There are two things that you'll notice right off the bat when listening to BT's latest album, These Hopeful Machines. The first is that he has (at least for the moment) turned his attention squarely back to the dance floor. As a follow-up to his largely orchestral and experimental This Binary Universe, it's a stark about face, back towards a style from earlier in his career. Not that elements from that album don't rear their head – as they do, in subtle ways – but they aren't the driving force this time around.
The second thing you'll notice is that tracks are long. Spanning out to two CDs, this album gives the old vinyl moniker of LP ("long player") a more literal meaning. Tracks are much more comfortable in the ten-minute range than they were on his past two dance-oriented albums, and the double-CD format is more a physical limitation than it is an indication of split personality. This is just a long single album with a singular aim and a lot of (good) ideas it needs to get out. You'd really have to go back to his Ima and ESCM days to find the best comparison for album structure and long-breathed song development. But that still doesn't touch on the sound of the record. What does These Hopeful Machines sound like?
In short, this new record feels like the natural amalgamation of all of his previous albums. The styles are all there, sometimes combined within the span of some of the longer tracks. "Suddenly" starts things off and delivers another one of his dance-rock hybrids. Delivering his own vocals, BT gives a strong and instantly catchy opener. It's single-ready and is a good signal that this album's aim is immediacy. And as catchy as it is, it is instantly challenged by "The Emergency", although this time with more of a club focus. This is one that will be remixed and become a club staple, mark my words.
"Every Other Way" slows things down, and already helps establish the record as a well-balanced listen. The first of back-to-back tracks featuring vocalist Jes (of Motorcycle's "As The Rush Comes" fame), it's a beautiful, glitchy, breakbeat ballad – and there's a combo of words I don't often get to use together – that builds and builds into a glorious crescendo of emotion. "The Light Of Things" quickly picks the pace back up for another club-ready track, complete with some production winks toward fans of his ESCM days.
"Rose Of Jericho" is the only instrumental from the first half, and is one of the more adventurous sonically. A cross between a progressive-trance late night special and something a little more Warp Records-friendly, it shows the most free-form experimentation in terms of composition and structure, never being afraid to endlessly tweak elements of the arrangement in pursuit of something as heady as it is clubby. "Forget Me" wraps up the first half with the second song featuring BT's own vocals, and also the second of his that includes more of a "band" edge to it, featuring generous guitar layers and straightforward arena drumming. It also does battle for catchiest track thus far.
"A Million Stars" is slightly left-of-center harmonically, but features an appropriately breathy female lead that helps ground it back to the club. It's an interesting and ultimately winning deep album cut. "Love Can Kill You" mixes BT's own vocals against a track that combines generous production tricks during verses with a more rock-ready chorus.
The emphasis on guitar- or band-led tracks sits well with the majority of vocalists that BT uses on the record. It's a natural for his voice, and also that of Jes and Rob Dickinson. Dickinson, who was vocalist for brit-rock band Catherine Wheel, is featured on two tracks: "Always" and "The Unbreakable". And it is very good to hear his voice again, especially in this setting. He simply soars over the anthemic "Always", and I think I might have finally found the catchiest song on the album by now. If they did an entire album together, I could finally write that all-inclusive three word review I've been hoping for: this kicks ass.
"Le Nocturne de Lumiere" is the instrumental on this half, and treads similar ground to "Rose Of Jericho." It's an expansive, evolving production tapestry that probably shows the most active use of BT's extensive production prowess. Bits and starts of sounds and instruments bounce around and collide to form something that couldn't have existed any other way. It's in instances like these that you see the maturity of BT's production this time around. Instead of tricks to show off, he's careful to use his skills when they're needed (and are the focus), and to otherwise step back and just let the music speak for itself.
Things wrap up with BT's cover of the Psychedelic Furs song "The Ghost In You." It's a surprisingly slow and beautiful rendition of the more mid-tempo original, and a re-working that, quite frankly, better highlights the excellent writing of the song. It's a peacefully pleasant close to a predominantly energetic collection of songs.
Literally every track on this extended album is golden. There isn't a filler moment to be had, and it is easily BT's best dance-oriented album. For those anxious to hear his latest stutter effects and surgical glitch editing… that's in there some, but it has been tempered to serve good songwriting, which has the primary focus here. In the past that has often felt reversed, but These Hopeful Machines sees the production mastermind also deliver a masterful collection of exceptional songs.