BT — “_” Full Review

Two years ago BT released a track available for download after a media push to reach his next milestone of likes or follows on Twitter or Facebook. I don’t remember the exact number nor if it was actually Twitter or Facebook but I do remember this:

At the time the track had no actual name and there wasn’t a public release of this track yet. It ran 3:52 in length and featured some wonderful strings against bright pads in the background and a splendor of (maybe) wooden percussion that reminds one of BT’s “Stem the Tides” or the light taps in the buildup of his Electronic Opus version of “These Silent Hearts”. Later that same year this track was released on BeatPort with an actual name as part of a compilation album built to help donate funds to beat ALS. It’s still available for purchase on BeatPort.

The track was called “Lustral” and it has been sitting on my hard drive and in my iTunes library since its original release back in 2014. And for a producer, composer, and electronic explorer like BT, fans of his work will undoubtedly have a random obscure release or remix of one of his tracks somewhere in their library. Sometimes those hidden little nuggets, remixes, or just “good finds” date back to BT’s early years in the late 90s. Recently I got super excited that a used copy of “10 Years in the Life” I bought had a full mix of “The Road to Lostwithel”, a breakbeat track on his E.S.C.M. album but only in the UK version of the disc. If I buy the US version of that same album I’ll have “Lullaby for Gaia” in its place. And that’s not a shame, that’s just the reality of how music gets released and how fans get to chase after different editions and uncover unheard of music. And fans of BT’s work get an extra layer of uncovering the intricacies and potential purpose or meaning of his albums and music. He’s just a complex guy, which means devouring his music (or vice versa) is not as simple as “listen to it”.

What interesting a puzzle to pull apart then is BT’s latest album that goes by no name and releases in two different editions and has a tracklisting that includes Lustral in it. It’s right there down below, track 3 of 9. Also I love how Black Hole Recordings has an accidental “n” in front of Artifacture.

“nArtifacture”

And adding to the fascination is that BT told everyone this album was built across the past two years in his travels, mostly inspired by thoughts of flight. I have no intention of calling BT a liar here. Just because he wrote Lustral with the intention of it going into a movie doesn’t mean it can’t count as something that’s a part of this untitled album written when thinking about flying. Sometimes music starts out intended for a movie and it gets canceled and the work is left there on the cutting room floor with nothing left to do with it but chuck it into an album of other things you’ve been working on for two years while going to Tokyo, visiting the Code of Hammurabi and waking up pondering existence in the middle of the night. Because that’s what the full version of BT’s new album feels like. No, not wasted concepts shoved onto a high quality digital copy to charge people $50 for, it feels like the potential of anything brought into reality. The secret is in the details.

The first thing I want to address are the doubts and concerns I mentioned in my early look at BT’s new album when just the first three tracks released digitally: Artifacture, Indivism, and Ohm. I was worried BT pushing the three tracks on Spotify and iTunes and Amazon as hard as he was would cause problems and disconnect with his fans. The other six tracks weren’t going to release digitally and so it seemed like BT was holding another hour and forty-five minutes of music away for people who pay out the nose for his music and have to get the version with the drone footage and the box set. It turns out some mistakes were made in the album’s description (whether on BT’s part or Black Hole Recordings I’m not sure), the full album is an hour and a half in length and the three tracks that were released digitally truly are the centerpiece and strong focus area of the album. They compose of 50% of the full release. In many ways, the first four tracks before Artifacture and the two tracks after Ohm feel like additional pieces, bonus material. They actually feel like those little nuggets crazy fans such as myself will chase when they get the opportunity to do so (especially since fans may have already heard or even owend Lustral). The general public who are interested in whatever dazzling BT can do with his music really should be paying attention to those three pieces of music out there available digitally. They’re the stars of the show and deservedly so. I still don’t think that forgives the miscommunication but if you’re someone who likes BT but not that much, don’t worry, you’re only missing stuff the crazies such as myself chase after.

And that’s because the other 45 minutes of BT’s “_” is composed of 4 shorter tracks and two much more meditative pieces, which leads me to the other concern I had in my initial impressions. This album isn’t 9 tracks of half-really cool musical concepts explored before the same amount of time is spent listening to ambient modular musical outros. It’s more an exploration of a dynamic 2 years of different music made for different reasons. Starter track Tokyo is much more ambient and stutter-fun given a meditative chant in its background through what sounds like a modular or bass effect instead of vocals. At six minutes it doesn’t set a tone for the album so much as it just kind of pushes off into beautiful streams on a gondola right away. Tracks 2, 3, and 4 last less than 4 minutes but bring so many things to the table. Lustral as mentioned earlier seems to have come from a film that never got released or BT’s involvement in it ended. Code of Hammurabi however feels much more personal. It has this incredibly dark-clouds opening of sharply colored pads before opening up into beautiful melodies, unique drums (jeez what drum in this album isn’t unique?) and a piano to carry us through it as we fly into the dark clouds once more. This track is the majesty and terror of flying all at once. And then Lost in Translation feels like a character piece in a film or show as well, beginning with sorrowful strings before finding Hans Zimmer-esque pads and beats. I was getting strong “Inception” vibes on this one as it quickly evolves into a growing atmosphere of modular tones and vibes. Chromatophore I’ll get to later and Five Hundred and Eighty Two is wonderfully meditative unless your headphones are a bit sensitive on the high frequencies. BT chose a sound that grinds in and out of this track. The crux of the track is that it’s based around the frequency at which healing takes place and if you’re paying too close attention to the music with the right (or wrong) pair of headphones you’ll find yourself unable to enjoy or focus on any other sounds than that one. I think I described the experience to a friend as a bad reminder of some dental visit noises. I should mention that was only when hearing the song with my Sennheiser HD 598s. Listening to the same track at work on a upper-consumer-grade bluetooth speaker had no where nearly the same negative effect. And the same went for my more mid and bass-heavy pair of AKG 240s. And that just makes the album all the more fascinating. It’s worth listening to on all the good pairs of headphones you have. The ambience and mood has a better or different tone based on what you’re wearing and the range of frequencies you’re going to be picking up from one pair of headphones to the next, especially if you shelled out for that box set…

BT’s decision to release this album alongside 4K drone footage might’ve been a better decision than expected. The 4K drone footage is one cool aspect to it all but in addition to this, BT’s getting the opportunity to share the album in a quality standard unmatched to CD copies or MP3 rips. The album size is so digitally big you’re shipped a 64 GB USB stick with everything on it. And the music itself occupies a whopping 2.7 GB of that space in .wav format. This makes the album pliable to any fan that wants to listen to it in whatever lossless or lossy format they want without having to worry about unnecessary data loss. For reference, one CD containing (approximately) a maximum of 80 minutes of music will fill up 800 MB. An extra 10 minutes of disc space to reach the same album length as “_” would be an album size of 900 MB for 90 minutes. Instead we have three times that data in audio format for the same 90 minutes of music. Many will say that that data is useless and can’t be heard by the human ear. That’s okay though, this is speaking value to people who are already willing to buy the box anyways and just aren’t sure if they want to take the plunge. You’re not going to be forced into having 320 kbps MP3 files just because it’s a digital release instead of a CD.

BT may seem like he’s retreating into mediums of delivery that require people to shell out more for his music, but when he’s giving you the fully uncompressed forms of his music digitally or via vinyl (ala All Hail the Silence), it’s hard to complain. He’s doing his best to make sure you get your money’s worth with the stuff he makes. I make mixes as a hobby, I used to help produce podcasts. I’ve heard the compression difference when you go from uncompressed vocal audio down to 92 kbps to squeeze it on a podcast server. I used to make videos too. I’ve rendered out videos recorded in 720p and seen what they look like on the other side when they’re compressed enough for YouTube standards. Sometimes that loss isn’t a big deal and MP3s at 320 kbps really do have all the qualities that you can hear with your human ears. But BT is one of those guys who puts frequencies in his music we can’t hear because he thinks it can have a positive effect on us. It’s literally the selling point of one of his tracks on this album. Don’t believe in that stuff? That’s fine. But if you do, it’s here in this edition of the album for you to enjoy. And BT is probably just happy that the method he is delivering the music to us has those details at the ready if we want it that way.

Those 4K videos I mentioned earlier are still something worth talking about too.

In my initial look at the album the 4K footage was not a strong point of discussion. I mentioned that two drone pilots worked closely with BT to ensure the videos were something he was happy to deliver to fans. And in fact my first full listen of the album was by watching all of the videos in order. And they’re wonderful to watch if you like this sort of thing. I had already seen the first three available videos on YouTube and it looks like all of the videos might be going up eventually so they’re worth checking out from YouTube at the very least. It’s one way to not buy the box but hear those other tracks. Take a look.

These videos are gorgeous and the tone of each track is relatively met in the camera movement and direction. Artifacture’s camera movement is steady, carefully done, and slowly paced. Meanwhile Indivisim mostly features a split or reflected view of a sunset before changing to a contemplative journey elsewhere, following the structure of the song itself turning into a modular ambience. And Ohm’s camera footage runs at high speed and has faster cuts to fit the big and more exciting mood of the music. But the modular outro on Ohm turns the camera work into a slow fade off into a sunset as land more and more disappears from view and all that’s left is the water ahead.

Then Chromatophore starts and this is a lovely point to stop and talk about both the track and where the 4K footage and filming turns into something wonderful. Chromatophore is a very interesting track that starts off with a speedy reversing sound leading into mostly…ambience and the sound of what seems like rainfall in the distance and a few unsteady and random raindrops plinking on a piece of plastic very close to the mic, or maybe raindrops actually landing on the mic or a nearby cover. It’s very ASL (just go YouTube search it, people listen to familiar sounds at higher detail recordings to relax themselves essentially). And it’s a long carefully pieced together track that gets a wonderful extra layer to it when some wonderfully recorded thunder rolls through the scenery. And the 4K video for it starts off where the track before it (Ohm) ended, but reverses the footage, quickly, to before the beginning of the shot we see in Ohm. And that pays really well into how Chromatophore begins with a fast speedy sound coming off the end of the micro-movement “A Modular Music Machine”.

That was the big standout moment for me with the 4K footage. It should be noted that 4K footage does not play or deliver itself via normal methods. Just opening up Winodws Media Player might not cut it. Having a USB stick with playable movie files means you’re going to be looking for a video player to watch this stuff on, and my go-to choice was and always is VLC. But sending 4K footage through a USB 2.0 or even 3.0 pipeline may not be fast enough to playback the footage smoothly. For me I had to do some forum searching on how to enable hardware acceleration in my current outdated version of VLC so that playing the video would be offloaded to my graphics card instead of my CPU (not that it can’t run 4K footage but I thought that might make it work better). For people who are just going to want to sit down and watch without any hurdles might find themselves leaning toward the YouTube uploads instead unfortunately. BT’s music has often crossed paths with film. This Binary Universe was actually released as a CD/DVD set with a DVD playing the album’s music mastered for 5.1 surround sound to unique and very interesting film pieces. Meanwhile the music videos for Skylarking, 13 Angels on my Broken Windowsill, and Letting Go are all of a similar thread. Buying this USB stick and box set just for the videos included is probably the hardest thing to argue for, but it’s a nice inclusion.

Speaking of the box, as you saw in my small video above, I can’t fit it on my shelf. But it’s a cool box with four detailed card renders. One is the full album cover with track listing and album info on the back. The other three are the individualized, or pulled apart, pieces of art for the lead singles: Artifacture, Indivism, and Ohm. You can actually see how they form the entire album art itself and are a little reflective of the nature of the songs, especially Indivism’s, which splits the album artwork or sits in the middle in a sense. On the back of those three cards we have the micromovements by name and colored lines to indicate the length of time from micromovement to micromovement.

And that leads me back to talking about “_” as a whole again. It’s a weird thing to deconstruct because we still have this weird disjointed thing in the room. We have three leading singles that are released as a bunch of micromovement tracks for listeners to pull apart, decipher, and understand down to a granular level, sold as an entire album. Never before has BT been so open about what each little component of one of his tracks could be called, even if he isn’t revealing every step of the way “how it was done” or “what inspired it”. And the album promoted on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon showed us this detailing times three. But the rest of the album isn’t that, the tracks aren’t the same thing and don’t have the same level of moment to moment introspective detailing even if they were inspired by stuff BT experienced over the last two years. Getting married, traveling the world on his A Song Across Wires tour, the rush of his Kickstarter project coming to fruition in a live show playing 14 of his hits through history in a fusion of live electronic music and live orchestral music, the actual album itself, recording and finishing the long-awaited “All Hail the Silence” project, and so many other things are just the headlines on the amazing two years BT’s had. There’s not enough music in the world and enough time in life to tell the stories of the music he made while being inspired by life in hopes of inspiring all of us to grow and change as people. And so, by the nature of much of BT’s music, he doesn’t. He actively avoids telling too much about his music besides maybe talking about what it accomplishes. Sometimes we get a little nugget of detail telling us how it came about.

But, much like the very theme of this album’s name and how BT decided to name it, the beauty and the meaning behind the music is all left to our mercy. And that feels like such a fitting thing for what potentially amounts to a reflection of what BT does. In everyday life BT could be spending his time composing themes or character pieces for film or television (Lustral, Lost in Translation), pioneering and exploring radical new forms of creating music through experimentation (Artifacture, Indivism, Ohm), or just creating music for the purpose of expressing oneself (the whole thing). What the album’s name and inherited meaning becomes for us comes from what we get out of BT’s work. In an album that focuses on more compositional and electronic experimentation, while still managing to have radical music that feels like it’d blow people’s minds considering the club-music perspective, “_” is aptly named. The album reflects what could result any time BT sits down to create something. It reflects the realm….of anything.