This Binary Universe

First published

The glitch is a dangerous tool.

It’s a bit like soy sauce, really, in that it’s best used sparingly, as a metaphorical kick in the pants of smooth, regular mediocrity. Over-apply it, though, and its flavor overpowers everything else like an ocean wave knocking down a sand castle, leaving only a bitter aftertaste and perhaps an appreciation of how the hapless subject of superfluous condimentation might have been better off unadulterated.1

As exhibit A, I’d like to submit This Binary Universe, Brian Transeau’s latest solo excursion under the name BT. Amazingly enough, Transeau managed to avoid the most obvious pitfalls — though the average track length hovers somewhere around eleven minutes, and the titles are either impenetrable (The Antikythera Mechanism, referring to an ancient analog computer) or a bit pretentious (the golden ratio–pillaging 1.618), the musical arrangements by and large don’t seem to need any sort of compensating for, with a couple of instrumental climaxes reminiscent of the Future Sound of London on their brilliant Lifeforms.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line came the idea to liven things up a bit with a skipped beat or two, which gradually led to the end of the world as we know it sections getting smashed over the head with fuzzbox effects and jarring random noises in completely inappropriate places. Take The Internal Locus, which is initially composed of what sounds like a thunderstorm in an abandoned industrial district accompanying a melancholic piano melody. There’s a nice little warping effect on the last chord of the ostinato, which fits the mood perfectly, but after a repetition or two this is abruptly replaced by a shuddering skipping, which then proceeds to spill over into the rest of the phrase before the whole idea is tossed out with a bass swell and we move into a string-driven section instead (albeit a nice one). It’s almost as if Transeau is acknowledging that he’s not really sure how to pull off a transition, and tossing in a trademark stutter as a consolation prize instead.

This self-consciousness leaks into a few other spots as well; BT’s stabs at a unique or monumental sound, which include the contributions of a 110-piece orchestra, occasionally cross the line into over-the-top film score territory. (Which in itself isn’t all that surprising, since Transeau has soundtracked a number of movies.) Fortunately, This Binary Universe gets noticeably better about this as it progresses; compare the first half’s effect-marred Dynamic Symmetry to the beautifully poignant — and much more restrained — closer, Good Morning Kaia.

In short, kids: too many production effects will ruin your Chinese food.2 Um… or your ambient compositions. Or… uh… actually, I kinda forgot the point I was trying to make. Oh, well. Back to playing Ever17.3

  1. I will disclaim here that I’m a terrible cook, though I seem to have the flowery-language-coupled-with-imagery-that-doesn’t-fit-so-well aspect of it down pat. ↩︎

  2. And I’m Chinese-American, so trust me here — I know what I’m talking about. (It’ll help if you just forget about what I said in the last footnote.) ↩︎

  3. Completely tangential side note: I die a little inside every time I type ^_^. ↩︎