With the release of the sprawling Haunted Cities, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, Blink-182’s Travis Barker, and a former roadie who goes by the name of Skinhead Rob prove Transplants are in it for the long haul.
by dan epstein
photography by ESTEVAN ORIOL
“Hey,” Rob Aston calls out to the engineer. “Can we hear one more?” On a cold and wet spring afternoon in Hollywood, the members of Transplants—rapper/frontman Rob Aston (aka Skinhead Rob), Rancid guitarist/vocalist Tim Armstrong, and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker—huddle conspiratorially in the corner of a Paramount Studios mixing room, listening to songs from their forthcoming album, Haunted Cities (La Salle/Atlantic). Today’s plan was to preview four tracks from this genre-defying hip-hop/punk opus for Revolver, but Aston is digging the playback so much, he doesn’t want to stop. “Let’s hear ‘Crash and Burn,’ ” he instructs.
Within seconds, a Latin-tinged techno rhythm begins to slink forward from the speakers. As layers of percussion, electronic keyboards, and turntable scratches build an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere under a sprightly salsa piano figure, Armstrong’s distorted voice begins to croon seductively. “Crash and burn tonight,” goes the ominous, half-whispered chorus. “We’re gonna keep on partying till the break of daylight.” The lyrics are celebratory, but the whole song is the aural equivalent of one of those hot and sweaty summer nights where the vibes get uglier with each 40-ouncer of malt liquor that’s consumed. “We make up-tempo negative music,” offers Barker, and “Crash and Burn” certainly fits that description.
What “Crash and Burn” doesn’t sound like is Rancid or Blink-182. Neither does the album’s “What I Can’t Describe,” where slow-jam Seventies soul stylings—complete with gorgeous vocal harmonies courtesy of the Boo-Yaa Tribe—contrast poignantly with Aston’s brooding ruminations about his own mortality. And then there’s “Apocalypse Now,” which creates a nightmarish sonic stew out of drum ’n’ bass rhythms, quasi-psychedelic guitars, distorted vocals, and extraneous amp buzz. The bracing, full-on punk assault of “Not Today” will probably seem a little more familiar to Rancid fans; ditto for the organ-stoked reggae groove of “Gangsters and Thugs,” the album’s first single. But for the most part, the best way to approach Haunted Cities is with open ears and an expectation of the unexpected.