BT gets a bad rap sometimes. While there’s something admirable about the dude’s nonstop quest to reinvent himself and be more than he currently is, it has a tendency to irritate fans and nonfans alike. I mean, even his most hardcore fans have to admit that he’s made a number of questionable decisions in his career. And if you’re not a fan, he comes off as a real tryhard, a man obsessed with getting his brand out there, who treats every interaction like a job interview. It’s hard to think of a musician in any genre who puts himself out there the way BT does (much less in a “faceless” genre like trance).
I think that most consider Emotional Technology to be the moment where BT really went insane, but you could see the signs coming. Even on his 1997 album ESCM you could hear him doing things you wouldn’t normally hear on a progressive trance album – acoustic guitar strumming in the background, BT singing in unexpected places, or intricate drum effects that last exactly one beat. Also, a lot of people seem to forget that it had one Nine Inch Nails-style screamo track on it. But that’s where the BT as we know him today really began – the man never met a form of electronic music that he didn’t try to overcomplicate. By the time of Emotional Technology he was talking about designing all his plug-ins from scratch and inventing effects like “granular synthesis” and “nano-corrected rain”. One track has him taking apart a rap verse syllable-by-syllable to make it scan properly and another feautres 6,178 vocal edits (and yes, that is the all-time record).
Hopefully that all sounds impressive, because when you really get down to it Emotional Technology is just a really, really elaborate pop album. It’s all-too-easy an album to tear down; you could mention how overblown the songs are, how cloying and awful the lyrics can be (one track features the line “do you cry yourself to sleep?” as a chorus, another has BT saying “yeah, come on” about a thousand times), or BT’s insistence on doing everything except for the things that he does well. You could mention the 78+ minute runtime, that godawful white suit on the cover (lets not even mention the haircut), or the fact that he seems weirdly influenced by his work with N*SYNC on “Pop” a few years back (which, by the way, is still the most frigged-up single to ever come out of a boy band). Those are all valid points, but there’s too much here to just write it all off. BT may not always have the greatest ideas but you can be damn sure that he’s going to follow his muse 100%.
More than anything, the trouble with Emotional Technology is that it’s too scatterbrained. BT wanted this album to have something for everyone and as a result it’s a difficult disc to follow. Not only are there some wild swings from track to track, but even the songs themselves tend to lack any sort of internal logic. You’ve got “The Force of Gravity”, which builds up like an epic club banger but suddenly stops short to let JC Chasez deliver an overdramatic chorus. There’s “Dark Heart Dawning”, a twangy ballad that takes half a dozen detours along the way. “Paris”, which is part breakbeat showcase, part bass-heavy dub, and part radio-friendly pop. What’s really astounding about this album is how many sounds there are on it. Not only in the sheer number of instruments or synthesizers but also in the amount of crazy production effects. Every song is so stuffed that you wonder if he had any ideas for them that he didn’t use. Not content to let the songs speak for themselves, BT puts (seemingly) hundreds of hours into each one; hardly ten seconds ever go by without some kind of curveball thrown in. Most notable are the thousands of vocal edits on “Somnambulist” – the extreme stutter effects must’ve taken so long to do that it all but ensures that there will never be another song like it on the radio.
Of course, none of this is really necessary, but it says something that BT took the time to do it anyway. “Somnambulist” is the litmus test for most of Emotional Technology, as it’s the sort of easy going pop song that people tend to really overreact to. It’s got a good groove to it and is a hell of an earworm to boot, but let’s face it, the song is only really interesting for being a technical showcase; this is light years beyond the sort of stutter effects he was doing on say, “Tripping the Light Fantastic”. That said, there’s a sense of perfection about it; perhaps it’s overkill, but it sure as hell sounds cool, and for that I’m glad he sprung it so far out.
Still, it doesn’t quite represent the album as a whole – as a matter of fact it was the only officially released single (BT himself has expressed amusement that you can still hear it in Taco Bells nationwide). In fact, outside of “Circles”, it’s probably the most straightforward tune here; even the club-fodder of “Superfabulous” sabotages its own momentum with a completely nonsensical bridge. Instead, look at tunes like “Great Escape” – it’s not far off from the epic trance that filled the second half of Movement in Still Life, but it’s almost as if BT lost the sense of what trance was all about. On Movement it seemed like BT was using his ambition to serve the rhythmic elements of the song; that album had a lot of neat production effects too, but most of it was about the groove. Here, BT doesn’t mind warping the arrangements to fit everything in – there’s a cinematic scope to nearly everything here that makes it difficult to really lose yourself in the music. Much like a director who imagines the action scenes first and the plot second, on Emotional Technology BT favors the ride over coherence. The songs move all over the place but ultimately it feels like they build up to a big moment that never quite comes.
In a way, Emotional Technology is like a producer’s showcase. If I were making a film or looking to put together a single for a big-name star, I would see a world of possibility in the album; BT clearly knows his sound design and is unwilling to take any shortcuts. To that extent the album is a success – BT has produced and remixed dozens of big-name artists since, though to be fair he was doing a lot of that even before Emotional Technology came out. But the following years did see him score entire films by himself, for what that’s worth.
So why make this album of the week? I mean, I haven’t heard all of BT’s albums, but this is probably the one I like the least. I’m able to talk myself into it right up to the JC Chasez moment on “Force of Gravity” – from there it’s a mix of good and bad, parts on each song that I like and parts that I don’t, but for all its trials and missteps and little experiments there really aren’t that many boring moments. At least, not until “Communicate”, easily the worst of BT’s collaborations with Jan Johnson, the one tune on here that desperately needed to not drop the beat during the chorus. Even the big stadium-rock ballads at the end are good listens, as hard as they wind up reaching; they’re not quite on the level of “Satellite” from the previous album but they mine similar area. It’s an album I’ve found myself listening to a lot lately; it’s not on the level of Movement in Still Life and there aren’t really any tracks I’d single out here but I still find it fascinating. As superfluous and unnecessary as they may be, I still love all the crazy stutter edits, the big orchestral moments, the way every beat and guitar line is goosed up. Whether or not it makes for a good listen is up to you, but quite frankly you’d have to be nuts to attempt an album like this.