Far be it from me or any critic to trash an artist for pushing the envelope. But BT doesn’t so much push the envelope on his new album as he does whack at it like a piñata, trying to see what musical goodies will spill out of it next. With each “thwack!” of his admittedly brilliant but increasingly overblown production skills, another morsel of dance pop spills out. Another gumdrop of hip-hop, another nugget of techno, another lozenge of rock. It’s obviously great fun for BT, who makes it clear in his press kit and liner notes that he spent thousands of hours in the studio geeking out over this stuff (6,178 vocal edits in one track! Sample-accurate, nano-corrected rain! grain synthesis algorithmic work, whatever the hell that is!), but for those of us who have to listen to it, it’s not exactly nourishing stuff.
It wasn’t always like this. When BT first burst onto the dance music scene in the mid-’90s, he was one of the pioneers of a style that eventually became known as epic trance, or dream trance, or, some would argue, just trance (Which is ridiculous, by the way — BT and Sasha didn’t invent trance any more than Chuck Berry and Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll — they took existing sounds and, thanks to their immense talents, pushed them from the underground into the mainstream. But I’ll save that for another rambling album review). And the thing is, as much as trance in general and epic trance in particular has been rightly maligned for its sappiness and formulaic builds and breakdowns in the years since, BT was good at it — and continued to be good at it right up until his last album Movement in Still Life, which in “Mercury and Solace” and “Godspeed” had possibly his two best contributions to the genre. Sure, Movement had its own piñata moments — “Madskillz-Mic Chekka” and “Love on Haight Street” and whatnot — but for the most part BT stuck to his strengths, and there were more than enough glorious moments to make up for the self-indulgent lapses.
Not so on Emotional Technology. For most of these 13 tracks, the Godfather of Epic abandons the dancefloor faithful and just whacks away at that piñata. Electro-funk! New age balladry! Nu metal throat shredding! It’s all here!
To be fair, there are a few club-friendly beats strewn about this album, but for the most part they’re so candy-coated with a thick glaze of kiddie-friendly dance pop you’d hardly notice. “The Force of Gravity”, for example, turns into an *NSYNC song during its obligatory epic breakdowns, thanks to the overwrought vocals and sappy lyrics of guest vocalist — wait for it, now — *NSYNC’s JC Chasez. And surprisingly, BT’s one collaboration here with his longtime partner-in-dancefloor-anthems Jan Johnston, “Communicate”, is unlistenably bad. Against an appropriately silly old school backdrop of bubblegum synths and bouncy beats, Jan coos, “You came, and stole my heart”, cleverly rhyming it with, “You came, tore it apart” before advising in the chorus: “Learn to use your words so we can / Communicate, communicate / Communicate, communicate now”. Am I the only one who sees the irony in these cartoonishly simple-minded lyrics? Am I the only one wondering if she and BT have lost their marbles completely?
I think part of the problem is that BT wants so desperately to be universally liked that he winds up coming across like the awkward math geek running behind the pack of cool kids in the schoolyard: “Hey, look guys! I can be cool, too!” He’s too eager to flash his technical chops, and simultaneously too eager to write simple pop tunes with broad appeal; the ornate, fussy production techniques and lowest-common-denominator pop hooks make for an uneasy, gawky combination that falls short of any benchmark of coolness. Even his guest vocalists and session musicians smack of almost-but-not-quite. He couldn’t recruit Justin, so he got JC. He couldn’t get Slash and Izzy, so he got ersatz Guns N’ Roses members Richard Fortus, Tommy Stinson, and Brain, who backed up poor Axl on his ill-fated comeback tour. He couldn’t get an actual actress/pop star, so he got actress/dater of pop stars Rose McGowan, who’s actually not half-bad on the self-consciously titled “Superfabulous” but who is, like many of the vocalists on Emotional Technology (including BT himself), so overproduced that she comes off more as a prop than as an actual collaborator.
What’s frustrating about all this is not so much that BT’s turned his back on the style of music he’s probably best at (and yes, I admit, I’d be happier if he made a straight-up progressive/epic dance album, but I’m willing to keep an open mind and let the man experiment if the results don’t suck), but that he’s just way too talented to be mucking about with the pop drivel of songs like his first single, “Sonambulist”, on which he tellingly sings that “simply being loved is more than enough”. The artists I admire the most are the ones who realize that simply being loved is not enough, that you’ve got to tell everyone, even your closest fans, to fuck off every now and then so you can follow your muse, instead of chasing after ever more radio-friendly fare under the guise of branching out.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that the best tracks on Emotional Technology are the ones on which BT collaborates with the “fuck off” artists, instead of the pop-oriented folk his desire to be loved constantly draws him to. “Knowledge of Self”, for example, finds him teaming up with hip-hop maverick Guru, of Gang Starr and Jazzmatazz fame, along with Beck’s longtime turntablist DJ Swamp, and rapper Rasco, who’s part of Peanut Butter Wolf’s innovative Stones Throw posse. Together these iconoclastic fellows inspire BT to dive into the genre he’s dabbled in most next to trance — electro-breaks — and punch it into the fucking stratosphere. The jittery, lunatic energy of this style of music plays to BT’s strengths as a producer, allowing him to pack the track with his patented stutter-cut effects, random bits of electronic and analog noise (listen for the telephone ringing), thick, ominous basslines, and most importantly, the most block-rocking beats on the entire album. Why he chose to include only one track in this style is beyond me — “Paris” dabbles in breaks but never quite gets off the ground — since as a breaks producer he’s really hitting his stride.
Emotional Technology‘s other standout track is “The Great Escape”, features singer/cellist and William Orbit protege Caroline Lavelle, another maverick artist whose own work often evokes comparisons to Enya but which has a restless mix of classical and electronica influences all its own. Here again, working with a more offbeat artist seems to inspire BT to go off the deep end instead of splashing around in the kiddie pool, as he churns up the song’s core elements of goth-tinged rock and new age pop with dashes of distorted strings, rumbling breakbeat rhythms, and even a pretty killer psy-trance synth line (the result, apparently, of that aforementioned “grain synthesis algorithmic work”). Even the heavily treated background vocals, more often a distraction on the rest of Emotional Technology, add to the song’s moody atmosphere.
There are plenty of other cool moments on this album, but they’re fragments, brilliant bits of production work in search of a solid song to inhabit. “Last Moment of Clarity” features a great “Peter Hook stylie bass” played by BT himself under an otherwise disposable midtempo dance track; there’s a too-brief stretch of “The Force of Gravity” that’s all blissfully smooth, dense progressive house glory; “Paris” has a cool, atmospheric intro with lots of ominous synth crashes and shards of vocal samples.
Then there’s “Dark Heart Dawning”, which has grown on me to a degree I can’t fully account for. By rights, it shouldn’t work — it’s an overwrought rock ballad featuring BT’s serviceable but rather anonymous vocals and that lamest of lyrics, “It’s all good” — but work it does, precisely, I think, because of BT’s over-the-top assault on rock’s most bombastic conventions. He literally crams everything into this track — treated guitar loops, a wistful pedal steel, mournful piano chords, thundering drums and cymbal crashes, turntable scratches, George Martin-esque minor-key strings, a trio of female gospel backup singers, the list goes on. If nothing else, “Dark Heart Dawning” is probably going to be the calling card that gets BT some work as a rock producer, which would be a nice change of pace from his recent gigs doing remixes for *NSYNC and Britney Spears.
In fact, production work for other artists may be BT’s best hope for achieving the kind of stardom he so clearly desires, because his real talents have far more to do with studio wonkery than they do with conventional songwriting or musicianship. With a little restraint and a few more solid collaborators, he could become the Dr. Dre of dance pop, or even the catalyst for really blowing up the rock-electronica fusion that’s been percolating on the fringes of popular music for so long. Certainly he has the skills to do it, but I fear he may also have the ego — and the relentless desire to be liked — to do it badly.