Archive for October, 2014

Office Hours #3 – Zackery Wilson

Posted by

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

Posted by

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!

(more…)

Aydan Appreciates: ‘C.O.M.P.A.S.S.’ by Spaceman Fantastiques

Posted by

Some of the most successful and inspiring musical endeavors are concept albums, more narrowly defined as albums with a specific message to deliver, story to tell, or idea to convey. One of the most recent chiptune concept albums, Spaceman Fantastiques’ prog-rock-chip amalgam entitled ‘C.O.M.P.A.S.S.’, was released through The Waveform Generators just this past September. Admittedly, I missed the debut of this album, but discovered it not long after its release, and loved it so much that I decided that it absolutely had to be the topic of my monthly column. So let’s see where ‘C.O.M.P.A.S.S.’ takes us!

As with many concept albums, the first track – the introduction or exposition to the story – can be considered the most important song in establishing the theme behind the project. ‘SSW’ opens with a cascading flow of different sounds; cymbals crash, chip voices sweep through octaves, and white noise builds up mysterious vibes before a cadence reminiscent of a transmission of sorts. From here, the track decrescendoes into nothingness and leaves the listener with a sense of awe before its silent transition.

‘C.O.M.P.A.S.S.’ spans an enormous number of different moods as it tells its tale. The second track, ‘SW’, is a near perfect example of how seamlessly these different emotions can flow into one another. The opening guitar strumming and quickly decaying chip voices provide a sense of wonderment and feelings of exploration and curiosity. Percussion enters, and more voices build up tension until the track peaks for the first time, energetically and brimming with excitement. A simple yet memorable chip riff segues perfectly into a secondary calming segment, just before ‘SW’ climaxes with dueling guitar and chip solos into a phenomenal ending.

Different musical influences throughout the album and entirely unique sounds span far and wide, as well. Calls to the symphonic and choral can be heard in combination with progressive overtones through the almost vocal-sounding instruments present in ‘NE’, for one. In contrast, it’s difficult to place a specific genre onto ‘WNW’, and that’s not a bad thing in the slightest. Spaceman Fantastiques sculpts a track that has me imagining the reversal of time; ‘WNW’ sounds almost like a track being played backwards for an alternate piece.

Avid chipmusic fans may notice that in a majority of the pieces on Spaceman Fantastiques’ latest work, chip voices take on a rhythmic role in order to let organic melodies shine through. This isn’t always entirely true, however. For example, in ‘W’, the first half of the song has chip take on a majority of the melodic element, while Spaceman Fantastiques’ guitar work is more rhythmic in nature. Melodic focus is slowly transitioned from chip to organic around the midpoint of the track flawlessly; shifts in melodic focus are something I rarely hear done well, and Spaceman Fantastiques really nails it with ‘W’.

I’ve only covered about a third of this phenomenal piece of work, but describing the entire album the way that I do with my other reviews would be almost too deconstructive and detailed in nature. This album is truly an experience that needs to be had in order to be fully understood in all of its glory. In order to fully comprehend the purpose and motivation behind this ambitious album, we have to be able to understand the meaning of ‘C.O.M.P.A.S.S.’ from the eyes of Spaceman Fantastiques himself. So without further ado, I present to you my wondrously fruitful interview with Spaceman Fantastiques on his latest masterpiece.
______________________________________________________________________

Aydan Scott: What ideas or themes are being expressed through “C.O.M.P.A.S.S.”?

Spaceman Fantastiques: The main theme of the album is exploration. It’s about a man who is looking for direction in life. He learns of a fabled artifact called the C.O.M.P.A.S.S. and goes in search of it. The problem is that anything he reads about it tells him something completely different in terms of finding it. So he sets out on a journey to gather more information and hopefully find what he is looking for. After a journey around the globe he talks with someone who tells him an introspective that changes everything. All the things he was looking for and all the things he has done ARE the C.O.M.P.A.S.S. He finds out that it is not an object but a journey in and of itself. a Collection Of Many Paths Altering Self Synapse.

That being said, the album is really about exploring life and trusting yourself, no matter where your travels take you.

A: What different genres did you take influence from with regards to composition?

SF: When I started this project it was actually much smaller in terms of songs. It was only going to be 4 main songs and 4 intermediate ones. I really just wanted to have 4 different styles of songs and then blend them in between. What I ended up with was much more grand. I drew inspiration from a lot of places. For the main songs I wanted them all to be epic in their own ways, from well thought out rock solos to sporadic stream of consciousness solos…from [me being] completely obsessed over note placement to one night of me messing around on the keyboard. Specific influences are hard to nail down as there are often several within the same track but I will do my best. In no particular order: Omar Rodriguez Lopez, Aphex Twin, The Sound of Animals Fighting, Nobuo Uematsu, the music from Hotline Miami, the Braid sound track, Mystic Quest, post rock outfits like MONO and Godspeed You, math rock like LITE and Jizue, chill stuff like sleepytimejesse, aviel, and Lifeformed, crazy arpeggios from Makeup and Vanity Set, Miles Davis, Tool, The Protomen, Queens of the Stone Age, Smashing Pumpkins… the list is much longer than that, but those are the main ones that I can think of at the moment.

533344_426877957341362_673264688_n

A: What does your creative process entail?

SF: The creative process… this is something that is so strange for me. Initially it happens very fast. Most of the main songs were almost completely written in a single day (each). Then came the perfection. Once the main track structure was down came the obsessive listening and re-listening, losing myself in the music only to find one extra hi-hat hit or a bass fill. The main songs were something that, even with [them] being mostly completed so quickly, it could [take] months or years in between the tracks. They almost all started with me sitting in bed messing around on guitar and once I recorded that riff the writing took over. For some songs the progression was effortless (W for example); [for] others it was far more tedious (E). Even with both of those songs switching time signatures, one was far easier than the other. I can’t really say why. I think a lot of the composition depends on mental status. When writing W I was happy and healthy, and when writing E I was sick, the weather was shit, and it was hard to stay focused (which is kind of appropriate considering the directions).

As for the notes themselves, I have many ways of composing. The most common way is with guitar and a loop. I loop what I have, and then just noodle on guitar. When I find something I like, I transcribe it into MIDI or record it. A lot of it is just feeling expressed through strings. A lot of the songs have large gaps between them in terms of when they were composed. The first song I made (not even knowing it was for this album at the time) was SW. I went home on a Friday night, got a beer from the fridge, opened it and never finished. I started recording and got so lost. I had just found an old Moog synth on the side of the road and was so excited to use it that I couldn’t stop messing around. I worked for about seven hours and that is SW. It did change a little, but the structure is the same as the night I wrote that song. The problem I find with this writing process is that I get so into it and then I have no other ideas. I put everything i had been storing up into a song. This is absolutely why this album took so long. I wrote songs based on experiences I had…and those take time.

AS FOR THE INTERMEDIATE SONGS: Most of these were made while sitting at [a] local coffee place on my lunch break. I wanted these tracks to be more simple…things that were nice little slices amidst the epic cardinal and secondary directions. I made rules for these songs. No changing parts. Under 5 instruments. Nothing fast or intense. They are meant for resting between the other tracks.

A: Why did you choose to release this on TWG?

SF: I have known Andrew for quite a while now and he was one of the first people I talked to about the album and the idea behind it. He asked me to release it on TWG and I absolutely agreed. I actually think I was asked when he first started the label… and then I released as it was closing. haha. At the time, I wanted to branch out from solely chiptune, and my talks with Andrew led to a lot of excitement and ideas. He is a really great guy and is absolutely going places. I am glad I got to be a part of TWG even if [it was] only at the end.

A: How long did the project take to finish? Also, did you do it all in one go (was it your one and only focus in terms of musical projects) or did you piece it together over a long period of time?

SF: I mentioned this a little previously, but the album took about 3 years to make. From the initial idea’s conception back in 2011 to writing songs that ended up being used for other things (‘The World According To Mr. Meleon‘) or walking away from it completely to write different stuff (‘[sleep]‘), it has been a looooong journey. I think that really helped with it all. The first song that was written was SW (back then Song 1), [which] was followed by the first 30 seconds of NW (originally Song 2). Song 2 was abandoned until this past summer, where I was able to pick [it] up effortlessly and turn it into what it is now, NW. In that time I wrote a few different things. A few one-of tracks, a lot of b-sides from ‘tWAtMM’, ‘[sleep]’, and ‘a thousand days and a day‘. I think making all the other stuff while still working on this helped immensely. Using my experience from ‘[sleep]’ and ‘aTDaaD’ I was able to refine a lot of my writing process and boil down ideas a lot stronger. I also discovered several new techniques in Logic along the way that helped.

compass

A: Are you pleased with the way this project turned out? If not, is there anything you’d change now if you had the opportunity?

SF: I really am pleased. I make music firstly for myself. I make things I want to listen to over and over again. It can be frustrating at times, but it is almost always worth it. As with most art, there are always blemishes that maybe only the artist will notice or care about, but…I call [them] something I like to just have that be part of the project’s charm.
There are things I could have leveled out, or fixed some sloppy notation, but the way I released it is something I am more than happy with.

A: What’s next for Spaceman Fantastiques?

SF: This is something I have been asking myself since I realized I was done with the album… Hm… I do have some things I am working on, but nothing I can really mention at the moment, but as always… it’ll be something fantastique.
______________________________________________________________________

‘C.O.M.P.A.S.S.’ is truly a modern masterpiece. Spaceman Fantastiques takes us with him on his journey to find the legendary C.O.M.P.A.S.S. and shows us immeasurably beautiful sounds and ideas along the way. Priced at just under $5 USD, this is an incredibly small price to pay for the sheer excellence contained within. I’m honored to have been able to showcase this piece of work for you, and I hope that your own C.O.M.P.A.S.S. leads you to happiness. Never forget that life is a journey, not a destination.

So much love to all of you.

Spaceman Fantastiques
Bandcamp | Facebook | Soundcloud | Twitter

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

ChipWIN-tern Spotlight: ‘Porter’ by Men of Mega

Posted by

As you may recall, we got a little busy last month, what with those two compos we dropped. Because of that, our actual chiptune journalism powers were stretched a little thin, and so a few things slipped by without our comment. Today, I aim to correct at least one of those errors by talking about the latest Men of Mega release, “Porter“!

artworks-000088897446-nvhr97-t500x500

The promo art for the album, and what you saw if you’re one of the lucky few who got their hands on the actual beer!

(more…)

Kuma’s Quick Shots: Round 2

Posted by

Hey, what’s up everyone?! It’s your boy BronxKuma — Kuma for short — coming at you again with another round of Quick Shots! For those of you who don’t know, Quick Shots is my sporadic album review column in which I take aim at a handful of EPs and LPs that have come out fairly recently, quick fire my impressions about them and discuss whether they’re a solid purchase for those who charge money for their work.  This time around, I’ve loaded up four albums I’ve seen come out over the past month or so that are worth talking about, so let’s stack these targets up, lock em in our sights and pull the hammer back, cause its time go time!

quick shots banner

(more…)