Emotional Technology, Indeed
BT's Brilliant, Beautiful Binary Universe

A quick one, then a long one, then I’m out for the weekend, barring an 8-hour shift at the paper tomorrow covering an immigrant rights march. And funny that I should mention the newspaper, because that leads me right into talking about Steve Lord, his son Bobby, and Bobby’s band Surround Sound.

Steve Lord is an interesting cat. He’s been covering his beat since I was in grade school, and he knows everything there is to know about the county I live in. But he’s also got great musical taste, and he and I have had numerous discussions, sometimes lasting for an hour or more, right there in the newsroom where everyone can hear and be annoyed by them, about this band or that band or whether Paul McCartney should hang it up or just how freaking great David Mead really is. Like that.

And many times in the past, Steve has mentioned his 18-year-old son Bobby, and Bobby’s band. And finally, last week, he gave me a copy of the CD. The band’s called Surround Sound, and the record is called The Sun is On Our Side, and it’s self-produced and self-released.

And it’s quite good.

I have this separate rating scale for friends’ bands, and relatives-of-co-workers’ bands, and things like that, so I was all ready to form an opinion of The Sun is On Our Side based on that curve. But by the third track, I threw out my friend scale and just used my regular one, the way I do with the best musicians I know, like Lost on Liftoff’s Shane Kinney. Essentially, some musicians are just so good that they make me forget that I know them – or, as in this case, that I know their dads.

Anyway. Surround Sound plays punchy, bright power pop, with hooks galore and a songwriting sense far beyond what you’d expect a group of teenagers had in them. Most of the songs are Lord’s, and it’s obvious he’s been raiding his dad’s record collection – here are riffs and melodies straight out of the Kinks and the Raspberries, layered with backing vocals and played with an impressive tightness, especially considering this was a budget-minded production.

I said before that I stopped grading on a curve with track three, and that one’s called “Wake Up.” It’s a world-class pop song, in my estimation the best thing here, and if Bobby Lord can write more like that one, he’ll be an indie superstar in no time. I occasionally wished his singing voice had a lighter, more confident tone, and that the production was a little brighter, but those things come with time. The Sun is On Our Side is one of the most unexpected, pleasant surprises of my year – I got it for free, just for knowing the singer’s father, but if I had paid full price for it, I wouldn’t feel ripped off in the slightest.

Surround Sound has no record deal, and as far as I know, the only place you can purchase the CD is at Not Lame Records. You can hear some of it at their Myspace site or their own new website.

* * * * *

I get excited easily, especially when it comes to music.

I like concepts, grand ideas, format-shaking visions, and there’s little that gets me interested in a record more than seeing the evidence of years of thought and planning. The Early November announced a triple-CD concept record where each disc tells the story from a different perspective? I was there. Who’s the Early November? I had no idea, but suddenly I was very excited to find out, and it turns out it was worth it – The Mother, The Mechanic and the Path is a swell album.

It’s even more exhilarating when an artist I already know and respect takes that extra step, and puts together something beyond anything in his or her catalog. Such is the case with This Binary Universe, the new album from Brian Transeau, who prefers to go by just his initials, BT. The concept had me salivating before I even heard a note of it – TBU is a seven-song ambient excursion that comes packaged with a DVD containing short films for each of the tracks. Essentially, he composed a suite, and then hired people to make his own Fantasia, and now he’s touring it as an audio-visual experience.

Wow, huh?

BT has always been ambitious. His first album, 1996’s Ima, is more than two hours long, all beats and textures, and though it sticks to pretty traditional trance music throughout, it’s still damn good. But Transeau has proven himself a visionary since then, breaking down musical barriers by bringing in pop singers and acoustic instruments and anything else he thinks will serve the song. His last proper album, 2003’s Emotional Technology, wound up on my top 10 list that year, and I called it perhaps the perfect synthesis of electronic music and pop. It’s not club music with a singer, and it’s not pop songs with an electro-beat. This is something else, and I’m not really sure how to quantify it.

Transeau also scored the film Monster that same year, and his music for that movie is amazing – ambient, creepy, gloriously produced, beautiful and uncharacteristically serene. And it turns out that This Binary Universe follows the same path, only to a bigger and better place. BT has abandoned the manic pop melodies of his last few albums and turned in a 74-minute soundscape record, one that shimmers and flutters instead of gyrating and thumping. There are beats here, but they are mostly subtle ones, and the focus is on mood.

Oh, and one more thing – it’s absolutely fantastic.

Taking just the CD first, This Binary Universe starts with “All That Makes Us Human Continues,” which sounds like a dirge for its first minute or so before morphing into a web of underwater chimes. Roughly halfway through, it sounds as though it’s building to an explosion of beats, but it doesn’t – the intensity is only ratcheted up by a small degree. It’s the tone-setter for the album, and its intricate production is one element that never wavers from track to track. This record sounds incredible, like every BT release, and it’s music you can truly get lost in.

“Dynamic Symmetry” is perhaps the most traditional piece here, with its thudding drums and bass, although the tempo is still easygoing. But then the song flips into an electro-jazz experiment, and it works, though not as well as any other track here. Things get back on course with “The Internal Locus,” as both it and “1.618” shift and change subtly throughout their 10-plus-minute running times, always slowing down at the perfect moments to keep the atmosphere consistent.

“See You On the Other Side” is the longest track at 14 minutes, and it’s the one that never dices itself into some other form – it’s a lovely buildup and breakdown of pure electronic ambience. In contrast, “The Anhtkythera Mechanism” (named after an ancient Greek computing device found at the bottom of the Aegean Sea) is dazzling in its journey, going from purring pianos to full-on orchestral grandeur. And the finale, “Good Morning Kaia,” is perhaps the prettiest thing here, building in scope while never losing sight of the fragile piano melody at its core.

But writing about music like this is like trying to smell colors. I have no idea how to impress upon you the experience of hearing this stuff – it’s all feelings, all little snatches of emotion. I can tell you that “The Anhtkythera Mechanism” feels like the floor giving way every two minutes, or I can say that “Good Morning Kaia” broke my heart, but that tells you nothing. More than any other kind of music, I think, complex instrumental works like this need to be heard first hand. There is so much detail here, and so much emotion, that I’m never going to do it justice.

Similarly, I don’t think I can describe the films that accompany this music any better. Some of them are too abstract for my taste – “All That Makes Us Human Continues” opens the movie with what looks like a fractal landscape that changes color repeatedly, but it’s just a still shot for all eight minutes. Some are more successful, especially “Dynamic Symmetry,” with its undersea robot hummingbird (really) and many-eyed creatures. But mostly the filmmakers concentrated on moods and tones, which accompany the music well – often I couldn’t tell which came first, honestly.

But by far the most moving and successful track, both audio and video, is the aforementioned “Good Morning Kaia.” The film, directed by Transeau himself, is made up of home movies of his daughter, after whom the song is named. The song is the most personal work BT has ever crafted, bar none, and the video just brings it home. This is what instrumental music could and should be. It’s not crippled by its lack of lyrics, it’s free of the limitations of language, and able to express emotion in ways that words simply can’t. There’s no way to come away from this song and film unchanged.

BT is unfairly lumped in with DJs and techno artists all the time, and if Emotional Technology didn’t make it plain that he’s on another level entirely, this album should do the trick. There’s a depth and a diversity to This Binary Universe that you don’t often hear. It’s a big, bold record that draws you in but makes you work for it, and it sparkles with ingenuity and beauty. It is, unquestionably, the best thing Brian Transeau has ever done, but I would also go so far as to say it is one of the finest instrumental albums I own. It’s an immersive experience, one of the most ambitious projects of the year – and one of the greatest.

Next week, we get all proggy on your ass.

See you in line Tuesday morning.