this Chicago trio.

By Zachary Ambrose

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