BT & ON
Movement in Still Life & Shifting Skin
In a summer where the Billboard charts are ruled by innovative rap from Eminem and saccharine pop from Britney Spears, two excellent albums have debuted far below the range of the public eye, each attributed to a pair of capital letters. With Shifting Skin, ON, alias Ken Andrews, extends the legacy of his previous work with Failure with haunting melodies laid over impeccably designed soundscapes, while BT (Brian Thiessen) applies his DJ and arranging skills to the vocals on Movement In Still Life to turn the tracks into intense rock/dance epics.
If you’re a fan of State of the Airwaves, you know how much I’ve anticipated the release of Shifting Skin. Not only is the project spearheaded by Ken Andrews, formerly of cult favorite bands Failure and the Replicants, but it features contributions from Self’s visionary Matt Mahaffey, and God Lives Underwater’s Jeff Turzo. In the end, it’s hard to say how much input these assistants had (each of them is credited for drums or programming on four or five tracks) but the result is eleven songs that clearly invoke memories of Failure, albeit with less grungy rock and more synthesizers.
Variety is the spice of the album, ranging from catchy guitar-driven tracks like “C’mon Collapse” and “Slingshot” to slow, brooding meditations such as “Hang Up” and “Feel At Home.” One of Andrews’ modus operandi is building soft restrained tracks into huge, intense ones, a technique he applies rather formulaicly to “Soluble Words” and more creatively to “Building ... ,” which is focused around a rather lazy drum line until the chorus comes along: it’s an explosive combination of heavy guitars and the plea, “I can’t get along without you.” On the other hand, the building is used in a different way in “Feel At Home,” which converts from a darkly quiet song into a disorientingly happy one (complete with whistling). It’s a novel approach, but it left me a little disappointed, since the beginning of the song was one of the highlights of the album for me.
One of the most important things to Failure fans will probably be the signature Failure style: calm melodies over disturbingly dissonant yet flowing backgrounds. That technique still lasts into the ON era, especially in one of the album’s best songs, “Perfect Imposter,” a garishly repetitive and distorted march, as well as the album’s calm but oddly awkward title track. For my money, however, the best tune is “Paper Thin Soul,” the fastest song on the album which utilizes one of the strangest guitar riffs I’ve ever heard and has an intensity that is somewhat lacking on a lot of the rest of the album. While I adore this disc, I can’t help but feel that a little bit more could be done with it. It’s still more than worth owning.
On the same day that ON hit record stores, BT’s Movement In Still Life, previously available overseas, debuted in America with a number of tracks altered and replaced. Most notable is the addition of “Never Gonna Come Back Down,” the wickedly fast-paced collaboration with Soul Coughing’s M. Doughty that has gotten modest radio play and appears in terribly butchered form on the soundtrack to Gone In 60 Seconds. While the cost of the album is worth it for this track alone, the dance club crowd is likely to recognize another song: “Godspeed,” an instrumental house track that is probably known less for its name than its signature melody riff.
Movement In Still Life is structured similarly to Shifting Skin, opening with the catchy (a Crystal Method-esque track with rap vocals called “Madskillz/Mic Chekka” and “Never Gonna Come Back Down”) before it ventures into the epic, caroming from the powerful orchestra-dance tracks “Dreaming” and “Running Down The Way Up” to more drum-oriented cuts like “Mercury and Solace.” Most striking of all is “Shame,” in which Thiessen himself provides emotional vocals to what is essentially modern rock with post-modern instrumentation.
All the music on this album is excellent, and clearly much thought has gone into the selection of every note and beat; but the thing that really sets BT apart from other electronic artists is his liberal use of guest vocalists and his respect for them. While many DJs will sample vocals and then remix them into oblivion, Thiessen leaves the lyrics and vocal flow intact, toying with the music around them but always focusing on the vocalist. Thus, he creates the return of the song to the dance genre. Despite the dance rhythms and electronic hooks, the heart and soul of each of BT’s tracks is a melody, giving them each a unique feel and identity, and the entire album a feeling of true completeness.