When you listen to Pilotpriest’s album Trans, the cinematic angle is clear. Film often acts as an influence for experimental electronic music circles, but it’s a little different here. Pilotpriest is the musical outlet of Anthony Scott Burns, who is a visual effects artist and filmmaker who has worked on movies such as The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh and the horror anthology Holidays.
Trans is a soundtrack to a science fiction film that exists only in Burns’ mind (and ours, by extension). Despite its lo-fi tendencies and retro-analog sound, the composition is post-modern, bringing to mind genre artists like Oxyd, Polygon, and Forma Tadre. High praise, yes, but Pilotpriest belongs in that conversation, for Trans is a quietly stunning work.
The track that drew me to this album is “Now Be The Light,” an immediately arresting and melancholic space-opera anthem built around a wistful sing-song voice sample. Burns slowly surrounds the sample with a variety of carefully shaped sequences and keyboard chords, anchored by bass-synth and percussive loops, coaxing the track toward thrilling pinnacles before diving into slow-motion near-silence, only to ascend anew like a scintillating digital phoenix. As the track progresses, it always circles back to the little robotic tune, perhaps voiced by some infinitely lonelier cousin of WALL-E. Each component serves as foundation and amplification for this tiny voice, and the creative and technical spark flashes bright and often, gliding gracefully through its passages with the ease and wonder of breathing. This is the kind of track that you can listen to just to appreciate how well everything fits together – it’s neither too long nor too short, neither too experimental nor too predictable, and its sense of myriad rhythms impeccably wrought – but it’s more than its structure, tapping into the shared human experience in a way that all artists strive for but few achieve. For all its disparate parts, “Now Be The Light” is a singular and natural track, the kind that accompanies you through the day and welcomes you each time you plug in to revisit. I have a short list of electronic tracks that I consider perfect, and “Now Be The Light” holds a permanent place on it.
And this is just the beginning. “Now Be The Light” is the second of twelve tracks on Trans, and while the rest of the album never quite reaches the interstellar heights of “Now Be The Light,” Pilotpriest is quickly proven to be no mere one-hit wonder. Trans is a post-industrial classic alongside Oxyd’s Larva, Forma Tadre’s Navigator, and Polygon’s [images], managing a timeless sound with a fresh take on expression and assemblage. Most of the tracks on Trans are over five minutes in length, and all are solemn yet somehow playful outer-space anthems. Slow tempo and untreated piano are commonplace, the latter often twisting through melancholic melodies giving voice to the near-human yearnings of computers tasked to operate defunct and forgotten interstellar ghost ships for eternity, with nothing but their own memories to accompany them. Pilotpriest’s muses are the descendants of Kraftwerk’s playful man-machine, heir to infinite possibility but removed from history by error and circumstance. “Entrance” is particularly effective at expressing this bittersweet sadness, a tone enhanced when Burns’ lost AIs insert fragments of the voices of their long-gone human masters into the music, such as the trip-hoppish IDM hymns “I Am You” and “Skin.” Elsewhere, 4/4 structures are the backbone for “Lipstick” and “Strangle Part Two,” but these are crystalline designs, much too intricate for the raw power of the dancefloor.
Trans is a hidden classic, a burnished gem lost in a corner of the internet. Pilotpriest might not be a well-known name among post-industrial circles, but Burns’ project is more than deserving. Perhaps Trans is a bit too long, owing to the three comparatively rote bonus tracks, and perhaps the tone is a bit static, but when the music is so grounded, satisfying, and consistently brilliant, these issues cease being issues at all. Any album that not only contains a track like “Now Be The Light” but somehow manages to maintain the bar it sets is something rare and special. Pilotpriest is a particularly well-named project. Trans is a deeply reverential work, moving forward while embracing history and mourning its passage.