After an unsuccessful attempt to crash the mainstream and its subsequent relegation to mere background music and VW commercials, electronica is poised again to enter the forefront of American popular music. The recent American release of BT's Movement in Still Life promises to continue the success started by Moby and his unexpected hit album, Play.Under the name BT, Brian Transeau has been a lightning force in electronic music, taking house and trance to breathless new heights and, with the latter, unwittingly into the mainstream. With Movement, his third full-length album, he consolidates his sound and expands into "new breaks," an exciting offshoot that takes big beat's sense of freeform genre-swiping but replaces its hedonistic vibe with the icy veneer of breakbeat. He's also unafraid to throw guitars, drums, and catchy choruses into Movement's eclectic mix.
Beginning in the early '90s, the Maryland native worked slices of vinyl with the celebrated production/DJ duo Deep Dish in Washington, D.C., that became regularly rotated with top DJs. Additionally Transeau produced and remixed other artists, including Billie Ray Martin, Diana Ross, Seal, and Mike Oldfield. Tracks of his own like the enchanting and sprawling "Embracing the Sunshine" and the amped-up house of "Loving You More" catapulted the 28-year-old onto the world stage, fusing the irresistible joy of house with the foreboding nature of trance and a sharp, dynamic sense of melody and arrangement.
Transeau's first album, 1996's Ima, codified this vision, taking the epic ardor of house to grandiose new levels. With mammoth grooves, dramatic breakdowns, and sweeping, architectural arrangements (usually clocking in at well over ten minutes), the tunes came swathed in a serene, lush kaleidoscope of colorful sounds. "Blue Skies," a collaboration with Tori Amos, became an American club hit and soon the resulting subgenre, progressive house, became a hot property on the dance floor, causing its inevitable dilution to begin.
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By 1997 Transeau had switched gears and released ESCM, a highly diverse album that retained Ima's New-Ageisms but expanded into forays of drum 'n' bass, breakbeat, hip-hop, rock, and more vocally based songs. "I still really like soulful, progressive house," says Transeau, "but I'm trying to expand my musical vocabulary and not trying to adhere to one style." However, it was "Flaming June," a monster collaboration with Berlin trance DJ Paul Van Dyk, that struck the biggest chord with audiences, reducing club patrons to tears upon hearing it. Although Transeau had flirted with trance before -- especially on 1995's "Calling Your Name," recorded under the alias Libra (and used in the famous strip scene in American Pie) -- "Flaming June" represented the ultimate embodiment of modern trance. Taking its benign aura and plunging it into a dark, ominous abyss with spiked, acid lines in a fueled-up frenzy, it left its core visceral impact intact.
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Transeau's childlike enthusiasm is evident when, in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, he says, "I hope I didn't bend your ear too much. It's like, "We didn't need to know you owned a Big Wheel when you were a kid, Brian!'" This playfulness, perhaps, is the main appeal behind his music. As club culture expanded in musical scope, it soon became more academic and clinical, especially with the proliferation of drum 'n' bass. Transeau's sound, which eschewed overt emphasis on technique in favor of primal emotions (and not always the primal urges that drive most dance music) was a refreshing, naturalistic change of pace.
Considering the current popularity of the new, retooled trance, the conspicuous dearth of it on Movement is more than a little surprising. "I know people who can regurgitate the same thing over and over," he explains of the current worldwide trance craze. "I'm not about the big, huge, ridiculous breakdowns but something more subtle." Even the trance tracks included on Movement, like the riveting "Mercury and Solace," are based on "emotional restraint and not an explosion," breathing new life into the now familiar components of trance -- the breakdowns, the galloping rhythms, the yearnings (here courtesy of vocalist Jan Johnston).
Movement in Still Life could be perceived as a whole new BT, even when comparing its American version to its European counterpart. The latter, released in late 1999, features trance collaborations with Van Dyk and DJ Rap, a surprising hip-hop free-for-all with Sasha ("Ride"), and a new breaks masterpiece with Adam Freeland and Kevin Beber ("The Hip Hop Phenomenon"). The U.S. release, however, replaces those tracks, adds four new ones, edits others, and shaves 15 minutes off the original 70-plus. "It takes you through different emotions, and it's more condensed," explains Transeau. "I think it puts the songs in a different context. It sounds like a great mix tape."
Indeed Movement veers from the shotgun mix of New Order pop and M. Doughty's (Soul Coughing) free-association madcap vocals of "Never Gonna Come Back Down" to the classic progressive house screamer "Dreaming," featuring ethereal vocals from Opus III's Kirsty Hawkshaw (whittled from its original ten-plus minutes to a radio-friendly five) to last year's trance hit, "Godspeed." But it's hip-hop (and rappers) that dominate the album, with the opener "Madskillz -- Mic Chekka," the title track that samples from Grandmaster Flash's classic "The Message," the Chemical Brothers style rave-up "Smart Bomb," and the downtempo closer, "Love on Haight Street." Transeau concedes that one of his goals on the album was to tip his hat to hip-hop. "It's tougher around the edges," he says.
How long-time Transeau fans will take to it is another matter. Transeau's aware that refusing to stay in one place may shake core dance devotees, and he jokingly admits, "I'm always up against it!" Given Movement's emphasis on vocally based, tightly focused songs, admirers of Transeau's previous works will be even more challenged by the rampant diversity of Movement than by the jarring ESCM. One might even assume Transeau is gunning for the mainstream; his photogenic looks (right there on the cover of the American edition) certainly do not hurt. But Transeau demurs. "My greatest joy is watching someone get acknowledged after banging away for a long time, like Moby, Norman Cooke [Fatboy Slim], and William Orbit. But that's not a goal for me. My goals are to get over self-imposed creative hurdles -- for this album, for instance, it was doing full vocals on songs ["Shame" and "Satellite"]. Anything that happens outside of that is extra."
Until those hurdles are cleared, Transeau isn't resting on his laurels. In addition to his new explorations on Movement, he's branched out into other avenues, including soundtrack work and world-beat experimentation. He scored the film Go and the forthcoming Under Suspicion. He assisted Peter Gabriel on the music used at the Millennium Dome for London's New Year's celebrations (recently released as Ovo). While at Gabriel's Real World studios, he and Sasha recorded an album's worth of "beautiful, languid, ambient, soundscape world music." Titled [Re]verb, it's set for a fall release. Then there's his evolving live show. Presently, Transeau reports, it involves "a barrage of synths and lights and projections and me going spastic and breaking stuff," along with some guest rappers to flesh out the flow. However, this summer BT will begin rehearsing a live band, giving him the opportunity to show off his chops and "to do all of the songs I can't do by myself. I'm looking forward to it -- I haven't been in a band since high school."
A man once deemed about five years ahead of his time seems willing and able to live up to such a fearless tag, while courting the mainstream and possibly alienating his established fan base in the process. Of his place in the mix, Transeau says simply, "I'm just trying to help this music -- our music -- evolve.
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