Let me take you on a journey back to the summer of 2000 for a moment. I had just completed my first year of college and had started my first real (summer) job, which gave me for the first time in my life a mind filled full of new ideas and new experiences and, almost more importantly, a wallet full of disposable income. I bought my first TV that summer, my first DVD player, and my first Playstation. But probably the most influential purchase of that summer was the international version of BT’s 3rd album, ‘Moment In Still Life’. Let’s rewind for a second. I’ve been interested in electronic music since before I even knew what that properly meant. During my freshman year of college I knew deep down in my gut that I liked electronic music, that this was just something I had to be a part of, but as of yet I still didn’t really know what electronic music truly was. Even though I wasn’t aware of this yet, the synth heavy 80’s had seeped into my subconscious in a big way. My generation is the one that was there right at the beginning of the computer revolution. Like most kids of my generation the first music that I heard on a regular basis that I could consider “my” music and not my parents was the soundtracks to video games. These were sounds that no one had ever heard before, sounds that hadn’t even existed before the invention of the microchip. This was the sound of imagination, the sound of the future, and every molecule of my being wanted to be a part of it.
I had no idea where to start though, so I picked up a Rhino 2 CD compilation entitled ‘Machine Soul: An Odyssey Into Electronic Dance Music’ and the rest, as they say, was history. At this point (in America at least) electronic music was still very underground. You really had to seek it out if that was what you were interested in, and there was a real sense of adventure and discovery associated with that (which I’m sure had nothing to do with my more hipster-like tendencies later in life). For a boy who was raised on a steady diet of classic rock growing up, this compilation came as a revelation and immediately I knew that this, this was for me. Machine Soul was my first proper introduction to bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, Underworld, Gary Newman and New Order and I had to know where I could find more of this sweet ear nectar.
This two disc set was arranged chronologically and it ended with BT’s “Godspeed”, a track that really embodied electronic music of the rave/trance era. Probably my favorite part about that track was its enchanting, otherworldly vocals, created by using a technique BT actually pioneered, the stutter edit, where you take a small fragment of a sound and repeat it rhythmically. With this technique you could make the vocals do things that no human being could ever achieve in real life, and to me it sounded fantastic.
My actual purchase of ‘Movement In Still Life’ was a happy accident in a lot of ways. When I looked on Amazon for this album there were two different versions to choose from. The one I chose happened to be the international version and the primary reason I chose this particular copy was simple economics; for almost the same price this version had a longer running time and two discs of music while the other had only one. What can I say? I’ve always been a more is better kind of guy. This somewhat minor decision turned out to be a very important twist of fate for me though, because on the international version of the album all the tracks run together in one seamless mix instead of having a pause or break in between songs. This seemingly insignificant detail turned out to be an incredibly important accident for me. I’d never heard an entire album where the music never stops, as if its entire running length were just one giant song. The music never stopped, it never took a break, and despite the fact that BT’s actually from Baltimore, Maryland this sounded extremely European to me. The overall impact of this revelation led me to discover DJ culture from places like Ministry of Sound and Global Underground and for the next four years I pretty much lived on a steady stream of DJ mixes. I just couldn’t let the music ever stop.
The international version of the album leads off with its title track, “Movement In Still Life”, which immediately grabbed my attention because the song starts with an actual answering machine message BT received from a hilariously hopeless aspiring producer (which is missing from the trimmed down version of the song present on the US version of the album). I’ve heard the start to this album so many times that I’ve got this answering machine message pretty much memorized by now, right down to the rhythm and cadence of his voice. That message then serves as a sample for the song and I think it acts as a bridge that creates a sort of narrative and interactivity with the audience that really grabs and holds your attention as the rest of the album then unfolds.
[I don’t know why this YouTube video starts playing the song over again when it finishes, but it was the only video I could find that contained the full version of the song.]
The opening four tracks, “Movement In Still Life”, “Ride”, “Madskillz-Mic Checka” and especially “The Hip Hop Phenomenon” are much more breakbeat and hip-hop influenced than the rest of the album and initially they also happened to be the songs I found the least interesting. But I have to give this album credit where credit is due, because not only did it open my eyes to the wide variety of possibilities in dance music, but it also helped create a starting point for me to get into hip-hop music, a genre I was as of yet still relatively unfamiliar with.
Where things really get started for me though is the album’s fifth track, “Mercury and Solace” which features for the first time on the album the gorgeous vocals of the outstanding Jan Johnston. This track was hugely popular with DJs at the time and for good reason. The song perfectly embodies what trance music was all about, melodic phrases that repeat throughout the song, building and falling over and over again to create powerful emotional states of euphoria. Way before dubstep made “the drop” (in)famous, trance music had been using this technique to get the hair on the back of your neck to stand up for years and years. “Mercury and Solace” then transitions into “Dreaming”, which grabs up all of those good vibes and goes off running with them.
By the time we hit “Giving Up The Ghost” the party has broken out into full swing. Pop on your glow-sticks and go nuts, because shit just got real.
The last great song on the album is “Running Down The Way Up”, a piece featuring vocals by Kirsty Hawkshaw that starts to slow things down just a little while still keeping the tempo up. I love the imagery of the lyrics, “Always running down the way up/ And you’re standing there”. While I believe the actual meaning to these lyrics have a much darker tone, I always saw it as more of an optimistic song about going against the grain and doing your own thing while everyone else was busy doing what was expected of them. This really spoke to the fact that I was going off into uncharted territory at this point, because no one else I knew was listening to dance music at the time. This became a sort of personal anthem for individuality that I still to this day love.
Now, even though I think the international version of ‘Movement In Still Life’ is by far the superior way to listen to this album, there are still a few reasons to own the American version. Two of the best songs recorded for this album, “Never Gonna To Come Back Down” and “Love On Haight Street” don’t even appear on the international version, the irony being that a big part of the reason why I wanted to buy this album in the first place was because “Never Gonna Come Back Down” had gained some minor popularity on alternative radio at the time because of Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing’s awesome guest vocals. I bought the album because I wanted a copy of that song and it wasn’t even on the version I bought! Boy, that had me confused for a while. I did go through a brief period of disappointment when I couldn’t find the song and I thought I had bought the wrong album, disappointment elevated by the fact that it had taken such a long time to get the album from when I ordered it to when I received it in the mail because it had to be ordered from England. It wasn’t until I actually sat down and listened to the album with a calm state of mind that I was like, “Hey, this is actually pretty darn good!”
Final thoughts: While I don’t want to give anyone the false impression that this is one of the greatest albums ever made (it’s not), its impact on me has been immeasurable. ‘Movement In Still Life’ is very much a product of the times, but who knows if my musical journey would have taken the same twists and turns if I hadn’t taken a chance on this album back in the summer of 2000? Sometimes a single piece of art can expose you to a whole new world of possibilities and really challenge what you thought was possible. Change is good. Experimentation is good. Part of what I was rebelling against musically at the time was the fact that all the classic rock I was familiar with sounded the same to me. I wanted more out of my music than just guitar/bass/drums/vocals. I wanted to be surprised.
The more I think about it ‘Movement In Still Life’ was a very apt title for this album, because, for me at least, it embodied taking the static state of the music as I knew and it injecting it with life, like watching a drab painting of fruit and flowers jump to life right before your eyes. It’s like the first time you see and truly get a cubist painting like “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” by Marcel Ducham. Cubism can be jarring at first and even ugly, but once you come to the understanding that you’ve been looking at a static representation of motion and then get the impact of what that truly means, that same image becomes oddly beautiful and emotionally moving. The end result is that you always become a better person when you are able to see life in an entirely new way.
Influential Media is the second semi-regular column that I mentioned I would be doing for the new C’est Non Un Blog in my Can You Take The Heat??? mixtape post. It’s taken me a while to put together a post for this column, but hopefully you’ll see more pieces like this in the future as I track down the roots of my own personal cultural milestones.