Editor’s Note: looks like we’ve got our first new blood of 2017! Everyone, welcome Callum Kennedy aka Tuberz McGee to the blog!
Hoffy is by no means a newcomer to the Chiptune scene and it is my pleasure to review his seminal work ‘The Life and Times of Whiskers Mahone’ released through our good friends at Cheapbeats. Hoffy hails from Edmonton, Alberta, wielding a mighty laptop running 0CC-Famitracker in one hand and a calculator generating random time signatures in the other . Most of you may know me as Tuberz McGee and after spending the last year writing an Honours Thesis on Chiptune I’m really itching to get into this. Let’s roll.
I think the album is about a cat. A cat who probably listens to Rush and Genesis a lot.
The Life and Times of Whiskers Mahone can be best described as a love letter to progressive rock ranging from 70’s acts like King Crimson, to modern day groups like Animals as Leaders. Hoffy effectively uses the lens of the Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom to convey these ideas. The frantic, sweeping compositions lend themselves to the minimalist setting of the NES, letting the melodies and arrangements truly speak for themselves.
The opening track ‘Genesis’ slowly lulls you in with developments upon the same three bar phrase. This helps ready the listener for the journey they are about to embark on as we lead into the second track ‘Whiskers’. This song opens with an uncompromised melody over a catchy chord progression. The movement of this track is driven by another gorgeous melodic figure before kicking into overdrive at 00:38. The main riff of this song dwells in 11/8 before resetting to a comfortable common time signature. This is where the album really shines. The utilisation of complex time signatures in conjunction with catchy common time sections breeds a feeling somewhere between uncertainty and familiarity.
‘Through Thick and Thin’ begins with a sweeping gesture down the G Harmonic Minor scale. The progression shifts to a chromatically descending pattern before launching into some funky 5/8 riffage. Hoffy pulls out a brilliant rendition of a guitar solo channeling prog rock giants like Steve Howe, Tosin Abasi, Guthrie Govan, and the like. This is not exclusive for this song either, as Hoffy makes no mistake to his audience that the Guitar is his main instrument. The song ends with a phrase which leads into ‘Chasing Birds’. The groove in ‘Chasing Birds’ may be my favourite on the whole album as it seamlessly transitions from funky, absurd time signature shenanigans to very lush pseudo-jazz progressions. If I have one criticism it’s that I am not a fan of a fade out, especially when it’s on the back of such a strong song. It would really drive home the forward momentum of this song to have a definite ending.
Honestly? It’s easy. You just play a demisemiquaver run up the G Phrygian mode in 5/8
and you get the general gist from there.
‘A Case of the Mondays’ provides a brilliant interlude to this album’s rockin’ intro with a very lush, emotive atmosphere. It advances to a more busy, funky arrangement at 2:00 where the kick drum really drives this song forward, riding the line between funk and rock. The song stumbles at 3:00 catching the listener off guard. This is my favourite thing about this album. Every time that you think you’re on the ball it catches you out. ‘Live at the Red Note Cafe’ is another song that rides the line between massively groovin’ and chillaxin’. It’s great to have this variety happening on not just a song basis, but even a phrase basis. The way Hoffy uses his percussion really shines at 2:00 as there’s a very convincing (and baller) drum solo.
The 7/4 at the beginning of ‘Staycation’ while originally seeming strange as it drops the final beat required for a common time setting will feel like home by the end of the song. The constant repetition of this 7/4 figure is one of Hoffy’s strong points, with the surprise subsiding as a bi-product of repetition. The second half of the song walks more of an emotional ground than the first half with some really inventive melodic decisions. This leads into ‘Economy of Emotion’ which shines for its use of arpeggios and other chord based devices. The harmony in itself is not too complex, but the way it’s communicated is very exciting and helps the melodic material really sit in our minds. The middle of this song hits you with a progression reminiscent of late 1800’s French Impressionism which really showcases the vast number of inspirations for this album.
‘Nines’ is unsurprisingly in 9/8 with a subdivision of 8/8 + 1/8 which creates an interesting atmosphere where it seems preemptive, catching you off guard as the phrase length extends subtly. The chorus really ups the ante and delivers some meaty melodies with thick chord laden grooves. The second half of the song gives us a completely different approach which shows how seamlessly Hoffy can transition between time signatures, keys, and even moods. This song again utilises a fade out, which normally I would be deterred by, though this song seems to use it quite methodically.
Hoffy concludes this album with a four movement Odyssey. ‘1 To Embrace the Unknown’ is a short movement to preempt the tension of the following three movements. It achieves this through gorgeously lush chords, arpeggios, and soaring melodies. ‘2 Countdown to Oblivion’ opens with a solitary square wave melody before introducing a myriad of harmonic devices to support the progression. After the slow introduction the song returns to the form we have come to expect from Hoffy thus far, with many twists and turns featuring fun and playful riffage. ‘Countdown to Oblivion’ may be my favourite movement of this pseudo-symphonic work with its plethora of development techniques for the inventive and catchy melody. The ostinato introduced within the first forty seconds, and the melody following are constantly referenced and repurposed as melodic figures, basslines, and accompaniment lines. It makes this track an incredibly cohesive work overall. It’s with composition prowess like this that songs like ‘2 Countdown to Oblivion’ are given a real spotlight in this album.
‘3 Decline’ opens with a leitmotif-esque quality, hearkening back to previous tracks. I cannot help but bob my head along to the rhythm with such excellently written riffs. That being said, there are sections in ‘Decline’ where the harmony seems to dwell in unexpected regions and this is unfortunately not always effective. The majority of the song dwells in a modal mixture of C minor and C major with a i-III-IV progression (Cmin – EbMaj – Fmaj) which is a progressive rock staple. Sections like at 2:57 interrupt this progression with a very abrupt modulation to the II (D major) which is strange without a pivoting chord to set this up. Perhaps this is the intention of these sections, as the voice leading in the bassline leads nicely back to the initial progression. The final section of ‘Decline’ is an absolutely blissful, victorious progression with a low tempo groove that downplays the rhythm for a focus on the melody. Again, a fade out… which I particularly dislike given that this is a multi-movement work. ‘4 Goodbye’ once again gives us a leitmotif from the album and concludes the journey quite nicely, closing as it opened. Nice and neat.
Personal Favourite Song: Nines
The Life and Times of Whiskers Mahone is a great album, with a strong love for progressive rock throughout the ages. I definitely urge you to listen along and if you’re a fan of progressive music like Danimal Cannon, Virt, or Fearofdark I highly recommend this release.
~ Love Tuberz xoxo