Review Summary: There's plenty of Good and Great material on Transistor to make it worth your time and money, but there is a considerable chunk of un-refined work performed on this 21 song epic.
Over the entire span of their career, 311 have managed to create a following that draws in a new generation with just about every album-release. Their debut “Music” is obviously the headquarters of any actual “hardcore” fan; the reference from which they withdraw the credibility of their loyalty to the band. The release of “Grassroots” then not only proved that they weren’t one-trick ponies, but that they had plenty of other tricks up their sleeves to show the world. Despite all of this fan-base development over the span of ’93-’94, the band hadn’t managed to surface the mainstream after two major-label releases.
Many a long-time 311 fan could serve as instant proof of the group’s charm upon prompting them with the right questions, such as “How do you feel about the Blue album?” The majority of whatever sample you survey will likely damn the album’s responsibility for the group’s crossing into mainstream indefinitely, while simultaneously admitting that the record is albeit remarkable. Of course, it took quite a while for that record to take off, and even though the transition was quick when it occurred, it was still a completely authentic 311 release, receiving little alteration or involvement with song-writing from the label.
Unfortunately on their fourth record, 1997’s “Transistor,” their newfound mainstream sense of songwriting has left them with lower self-standards for putting tracks together. There are times on this record where it seems like the Omaha boys are content with releasing any half-assed jam-session they please as an A-side to listeners. However, with 21 tracks on one disc, that is a fact that’s bound to make an appearance as a characteristic, especially with a quick-natured group like 311.
The truly upsetting aspect of “Transistor” overall, is that it comes out fully baked with a heaping load of filler and cut-rate tracks that seem intent on watering down the group’s discography as their sole purpose. Now keep in mind, there are some great moments amongst this lengthy album, and how could their not be? After the quintet has delivered three rock-solid albums one year after another, it would be a true meltdown for this album to have nothing great on it, and thankfully it does.
Opener “Transistor” is as punchy and hypnotic as smash-hit “Down” was, but introduces the song’s hook in a different fashion that keeps their signature fashion fresh. The following track, single “Prisoner” is positively groovy and transient of any and all relaxing energies; it will undoubtedly cause listeners to zone out until its near three minute span comes to a sharp end.
Both “Starshines” and “Borders” rock hard and raw like material from the Blue Album, “Strangers” is undeniably funky, “Inner Light Spectrum” is ambient and inventive, and “Electricity” demonstrates a nearly perfect merger between mainstream riffage and more indie-friendly delivery. In addition to all of this, there are yet more memorably decent moments throughout “Transistor,” so what exactly seems to be the problem with this record as a whole?
It is tough to realize until reaching the end of the entire album for the first time, but a sort of a downward spiral of awkward experimentation and rush-released songs begins to appear laced with the otherwise great strand of satisfactory tracks written for this album. The keen ear will sense this negative trend beginning on track three “Galaxy,” where vocalist SA Martinez attempts to hold the listeners’ attention with rambling verses and a pathetic attempt at a chorus while Mahoney grinds a sub-par melody juxtaposed. The song also features one of the most obscure and awkward outros that comes out of left-field and leaves you wondering how it ended.
Afterward, the band gives the listener a break with more great material, from “Beautiful Disaster” to “Electricity,” but then comes another sign of the creativity crash; the un-defendable “What Was I Thinking.” This track features three different guitar chords, and a rather simple but for some odd-reason spot-lighted bass-line from P-Nut. Hexum chants lyrics muffled by some sort of megaphone effect, and it's almost a challenge to realize that on the chorus he is actually yelling “What the **** Was I thinking? Uh!”
From there, the record begins to slide down the slope more often than it scales the peak. Following “What Was I Thinking,” the ever-catchy “Jupiter,” and hypnotic “Use of Time,” deliver a definite PLUS for “Transistor.” Quickly after however, the tracklist runs into “The Continuous Life,” (another SA Martinez led track much like “Galaxy”) and “No Control,” which both conduct some good raw energy, but also both feel much less inspired than jams like “Hive,” or “Freak Out,” setting their statuses to ultimately weak or unnecessary.
“Color” is interesting, but not truly worthy of being an instrumental on its own merits, and “Light Years,” is no doubt one of the most inventive moments on the album, but it ends before it really ever attempts to take-off.
This reviewer feels that one quality every considerably “Good” or “Great” song should have is the potential to be at least one
person's favorite song from the artist. This reviewer also believes there is not a 311 fan that would seriously consider “Tune In,” “Creature Feature,” or “Rub-a-Dub,” to be their favorite song by the band. “Tune In” has a punch-less chorus, flat main riff, and very shallow message. “Creature Feature” pretty much crosses all the experimental lines the band has chosen to tread along for most of “Transistor,” but they push the awkwardness to a new level with this track thanks to SA's nasally singing and Pnut's unsettling effect pedal he applies to the main bass-line. Then you have “Rub-a-Dub” which though colored with pleasant surf textures, is totally anti-climactic and utterly gooey even for a 311 song; landing it out of place on this album.
If the listener playing this whole album through for the first time has made it this far, the ride smoothens out a bit from “Starshines,” to “Borders,” and the lengthy album's closer, song #21 “Stealing Happy Hours,” gives a lot of reward for those who didn't eject the cd upon the start of “Tune-In,” and held out the rest of the way. “Stealing Happy Hours” is an upbeat, but gently laid-back groove with majestic guitar solos all throughout, warm overtones, soft undertones, and is arguably the most artistic and beautiful track on the record; quite a slow burn-bang to end things.
As a whole, “Transistor,” doesn't “Nail-it!” in the least bit. Sure, some of 311's greatest songs are here like, “Beautiful Disaster,” the title-track, “Prisoner,” “Stealing Happy Hours,” etc. Their experimentation choices also prove they can, at times, be very successful, such as with the sonically soothing, “Inner Light Spectrum,” or funk-laced “Strangers.” But to this reviewer, “Transistor,” is a golf-course that only spares you a few chances for birdies, a handful of PARs, and many more Bogeys and Double-bogeys than you'd prefer; at least compared to their preceding records..