ChipWIN-tern Spotlight: ‘The Lighthouse’ by Kartmaze

As time goes on, I find myself being less and less hyped up on new albums. Perhaps it just comes with having too much to do as an adult, or being over-saturated with great music means it takes a lot more to “wow” me these days. Maybe I’ve gotten used to the familiar names and faces, and am waiting for something new. Or, it’s because nothing else has been Kartmaze’s ‘The Lighthouse.’ Some of you may recall my previous interview with Mads Aasvik, our Norwegian friend who put out ‘Seven Journeys to a New Home’ last year. Mads swore that a pre-Christmas release of his new album was extremely unlikely, but it looks like he secretly kicked his butt in gear and got this thing churned out.

It’s difficult to find words to describe this album without sounding trite and cliche. I’m one of those people who, when someone comes to me about something and says “OH my G~~~O~~~D, THIS ____ IS THE GREEEEAAAAAAAATEST,” I immediately lose all desire to partake of whatever this thing is and it is forever dead to me. So what I have to say about The Lighthouse is simply the measured truth:

This album is a wild ride from start to finish.

If you think you’re prepared for this album, you are wrong. I’m going to go ahead and call this the sleeper hit of 2014, because I don’t think ANYONE (except, perhaps, Mads himself) had any inkling as to how good this album is.

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Weighing in with 9 tracks and just under an hour’s worth of music, this album is simply impressive.The first track starts, and the only thing I could think was “This is what Danny Elfman would sound like if he did chipmusic.” You’re immediately hit with a slow, sweeping, cinematic introduction, without any hint of “chippyness” to it, and already you know you’re miles away from anything you could have guessed.

By the way, I hope you packed a lunch, because this is going to be one hell of a trip.

The Waves’ opens up with the more familiar synth sounds one might expect. It’s start is still incredibly calm and peaceful, as though easing us into something more exciting. As the pace starts picking up, it still sounds like you’re in some sort of fantasy story – until the drum breakdown, and then you realize you’ve been led into a prog-rock ballad, only to crash back into calm, slow jams. The album is playing with you. You are a ship on the waves, catching bare glimpses of light (or in this case, pulsing rock) as the sea rolls you ever forwards.

Sweeping you into the third track, appropriately named ‘Storm’. Between driving leads and speedy, urgent drums, you can tell that the game has changed and you’re getting somewhere. This is the Kartmaze we know and love, and he is fully aware of it. The ‘Storm’ passes, and we’re left with a brief piano interlude before realizing what lays before us.

As we get into ‘The Reef’, the mood changes. Everything is mysterious.  There are big space synth sounds and echo effects. The melody sounds hopeful, but the clashing chords it is up against instill a sense of worry. Being the longest track on the album (which is saying something, given that they’re all quite lengthy), you really get taken on an emotional rollercoaster as the track goes from curious, to hopeful and upbeat, to urgently driving forward, only to lull you into a false sense of security hits with the slow portion because the last movement of the track is higher energy than anything else we’ve seen. This is my favorite track, and for good reason.

As we fade into the next track, all becomes calm again. ‘The Sunrise’ has come, and whatever urgency that the night may have pressed upon us has passed.While this song is calm, it also has an air of desolateness.  It invokes the feeling of being the sole survivor of a rough night at sea; the only one left to see the sun come up.

Then, something crests the horizon, and we have cool violin parts and an angelic choir – have ‘The Ships’ come to save our stranded listener? This track goes back and forth between the tight “real” instrumentation we heard in the opening track with violins and slick percussion and woodwinds into the dirty prog rock we all know and love.

As the album continues, and we go into ‘The Light’ and the listener knows that here we are – this is what we’ve been waiting for. This is the behemoth of a track we knew was inevitable, the epic prog ballad the likes of which would make C-Jeff proud. This track, as the kids say, “goes hard, y’all.” It’s rough, it’s punchy, it’s like a shot of espresso driven right into your eye. As it goes, there is a building fervor that happens not only within the track but within the listener as well, and Kartmaze plays around with that, slowing down the track at key points to tease you, to slow down the process and to hold off the inevitable climax…of the album, I mean. What did YOU think I meant?

Finally, the end comes with’The Sunset’. With this sad little refrain and the sound of rushing waves, we know that the journey has come to an end.

I said it above, and I’ll say it here in summation: This album is what would happen if Danny Elfman and C-Jeff collaborated on an album. I don’t think I can pay it any higher compliment.  If by some stretch of the imagination you haven’t gotten this album yet, you done goofed – but while the consequences may never be the same, you can fix your error by following the links below. I can’t wait to see what Mads has in store for us next year. You might say that I expect his work to rock progressively harder?

Eh? Ehhhh?

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Alright, I’ll take the sound of the angry mob forming outside as my cue to leave.

SEATS OUT.

Kartmaze Links:
Bandcamp | Soundcloud | YouTube | Twitter

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Chris Considers: ‘The Coffee Zone’ by Fearofdark

Hello fellow ChipWINners! I hope that all of you who were able to attend 8static Fest over the weekend are recovering nicely. (I’m so jealous.) To aid in the recovery from your 8static hangover, how about a heaping helping of ‘The Coffee Zone’ from none other than the Famitracker wizard, Fearofdark?!

Damn good coffee.

Damn good coffee.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then it’s highly likely that you’re already familiar with Fearofdark and his incredible album, ‘Motorway’. (Check out DjjD’s awesome review of it published to this blog earlier this year.) ‘Motorway’ made an indelible mark on the chiptune scene, and for years it has remained a preeminent source of enjoyment and inspiration. As phenomenal of an album as it is, ‘The Coffee Zone’, a collection of Famitracker songs both old and new composed over the last 4 years, just may supplant ‘Motorway’ as your new favorite Fearofdark album.

One thing that I really love about ‘The Coffee Zone’ is its structure. The first 5 tracks utilize the trusty 2a03, while subsequent tracks utilize various expansion chips increasing in their complexity and multi-channel capabilities. The expansion chips used range from Nintendo’s MMC5 and Famicom Disc System chips, to Konami’s VRC6 and VRC7, and even an overclocked Namco 163! What results is a melodic masterpiece that doubles as a guided tour which showcases what these chips are capable of by a true master of his craft.

avatars-000009897423-qqbxro-t500x500The opening track, ‘Lovesickness’, starts with a sleepy pre-coffee square wave supported by ascending bass scales. 30 seconds in, percussion is introduced to the mix and incrementally, the caffeine rush sets in! Suddenly, the listener is awash in all manner of auditory excellence. Once the track settles into its main groove, what strikes me is the way in which the percussion is used in conjunction with the lead melody to make a strong impact on the listener, rather than merely keeping the beat. Every channel is used to its utmost potential in new and interesting ways, which is a recurring theme that you’ll find throughout ‘The Coffee Zone’. From the jaw-droppingly frantic climax of ‘Gastly’, to the steely-eyed determination of the Follin-esque ‘Scaling the Dragon Fortress’, it’s made clear that Fearofdark puts 110% of his passion and expertise into every single one of his compositions.

‘Pancake Department’ is a song about making pancakes in space and the unwieldy proposition of trying to flip them while in zero gravity. It’s an amusing image when juxtaposed against the stellar backdrop to this playfully funky track. The melody that kicks in at 1:06 is absolutely delightful and one hell of an earworm.

Moving into expansion chip territory, we have what is currently my favorite track on the album, ‘Zoning Residential’. Using the MMC5 expansion, Fearofdark has stated that this track is about a guy who wants to build a city and watches as his humble suburban homes grow into towering skyscrapers. However, when I listen to this track’s sumptuously soothing melody, I’m taken to a place completely removed from urban life such as a seaside town with nary a care in the world. Regardless of the imagery that this track evokes for you, the tranquil and humble beauty of ‘Zoning Residential’ is undeniable.

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‘Zoning Residential’ takes me here again.

Elsewhere, ‘Dandelion Ride’ starts out light and airy with rolling arpeggios as its backdrop before rushing in with a very upbeat slice of jazz fusion. There is an intangible, dreamlike quality to this track that fascinates me, especially the section beginning at 2:44 which feels as if the ride we’re taking is slipping further into deep levels of the subconscious. Transitioning from the serene to the energetic, Fearofdark knocks it out of the park again in ‘Penguins of the Apocalypse’, a maniacally joyful VRC6-fueled track of controlled chaos.

‘Flame Repellant’ is an astounding and intense composition with a driving beat and focused dynamics that wouldn’t be out of place as the background music to a high-speed chase. A brisk staccato bassline kicks things off to form the backbone of the song, which is then joined by a remarkably head-bobbing lead that makes excellent use of the VRC6’s sawtooth channel. Sprinkled with lots of killer effects throughout, ‘Flame Repellant’ is a fantastic and rousing composition. The fact that this was the first thing that Fearofdark wrote in Famitracker absolutely boggles the mind.

‘There’ll Always be Next Year’ is a fist-pumping inspiration of a track that takes many twists and turns. The timbre of the lead melody ranges from strong and determined at the beginning to a fragile whisper at 2:16.  ‘Hopeless Romantic’ uses the 6-channel N163 chip overclocked to 224 Hz, creating a rare and exciting chiptune experience. The lead melody undergoes fierce vibrato before the entire soundscape’s intensity is turned up to 11 before dropping a beat that would set any dance floor ablaze.

Closing out the album is the title track, ‘The Coffee Zone’. It’s a suitably smooth jam with a lead voice that changes over time, backed by some deliciously Rhodes-like chords. This track contains multiple mini-solos and flourishes over its near 5 minute running time before fading away and leaving the listener wanting to start the whole experience over again.

Bear in mind that I’ve only scratched the surface of ‘The Coffee Zone'; the levels of WIN contained within this album are just too astronomical to capture within a single blog post. What I can say without hesitation is that this is one of the finest chiptune releases of 2014, and is absolutely worth your time and money.

I feel that the mark of a great chiptune musician is that rather than giving the impression that they are executing a carefully crafted composition, it feels that they are actually breathing life into these wonderful chips of old, speaking through each of their unique personalities. Fearofdark accomplishes this in spades in ‘The Coffee Zone’, so expect this to be a regular on your playlist for quite some time. While you’re at it, keep your heart and hands held high!

Fearofdark:
HomeFacebook | Soundcloud | Bandcamp | Twitter | YouTube

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Office Hours #3 – Zackery Wilson

Welcome back to the first Office Hours session after last month’s Chiptunes = WIN Volume 3 release! This month I am reviewing a recent release titled ‘SNESQUE’ by fellow Longhorn and ChipWIN alum Zackery Wilson.

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In addition to his talents as a pianist, Zackery Wilson has extensive formal training in composition and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also one of only a few composers combining contemporary classical music with chiptune elements, intended for a more formal concert setting than most live chip music.

My first exposure to Zackery Wilson’s unique musical style was his track ‘Ain’t Got Time to Bleep’ from last year’s Chiptunes = WIN: Volume 2. Clocking in at a blistering 1:39, this track packs a lot of punch in a short amount of time. In retrospect, ‘Ain’t Got Time to Bleep’ feels like a precursor to this year’s ‘SNESQUE’ release; each track on the album is a brief musical landscape exploring a variety of sounds and textures.


SNESQUE Cover
Released in partnership with netlabel Ubiktune, ‘SNESQUE’ was created using original soundfonts from a variety of Super Nintendo games and composed inside FL Studio. Each track is restricted to samples from one specific SNES game, which are noted in the titles. A further compositional guideline for each track is brevity – the longest is just under 3 minutes in length. Like most level-based video game music, the tracks loop seamlessly one time before ending. Combining authentic retro sounds with modern DAW effects is a hallmark of Zackery Wilson’s style, and it is masterfully done on each track of this album. My review separates various elements of composition into their own category, focusing on how they interact within each track of the album.

Earworms Served Au jus [Melody]
Each track on ‘SNESQUE’ is a smorgasbord of delicious melodic tidbits, full of interesting timbres and cool ornaments – I love all those pitch bends, especially in the third track. One of the striking things about Zack’s style is his use of very high registers for his melodies. The melodies on this album seem to be structured similarly to a big band trading solos between players, and you can definitely hear the influence of screaming lead trumpets and altissimo alto sax lines.

Although each track is individually a beautiful and well-crafted miniature model of perfection, my biggest complaint about this album as a whole is the over-reliance on the “freestyle solo” melodic style. I realize that I have spent significant lines talking about the uniqueness of ZW’s style, so it feels a bit like complaining that John Fogerty sounds too much like Creedence Clearwater Revival when I then complain that the melodies aren’t all memorable. However, after listening to the album several times, one does start to get a sense of repetition and melodic coherence – listen to the solos in ‘Snowball’s Chance in ‘L’ for an example of a track that sounds on the surface like one long solo, but there are definite repetitions and similarities between the individual melodies.

Grade: 9/10

We’re In This Together [Harmony]
I have to tip my hat to Zack for this category, as writing in a jazz/fusion harmonic style is incredibly difficult to pull off with any amount of sincerity and he does it with absolute skill and conviction. Going far beyond an amateurish “add diatonic sevenths to every triad” harmonic approach, this album is a textbook in jazz voicings and harmonic progressions. Zackery’s piano chops almost certainly include woodshedding Chick Corea solos, Thelonious Monk’s harmonic language, and the understated beauty of Oscar Peterson. Every single track does something unique, but my favorite harmonic moments are in the keyboard and organ comping in ‘Y So Secretive?’ – that major/minor shift in the first section is really cool.

Grade: 10/10

On the Down Low [Bass Line]
As a bass player I am very appreciative of a hip bass line, and chip music usually has its fair share of neat bass licks. Although the listener’s attention is mainly drawn to the melody and chordal accompaniment patterns in each track, there are a few moments where the bass is allowed to stand out in the texture. Honorable mention goes to the delightfully quirky synth-slap sounds in ‘Earthbound and DOWN,’ but my favorite bass moments happen in ‘Have A Nice Flight.’ Some of the little bass fills in this track and the solo that starts at 1:08 just beg for a pixelated Victor Wooten thumping along in the background of an accompanying music video.

Grade: 9.5/10

Girl, you decide how HTML elements render in a browser cuz you got STYLE [Musical Styles]
Zack describes the styles of the album as “[f]rom progressive rock to jazz fusion, samba to swing,” which is quite a wide range of disparate elements to pull together! Although I mentioned this next comment as a slight negative in the melodic design, each track flows together quite well when listening to the album from start to finish. No one track sticks out of the texture in a negative way, and there is not single sample that sounds out of place. The cohesiveness of extended tertian harmonies in each track help the music form a single sonic landscape, where electric guitars and slap bass can coexist with flutes and string pads. I don’t quite hear the prog rock influence – perhaps more Rick Wakeman than Dream Theater – but that is quite alright. The textures and repetitious melodies of ‘Suck ‘R Punch’ make this track unique on the album, but it does not sound out of place since the harmonies and occasional screaming lead lines are found elsewhere on the album.

Grade: 10/10

Studio_Magic.dll [Production]
The production value throughout ‘SNESQUE’ is incredibly high. Each instrument is balanced well in the overall mix, and the highs, mids, and lows all sound good. I really enjoy the subtle effects that are sprinkled throughout the album; reverb is not overused, and both pitch shifting and echo help bring a humanizing element to the vintage soundfonts. Perhaps the best way I can compliment the production in each track is that, to me, the post-processing is never obvious or overbearing throughout the album. No, this is not a strict use of SNES samples as it was done in 1991, but at the same time these tracks never stray too far into the uncanny valley of modern-versus-retro audio production.

Grade: 10/10

Insert Coin to Continue [Replay Factor]
While Zack uses repetition as one of his compositional constraints for each track, it never gets in the way of enjoying any given moment throughout the album. Like the best examples of looping in video game music, the loops here are seamless and completely unobtrusive to the listening experience. Essentially, when listening straight through this album you have heard each track twice, although it never feels that way! I have listened straight through the album many times for the purposes of this review, and I still do not feel as if I am tired of any particular track. The track embedded here is a collaboration with Player 2, Zack’s brother Jay who is also a member of the Volume 3 roster. I would be interested in hearing more about their collaborative writing process and if it was a peaceful Mario/Luigi experience or closer to Mario/Wario antagonism.

Grade: 10/10

Zackery Wilson’s ‘SNESQUE’ is an album of tunes that are short in length but absolutely filled with quality from start to finish. The energy of each track remains high until the final note, and there is a seamless progression from track to track. Combining original SNES soundfonts with modern production techniques is a delightfully fresh take on modern chip music and gives this album a unique sound.

Final Grade: 58.5/60 (97%)

That wraps up Office Hours for today – the professor has a lot of grading and midterm exams to copy… Until next time!

Zackery Wilson:
Website | Bandcamp | Soundcloud | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

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