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?!
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.
The 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.
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!