Monday, 10 January 2011

BT - These Hopeful Machines (2010) Review

BT released This Binary Universe in 2006, for a long time making it available online for free as well as on CD. TBU is a very good set of tracks, and neatly showcases BT's ear for a nice sound or two. It sits very nicely in my ears while playing a relatively slow paced computer game - Morrowind, for example. Compared to 2003's Emotional Technology it was a very refreshing return to BT's atmospheric and relatively clinical style of music, albeit without the beats. This album has been described as elevator music by my mother, overhearing it played through laptop speakers (not a good choice for most subtle music) and that is probably the album's Achilles Heel - there is no change in pace, and BT shows none of his ability to get your blood pumping while the mood surrounds you on any of those songs. Therefore TBU doesn't redeem his reputation which took a bit of a hit after the release of Emotional Technology, an album so overproduced and sterile that even I didn't buy it (I'm not sure it was even properly released in the UK anyway). Still, I mentioned all this last time, so enough of that, let's talk about what the recently passed year brought from the man who ten years ago was the sole American making any impact on the British and European trance and prog. house scenes.

The "new" album is entitled These Hopeful Machines, and it's so long that it comes as a double album, which is a first for BT even with his history of not fearing long tracks (like "Remember" or "Content"). The danger you can get into with long albums, even single disc 74-minuters, is that you can spread your ideas far too thinly, and either bore the listener or leave them longing for the next track before you're finished with the current one. I think that unfortunately BT has fallen into this trap with this album.

Beginning with the outstanding positives for THM, a pleasing guest appearance on this album is American singer Jes Brieden, bringing her to my attention for the first time since her own solo album three years ago. Her two tracks, "Every Other Way" and "The Light in Things", sit proudly in the middle of the first disc. "Every Other Way" is a slow track but attempts the epic, and I feel it succeeds very well at this. I can't recall BT having made a song like this before but it has to rank as a landmark, because it captures some of what made TBU's instrumentals so special while bringing vocals and a bit more bite to that sound. I want to hear more like this! The only downside? The ending, entirely unnecessary, too long, and extremely grating after such a song, once again puts BT's stutter edits at the forefront. This creates and impression rather like the endings to Orbital's first two albums - greatness followed by grating, repetitive annoyance. Maybe it makes an artistic point at the end of an LP, but at the end of a song it's extremely unwelcome. "The Light in Things" is however extremely welcome, as it is another return to vocal dance music, and as a track it works brilliantly. Jes' voice is perfectly suited to this kind of song, and with luck the two will work together again. What follows is "The Rose of Jericho", an interesting and highly danceable track based around an old-fashioned sounding synth riff, but with a very modern backing track indeed sitting behind it. "Flaming June" it isn't, but this is what you'd expect it's 2010s equivalent to be, and was a good choice for the first single for this album.

The less outstanding tracks on this album begin with the first disc's opening pair. "Suddenly" and "The Emergency" are probably best treated together as they are quite similar. Both feature BTs own vocals prominently, and this can often be a downside to his music because his voice is distinctive but neither strong nor trained, and thus the reliance he has on reverb and pitch correction in order to lead a full-blooded pop rock/dance track like "Suddenly" or its more dancefloor oriented follow-up is staring you in the face the entire time you listen to these songs. This isn't what you expect a dance producer to be doing - get someone else to sing them and they'd be more effective. Nevertheless, both are worthy successors to "Somnambulist" in the sense that the simplicity of the vocal melodies makes them quite addictive. A great improvement on BTs attempt to do the same for much of Emotional Technology. "The Emergency" is probably too simplistic lyrically to keep you going for its full length, BTs lyric writing ability still not being anything to keep you roped in. The last track on disc one, "Forget Me", is in a similar vein sounding as it does like BT has been listening to a lot of Pendulum while trying not to be as dumb as their music. It bookends disc one, the superior of the two, very well. Or at least it would, were it not for, yet again, a completely unnecessary outro. By all means, have some atmospheric textures at the end of the disc (which is the last minute or two of this song) but you cannot expect me to forgive a vocal contribution by BT's (very young) daughter Kaia, repeating the chorus. This is one of those things which just upsets the mood - when I listen to an album, I want to really get into it and enjoy as a whole, and if you've suddenly hit me with kiddie vocals after fifty-odd minutes of what's supposed to be serious music then you're losing me. I don't know what purpose including her on this track serves other than to highlight the fairly naff lyrics, which sound ridiculous in her voice.

On the second disc, the album sees the return of this blog's favourite trance vocalist, Kirsty Hawkshaw, who's vast array of appearances on tracks doesn't show any signs of diminishing yet after nearly two decades of contributing to dance music. Having Kirsty back on one track, "A Million Stars", is a real treat, as that track is by far the strongest link to BT's pre-millennium output that exists on this LP. That doesn't mean it sounds old - it sounds polished enough that you can tell it's the modern BT - but it's in the mindset that I felt was lacking before, both textured and energetic. It's the big highlight of the album's second disc, rather overshadowing the rest of that disc. The only two points against it are the odd tremolo effect on the vocals, which a singer like Hawkshaw doesn't need inflicted on her, and what is probably BT's recurring vice on this album: it can't keep up enough pace for its running time of twelve and a half minutes. Two minutes shorter and a bit more energy and this would shoot into "Running Down the Way Up" territory in terms of consistent quality.

Following Kirsty is another BT-led track, "Love Can Kill You". It's not bad at all, and the shortest track here, so his voice doesn't grate on you so much and you can enjoy it purely as a dance track. However after this, disc two loses its appeal. The sheer length of music you've listened to by this point - an entire normal CD album - probably doesn't help here, but the remaining tracks just aren't up to the same standard and I find myself struggling to keep up the enthusiasm. None of them are worthy of mention individually because all bear too much similarity to other BT tracks, some of them earlier in this album. Whether this will change with time is doubtful - I often re-evaluate albums but I don't see this happening here.

This leaves me with summing up the album. Taken as a whole I like it, because it did bring me what I was asking for years ago, and in one or two cases, such as "Every Other Way" and "The Rose of Jericho" actually held an interesting development for BT, like TBU did. But it is not consistent, some songs are marred by unnecessary padding and far too long in total. Other points to mention is that it has that modern over-produced feel to it, like a lot of music in all genres these days, which is probably forgivable but stands out a lot when compared to BTs early work where the mix feels very natural. Too much compression leaves not enough space to breathe in the music, which Ima and Escm certainly did not have a problem with. This feeling is heightened on the busy Pendulum-like tracks BT has attempted a few times here. These songs do work but certainly don't play to his strengths as a musician, especially when he starts singing. In much the same way as you don't put on a Vanessa-Mae album to hear her sing*, when listening to a BT album his voice is not really the motive for doing so. "Solar Plexus" and "Satellite" stood out as unique on their respective albums as a change of pace and were very welcome in that role, and BT's voice suited those two songs. However here, as on ET, he is pushing himself too far, when what he needs is a proper male singer. Brit Rob Dickinson does appear here, but either he's no good or he's just not being used well because his two songs are in the arse end of Disc Two and don't endear him to me.

So in conclusion : this is good, it has some great tracks on it, but it is not a return to form. Unlike the first three albums, it will not change the way I think about electronic music, or sway my tastes in any particular direction, because it's just not that important. I do not know where BT will go from here, and I'm not sure exactly what he should do. The early stuff was very heavily influenced by the British and Ibiza club scene of the late 90s, which I recall BT did immerse himself in, to his benefit I feel. Now he is in America, doing his own thing but not exactly surrounded by the most vibrant or stimulating environment for dance music. Unfortunately I feel that the kind of dance music community and scene that existed in Europe ten years ago is no longer as strong, and therefore being back on this side of the pond would probably not be any better.

I cannot give the album a score, because I don't feel you can quantify subjective impressions, but now I feel I can rank all of his work together, which I shall do whenever I expound on another one of these essays about an artist or their work. So, ranked in ascending order of quality here are BTs full artist albums, with only a slither between the best three really:

Emotional Technology (2003) - Only a few highlights
These Hopeful Machines (2010) - Too inconsistent and too long
This Binary Universe (2006) - Greater consistency means it edges out THM here
Ima (1995) - Possibly a bit sparse compared to the two below, but still great
Movement in Still Life (1999) - Amazing, and the most consistent
Escm (1997) - Has some weaker points, but has some of his best ever songs

* Yes, she really does. It's not worth listening to.

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