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.

20140215_120229

‘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

V.3 Logo - (250x250 pix for blog)

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.

ZW logo
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

V.3 Logo - (250x250 pix for blog)

Stoking the Forge: ‘Damoiseau + Canalx’ by aliceffekt

Greetings to one and all ChipWINizens joining us for this wonderful “Pumpkin Spice” edition of Stoking the Forge.  This month, my attention turns to the heavily spiced late August release by aliceffekt, ‘Damoiseau + Canalx’.

Pumpkin-Spice

And that is the end of that gag.

aliceffekt is the alias of the interactive developer Devine Lu Linvega, a globe-trotting adventurer possessing multiple artistic talents, predominantly focused on drawing, programming and musical expression.

‘Damoiseau + Canalx’ was a side project for aliceffekt, worked on while his next full release was coming together.  He described it as an exploration of industrial and darkstep in the spirit of his previous release, ‘Blam, Le Passage Sacrilege‘.

The circumstances of production really captured my attention.  ‘Damoiseau + Canalx’ was recorded as it was played live at the final AMP event at Passport in Montreal.  It was released as it was played that night, displaying an unwavering self-assurance in his skill that I respect.

The music itself is as murky and percussive as one would expect from anything sporting labels like “industrial” and “dark”.  That just serves as a nice bit of backdropping, and isn’t the end-all definition of this release.  Each track has its own defining characteristics that demand a closer look, so let’s get down to it!

———————————————————————————————————————————

Korben Dallas- Opening with a low, haunting kick that fades to silence and ending on another kick that fades into white noise, these eerie landmarks serve as excellent capstones to a hard hitting track.  The track is primarily a thrumming and percussive composition that transitions between marching and walking, demanding attention regardless of pace.  With the particular choice of title, its hard not to let the driven components of the track remind one of some of the Fifth Element’s better action scenes.

hqdefault

Oh. Hi there.

Pop In The Year 9000 – While retaining some of the percussive qualities of ‘Korben Dallas’, ‘Pop In The Year 9000′ takes the tempo to a more subdued place.  One might think that the combination to be a bit at odds with itself.  However, I found it to be simultaneously meditative and engaging, an excellent piece of workday background music.  There’s enough punch to keep your attention focused, but not so much that you can’t direct your focus to another matter at hand.

I must say though, that the singular vocal bit in the track took me out of that focused state.  It certainly grabs the attention of the listener (as I’m still curious about just where the clip came from), and is well timed and placed, but I would preferred being able to stay in my meditative state.

Blam, le Passage Sacrilege – On the EP’s Bandcamp page, aliceffekt notes that pieces of his August 2011 release, ‘Blam, le Passage Sacrilege’, were used in the creation of ‘Damoiseau + Canalx’, and the choice in name on this track is a clear nod to that fact.

Here, the prominence of the percussion gives some leeway to the rest of the instrumentation compared to the previous tracks.  The wipes, wobbles, and other impressively onomatopoeic sound sources (this includes a steam train) are allowed to show off a bit more here, which lends more variety to the auditory construction of the track, and helps it stand out from the rest of the EP.

I say “some leeway”, because all of that only helps accentuate the bassline.  The themes of gabber are fully embraced here.  The crispness and violence the percussion is capable of is fully highlighted as it comes on suddenly and packs enough punch to stick with you for a bit afterward.  Simply put, this is my favorite track of the entire EP.

article-2260114-16DA6A01000005DC-342_634x468

I am a goddamn musical instrument!

A Thousand Times Parix – The final track on the EP closes the experience by tweaking the established pattern of a consistent and repetitive percussion section constructing the backbone of a track.  In its place, sections of a more traditional and airy ambient composition are woven between those thrumming gritty snares that have marked the other tracks on the album.  The transitions between these two patterns are refreshingly shocking, with the relaxation induced by the ambient sections shattered by each sudden reintroduction of the drums.

At the end, the two themes begin to merge.  The ambient leads grow in presence, seeming to borrow energy from the percussion.  The percussion, while diminished in strength, becomes the glue that holds everything together.  As the sound fades gently into silence, the otherwise seemingly opposing forces find balance.

———————————————————————————————————————————

Naturally, the world shifted as I was writing this article, and aliceffekt announced a new EP that is releasing on the 20th of October. Titled, ‘Ten Axitecture’, the 4 track EP is available for pre-order on his bandcamp page.  The track below, ‘Opaques of Dinaisth’, is a preview of what’ll be available on the full release.

If what I heard from it is any indication, ‘Ten Axitecture’ ought to have the same level of talent, albeit with the chiller tones hinted at by ‘A Thousand Times Parix’.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, head on over there and check it out.

And while you’re at it…

Get out there, make some chip, and spread the love!

VF

———————————————————————————————————————————

aliceffekt
website | bandcamp | soundcloud | twitter | facebook

V.3 Logo - (250x250 pix for blog)