Music Review: These Hopeful Machines by BT

30 Apr 2010

Original Blogger tags: Music Review

People write reviews for many reasons. Sometimes they’ve got a bone to pick; sometimes they want to share a particular discovery. The best criticism, in my opinion, usually stems from a desire to share something the critic has discovered, and the best critical reviews often are interesting to read because provide some insight into the work discussed, the genre, and the mind of the critic too.

So, with that in mind, I can’t claim that I’ll succeed at this game, but I’d like to point you at BT’s newest album of electronic music, These Hopeful Machines, and tell you why I think it’s fantastic.

Back in 2000 I was an amateur DJ, and co-hosted some great parties at which a lot of guests made us very happy by dancing and celebrating some great music and a great time. Things kind of crashed after the tech bubble collapse and I think there has been a bit of a hangover in dance and electronica that has lasted for the better part of a decade. That isn’t to say that nothing great has been recorded, and no one is dancing, but that’s how it has felt to me.

BT’s newest represents to me the culmination of many strands of influence, many of which date back to 2000 and before. The styles of many other electronica producers are evident. One that keeps coming back to me is Aphex Twin, aka Richard James, particularly sounds of the “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” era. I also hear Squarepusher and Autechre all over the place in the polyrhythmic, glitchy, bursty electro sounds BT uses. In BT’s hands, though, they are not aggressive and scary, but upbeat, nostalgic and soothing. The synthesizer swells and gorgeously layered vocals remind me of another highly regarded producer, William Orbit.

One of the difficulties with electronic music has been its tendency to be ghettoized into sub-genres and sub-sub-genres: house, hard house, electro, downtempo, and ambient. These styles have partisan fans and followers, but with the exception of some crossover artists, not much airplay and not much audience outside of clubbing fans. This album changes that. This is the one that blends and mixes the genres — showing an impressive array of influence — and brings it all home with a large and tasty dose of slightly vacuous but hugely enjoyable bubblegum pop. It even gets a little dark and occasionally moving and touching — like the artier bits of Madonna’s Ray of Light (produced by William Orbit). Several of the tracks will very likely get pop radio airplay, although like most people my age, I left commercial radio behind in disgust at least fifteen years ago, so I doubt that I’ll hear them.

BT seems to produce music primarily out of his home studio, and he’s famed for his in-depth and inventive approach to editing (his “stutter edit” and his use of granular synthesis). These techniques feature prominently in this album, but as a listener I don’t feel abused by them. Because BT is not just good at this kind of editing, but he’s also incredible at EQ and mixing. The attention to detail evident on every part on every track is astounding. If there’s a vocal glitch or mouth sound, or a little buzz on an acoustic guitar, you can bet that BT wanted it that way and compressed and EQ’ed and reverb’ed it just to bring out the precisely desired effect. He’s an absolute lunatic and a control freak, but I mean that in the best possible way. As an amateur producer myself, I can hear the degree of effort that went into it, and it is nothing less than astonishing.

If I tell you that this album is not truly innovative, would you think that I mean something negative by that? I don’t. It’s the culmination of influence, and crosses and remixes genres joyously. It doesn’t break new ground, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a beautiful thing. I haven’t heard anything this good in a long, long time.

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