MAGFest has come and gone, and we’re all busy reconstructing our melted faces. There has been a flurry of incredible album releases to coincide with the MAGFest season, and ‘Invitations’ by Awesome Force is among the most anticipated. With multiple MAGFest and BRKFest performances under his belt, as well as his performance in Arkansas last year which I’ve previously highlighted, Awesome Force (Sean Baker) has been a well-known entity within the chiptune scene for quite a while. The release of his first full-length album via the CheapBeats netlabel fills a gap that we’ve been waiting to see filled, and it’s a cosmic experience that is nothing short of astounding.
Rather than simply being a collection of compositions, Awesome Force nails the concept of the full album experience with ‘Invitations’. Masterfully merging chiptune with drum ‘n’ bass, Awesome Force takes the listener on a journey that is equal parts awe-inspiring, ethereal, humbling and harrowing. Opening with a montage of historic NASA recordings backed by a bittersweet melody, ‘It’s Full of Stars’ sets the tone of the album and seamlessly segues into ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’. It’s a subdued and contemplative track that invites the listener to reflect upon humanity’s achievements and failures over the course of our long slow march of progress.
‘Pale Blue Dot’ begins with Carl Sagan’s immortal words: “In glory and triumph, they can become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” It then launches into a blisteringly intense 5+ minutes of controlled chaos. ‘Pale Blue Dot’ conjures up imagery of the billions of years process of the formation of the Earth sped up over the course of the track’s running time; innumerable collisions, eruptions and rotations which put our brief blip of existence into the proper perspective.
Elsewhere on ‘Invitations’, we have the fan favorite ‘Dinosaurs!’. This is another hard-hitting banger of a track with layers of percussion combined with skittering leads and effects that culminate in a robust wall of sound that is impossible to experience without rocking out. ‘Petrostate’ continues the momentum established in ‘Dinosaurs!’ with frenetic leads and excellent use of panning that is best experienced with headphones on. This leads into what is the most chilling and emotional track on the album, ‘One-Zero-Seven’.
Through the use of archived recordings and the most sorrowful tones ever heard in chipmusic, ‘One-Zero-Seven’ relates the tragic events of the Feb.1, 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. It’s a powerful tribute to the lives lost on that day, and it’s at this point of the album that the hard work and raw emotion that Awesome Force has poured into ‘Invitations’ becomes most apparent. The album ends with a pensive pair of tracks, ‘The Story of Everything’, ‘…And How It Will End’. The dreamlike atmosphere created within allows the listener to reflect upon what they have heard, as ‘Invitations’ is not your usual happy-go-lucky chiptune album.
In Floyd-esque fashion, ‘Invitations’ ends as it begins, with the slow blip of a Space Shuttle’s control panel. This loop enhances the album’s replayability, as repeated listens will reveal more of the intricate textures contained within. We’re just a month into 2015, and ‘Invitations’ promises to be one of the strongest releases of the year. It is absolutely worth your time and money. ‘Invitations’ is available as a digital download for $6, and you can also get a physical CD with beautiful artwork for only 4 dollars more.
I had the opportunity to interview Awesome Force after his performance at MAGFest:
Chris Krogsgard: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us at Chiptunes = WIN!
Awesome Force: Thank you for having me.
CK: Congratulations on the release of your first full-length album.
AF: Thank you very much. It’s been a long process, but it’s good that it’s finally done and released so that I can move on to other things.
CK: Could you describe your creative process? Do you usually start out in LSDJ and then move into a DAW?
AF: It varies from song to song, but generally I’ll start by putting a standard drum n’ bass beat into Ableton. I have a glockenspiel and a little toy piano that I’ll play chords on first and if I find some of that’s cool, I’ll determine if it’s best suited for Ableton or LSDJ. I’ve started using chords in LSDJ a lot more so it typically goes there. It loops and loops until I don’t like it anymore and leave it alone and maybe in a month I’ll come back and finish the song.
CK: Was merging chiptune with the drum ‘n’ bass style something that you’ve always set out to do from the start?
AF: No, actually when I first got into chiptunes I was really into heavy French house music like Danger. That 80’s darkwave style is really cool and I guess that’s where the dark style of my music comes from. All of my old LSDJ tracks are really heavy sidechain four to the floor material. I’ve always listened to drum n’ bass since around middle school and loved the rhythm and tempo, it was just so hype. I had just discovered Black Sun Empire and was really influenced by them when I was starting to write chipmusic. I realized that it was so much fun to write and play. I’m sure we’ve all done this, but I was in my bedroom just dancing up a storm. It wasn’t even the music so much as that beat that had me like, “Yes!”. And, it’s a bug. It’s like the people that say “Fuck this, I’m quitting chiptune” and then two weeks later, they put out an EP. Once you start writing drum ‘n’ bass, you’re not stopping. While I don’t exclusively write drum ‘n’ bass, it is a major theme in my music and I think it finds itself in every song.
CK: It’s definitely an awesome combination, but some of that style seems to be beyond the capabilities of the Game Boy’s noise channel.
AF: Yep, but I would point you to Trey Frey. Oh my god, he makes me want to quit. When he put out ‘Refresh’ and tracks like ‘Further’ I was like, this man is taking it to a place that I can’t. As far as the way that I use the noise channel? Well, obviously Ableton, the DAW that I use, is the big drums. So, everyone has a secret, everyone has their own thing, right? My thing is that you can never have too many drum tracks. I typically have four. I have your big drums, your sub drop, your kick, your snare and cymbals. Then I have an auxiliary track with bongos and claves with a ton of effects on that channel that I can make glitch out. Then I use just a normal drum rack that I put a filter on at around 1000 Hz so it sounds muffled. And finally I have the noise channel, which is mostly atmosphere for me personally.
CK: I’d like to move into some of the themes of your album. First of all, what is the meaning behind the title of your album, ‘Invitations’?
AF: Actually, it had one meaning and then it became another. When I was in college, I studied Russian. Not just the language, but the culture as well. I went to study abroad, but in order to go there, you need an official letter of invitation. I remember getting the invitation in the mail and saying to myself that this is going to be an awesome trip and I’m going to learn a lot, and I did! It was an incredible trip, and I hope that one day I have the opportunity to go back. I actually wrote the song ‘Invitations’ while I was in Russia, and I gave it that title because that invitation is what led me to be there.
Later, I was reading one of Carl Sagan’s books called ‘Pale Blue Dot’ which is also the title to one of the tracks on this album. In it, he recounts his fight with the NASA administrators to put a plaque on the Pioneer satellites in case they were ever found by extraterrestrial life. The Pioneer plaque displays a bunch of basic information as well as an image of an unclothed male and female waving, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, “hoping that the aliens that one day find it think that waving is a friendly gesture.” There’s a map of the solar system, Earth, and a line showing the path of the satellite. The coolest thing though, which is what ‘Invitations’ now means, is that there is an image with the Sun at the center that serves as a map to the 14 closest pulsars. These are stars that rotate at a fixed rate, and no star has the same rotation speed. So it’s like a fingerprint, which ultimately communicates that “We are here.” I took it as an invitation. So, if you get the album on bandcamp, you can see this imagery from the Pioneer plaque used as the back cover art of the album.
CK: Wow, that’s very interesting! Speaking of outer space, that theme has been a natural fit with chipmusic as many of our readers already know, but it’s also a theme that has the power to capture the imagination of everyone. Can you speak about how this theme of space has inspired you to make it such a prevalent force in your music?
AF: Great question, and it’s also a personal one for me. It is my greatest disappointment in life that I’m not an astronomer or an engineer, and I’ve been toying with the idea of getting that specialized training and education to do something in those fields. It’s weird, but ever since I was a crazy little kid and everyone else was drawing pictures of houses and trees, I was drawing Jupiter. One of my first gifts was a telescope, and I remember seeing Saturn for the first time and realizing that it’s not just a picture, it’s a place. It’s just mindblowing and goes back to the opening words in ‘Pale Blue Dot’, that we are a speck of dust. So to me, space is the new frontier and I’m so excited to live in a time where I know that we’ll be on Mars.
So, how has space inspired me? It’s because it’s the future as well as a very humbling experience. Whenever I’m having a bad day, I just look up and realize I’m a tiny person on a dot in one of countless solar systems, how unlikely it is that we’re here, and it puts our petty day-to-day problems into perspective. It never ceases to amaze me that you and I are supernova dust. One day, the sun will expand and burn up the Earth, and that dust will coalesce and maybe in 4 billion years there’ll be another MAGFest in another solar system with Sean and Chris version 2.0 talking in a hotel about the same thing!
CK: That’s truly amazing! While we could talk about this all day, I’d like to ask you about some specific influences. Tri Angles has done an incredible job mastering ‘Invitations’.
AF: Yes, he really has.
CK: I’m a huge fan of his as I’ve detailed in a previous article. I’m wondering who else inspires you in the chiptune community?
AF: The cheesy answer is everyone, but I will name people. IAYD is a huge inspiration to me, as well as Ultrasyd. Sabrepulse was the first person that I really got attached to. Trey Frey inspires me to keep trying, because that guy is incredible. And of course, the other 2 members of the Space Trio, Auxcide and Russellian. Auxcide has straight up taught me production tricks, and as someone who also writes music about space almost exclusively, he’s very influential in where you can take the sound.
CK: Those are some incredible artists, and I can definitely see the inspiration. So, coming off the release of an album as well as an amazing MAGFest performance, what does the future hold for Awesome Force?
AF: I have an EP that I’m working on. I don’t have a name for it yet, but it’s sort of ethereal. It isn’t so much space themed, but it’s about philosophy. I don’t want to tell you what I think about it, because it’s a personal experience for the listener to determine and apply their own meaning. I’ll reveal more as I get closer to finishing it, but there is a theme to it. Primarily the process of creation and destruction. Tri Angles will also be doing the mastering on that one. Beyond that, I’m taking it easy for the rest of the year since I’ll be moving a couple times.
I hope to do a tour along the east coast closer to the end of the year. I want to build up Kansas City as a chiptune scene. There’s are some freaking amazing artists in Kansas City and St. Louis, so that’s not going to be a problem at all. Freaking Shoujo Kiss, Dream Fox, Shitbird, Solid State Disaster and Thunder Fox are all definitely helping to make that happen. So, short term: get that EP out. Long term: build Kansas City as a music scene.
CK: Sounds like an excellent plan, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk.
AF: I’m honored and stoked. MAGFest has been such an awesome experience and Chiptunes = WIN has done so much for me, and just the chiptune world in general, so thank you.
That’s the end of this month’s consideration, many thanks to Sean Baker and all of the awesome people in the chiptune family that I had the pleasure of meeting at MAGFest. As always, stay tuned to the ChipWIN blog, and keep your hands and heart held high!