Welcome to the first of our upcoming track-by-track reviews for the newly-released Chiptunes = WIN: Volume 4! Although the scope and reach of ChipWIN has expanded over the past few years, the annual compilation release remains the central focus of this enterprise: the Wrestlemania to your Royal Rumble, the World Series to your All-Star weekend, or the Metroid Prime to your Other M, as it were. In addition to general exposure for the artists involved and supporting the small but passionate chip music community, this compilation is always exciting to me because I get to hear what some of my favorite artists have been working on, as well as discovering new favorites among familiar names. Make sure to grab your copy from the link above, and let’s get this review started – it’s oppressively hot outside, and this album is about to make the A/C kick into overdrive!
1. Fark – ‘Kalle Kanonkule’
There are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes of the ChipWIN compilations each year, and one very important task is selecting the track order. A newcomer to the ChipWIN compilation, Fark gets to fire the first shot across the bow with ‘Kalle Kanonkule,’ a somewhat modern-sounding blend of keyboards and chip synthesis. The piano solo that begins the track is quite intriguing to me, as I immediately want to hear where the music goes next and how it blends (or stands out) from the expected chiptune elements. That ability to make the listener invest in your music and create a sense of urgency about what happens next is quite difficult to achieve, and I think Fark really nails it with the opening. My second favorite thing about ‘Kalle Kanonkule’ is the syncopated nature of the rhythms during a majority of the track. Rather than a standard four-on-the-floor beat and complementary synth lines, Fark shifts the attacks one sixteenth note pulse – or ‘tick’ in chip terminology – early. This creates a complex rhythmic layer upon which he builds the main idea of the track, and it works incredibly well. In between statements of the neat groove are short passages with more improvisatory, solo-like synth lines. Although the drums continue the same subtle off-kilter rhythm, these sections feel much more grounded and steady with consistent attacks on the downbeat of each measure. This is a very catchy and danceable tune that I would love to hear live.
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2. Petriform – “Spinout Sunray’
Petriform makes a third consecutive appearance on the ChipWIN compilation and keeps the alliterative titles going with ‘Spinout Sunray.’ The music is an immediate departure from the sound world of Fark’s opener and something I definitely appreciate from the track list deliberations by the judges. This track is equally high in energy and drive but is much more dissonant and aggressive in tone, with more emphasis on the lo-fi chiptune sound that we all know and love. Where Fark’s track is like a sleek Tesla fresh off the showroom floor, Petriform arrives to the drag race in a muddy, rumbling Ford F-150. Despite the dreaded ‘lo-fi’ descriptor, ‘Spinout Sunray’ packs a massive stereo punch, with a very full and aggressive sound – Dj CUTMAN did another amazing job with the mastering of this compilation! There is a great build-up of energy leading to the middle section of this track, which contains two of my favorite musical tricks: a brief pause after a busy texture, and then something completely different from the preceding music. For all of the aggressive nature of the opening, Petriform puts that aside and gives us a pretty interlude that really contrasts well with what comes before. I really enjoy the little nuances in the leads and humanizing touches with vibrato and volume swell in this section. After another tasty pause, the aggressive riffs briefly return for a final one-two punch to the jaw. With ‘Spinout Sunray,’ Petriform puts on a 4:00 masterclass in efficient and effective composition – I hope you were taking notes!
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3. x Critical Strike x – ‘Dawn of a New Day’
The first LSDJ entry on Volume 4 is ‘Dawn of a New Day’ from another compilation newcomer x Critical Strike x, and again it is in a wonderful spot on the album if you are listening straight through from the beginning. Bouncy leads, driving rhythms, and frequent key changes make this track seem almost like a Shepard Scale in terms of both the rising pitch and energy level. This triple shot of musical caffeine could, on paper, be easily dismissed as a gimmick were it not for the substance and care obviously labored over by x Critical Strike x. Being an avid LSDJ user myself, I certainly appreciate the amount of subtle tweaks to the pulse leads to make them sound unique and not just the standard array of square waves. The steady wave bass and noise percussion complement the busy melody and accompaniment texture of the pulse channels, and I love the rising lines that effortlessly shift to the extreme high register and back down again throughout the track. I really like the staccato, repeated note leads that are mixed in with the longer melodic lines that dominate the texture; this is a nice contrast and helps keep the texture active. Listen for the subtle increases in tempo that seem to happen several times until the unexpected swing section hits at 2:09. Just as quickly as it arrived, the swing feel disappears and the screaming high leads propel us to the end. ‘Dawn of a New Day’ is a great fast-paced track, and it seems to be the ever-elusive perfect length. I would love to hear another 15-20 seconds of music, but those extra phrases might just as easily ruin the beauty of this excellent little construction. x Critical Strike x leaves the listener wanting just a bit more, and that’s always a good thing in my book.
4. Twistboy – ‘Withdrawl’
After last appearing on Volume 2, Twistboy returns to us with ‘Withdrawl,’ a marked departure from the overall sound of the first three tracks. Although the notes arrive steadily and the texture is quite busy, the slower tempo of this track allows the listener to step back and breathe a bit from the previous onslaught of waveforms. I really enjoy the stereo panning and intricate volume changes heard in the opening notes; this is a good study on how to make something simple on the surface sound interesting and complex. There are only a few repeated notes heard on each channel, but they combine to form an intricate and interesting texture. Each individual line contains brief pauses at different times than the rest, creating an illusion of musical space and silence. There is a gradual build that happens over the first 1:17 of ‘Withdrawl,’ but Twistboy wisely reigns in the impulse to assault the listener with a faster tempo and completely abandon the intricate texture that was crafted earlier. Twistboy manages to somehow give the listener what we expect, and at the same time subverting it with something completely surprising. In this way, the music exists in two simultaneous states a la Schrödingers Cat, and I love both of them. Instead, the bass drops in register with a slightly harsher tone and the percussion becomes slightly more active, but the overall texture remains much the same as before the build. These new additions and small tweaks give the illusion of increased energy and activity, with a fantastic result. Even though some elements have changed in intensity, the music is still allowed to breathe naturally and there is still an aural illusion of spaciousness in the texture. Finally, I also really notice and appreciate the shifting back and forth between bass patches throughout ‘Withdrawl.’ The cleaner triangle bass is allowed to exist in a slightly higher register than the dirty saw/sine bass, and they both blend well with the freeform lead melodies.
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5. CarboHydroM – ‘The Mirage’
Another newcomer to the Volume 4 roster is CarboHydroM, whose track ‘The Mirage’ immediately blasts us in the face with aggressive Soundblaster-era guitar sounds. Much in the same vein as Lee Jackson’s iconic ‘Grabbag’ from Duke Nukem 3D, ‘The Mirage’ has a steady onslaught of guitar riffs and tasty leads that mix well together. There is definitely more of a prog rock influence here than Jackson’s title theme, with many shifting syncopations and a bass line that would make Chris Squire (RIP) very proud. I love the shifting timbres of the lead melody, and the contrasting rhythm in the transition at 1:26 is fantastic. The section that follows is equally aggressive, but in a slightly more sinister way; the guitar patches drop out and leave the bass and drums to fend for themselves against a creeping square wave melody. ‘The Mirage’ is similar to the third track on this compilation in its approach to building intensity: each section contains, by itself, interesting music with a great deal of kinetic energy. These sections combine seamlessly to form a barrage of sounds that grab the listener like being caught in the undertow of a great wave. The only spot in the first three minutes that CarboHydroM gives us a chance to catch a quick breath is a held guitar note that leads again into music similar to the first section. It’s a small detail, but this held note is much more effective than it might seem at first. The relentlessness of the solo and guitar riffs that follow in the final large section of music are made much more aurally palatable simply because the ear is given just a tiny bit of time to rest. The last seconds of ‘The Mirage’ are spent with a hip unison riff before dissolving away as quickly as the music began.
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If you were following along at the listening party Monday night or just now tuning in to Volume 4 for the first time, you know that I wasn’t lying about the temperature rising! All five of these tracks are different in sound, scope, and construction, yet they are all similar in the fact that they each contain something unique and special. Whether it is an interesting texture, effectively contrasting material, or a new approach to creating musical energy, these tracks are all excellent and definitely worthy of their spots as the lead-off tracks on Chiptunes = WIN Volume 4. Coverage of tracks 5-10 continues on Friday, so please join us again and make sure to dress accordingly for the heat!