Impulses’ Bandcamp description is simply “Emotional Underground Chiptune.” Started by Trevor Stafford at least a few years ago, their music is consistently calming, pretty, melodic, natural, and always makes me feel things. I haven’t stopped listening since I discovered them last month through the ChipWIN discord. Impulses’ sound is filled with the sincerity of 8-bit synths, and the occasional boppy modernity of edm, and I’ve enjoyed going through their full discography quite a bit. That being said, the latest release ‘L | \/ E EP’ easily stands out, with a polished cohesion, tightness, and clarity.
Unlike most of what I’ve reviewed on this blog so far, I’d recommend this music as background listening first, rather than dedicating your full attention right away. I find it therapeutic, and this album often feels to me like it’s forming a restful space, a place to let it be. This still makes it incredibly valuable to take a good look at though, and I want to dive into how and why it functions this way. So whether you’re still on the fence, or you’ve heard this as many times as I have: let’s talk about Impulses.
‘Helical’ is a word that invokes the image of a spiral, circling around a point as we slowly approach it. The song functions this way as well, orbiting around a singular idea persisting throughout the piece. I don’t just mean to point out the ostinato, however – what makes it click is the way you are drawn ever closer to it. The start of the piece is noisy, and the arp melody is bright and beautiful as it hovers over everything. Then the drums come in, with the recurring melody still in the background, a soft pluck, putting the active bassline front and center, allowing room for echoing vocal samples and intense reverberation that fill the space. About 40 seconds in, it’s finally in the forefront, with an added complexity that takes it from an arp to a fuller melody. It remains light though, and continues intensifying, as more sounds are added to it. There is also a consistent half time beat that carries the beat forward, also growing, especially in this lighter middle section. Before you know it, the next big drop of vocals occurs, and the repeating line is fully present as the different synths all come together. By the outro, the helical form is complete: the drums are left bare, the arp-like melody is at its most elaborate, and the rhythm of the bass allows it to just meld right in, everything acting as one when the track fades away.
As an expert on songs about ghosts, I can confirm that this is indeed a song about ghosts. It is in fact the best song about ghosts, and to reassert my own credentials, I am an expert in songs about ghosts. ‘Ghosts’ is touching, and haunting, with perhaps the most perfected sound and emotion on this whole release. Unfortunately, it also gives me writer’s block, and I just sat at my desk for literal hours listening to it, incapable of elucidating much more than phantasmal wordplay, too ephemeral for the page. The lesson here is that if you want ghosts, and lost time (possibly also to ghosts), you should listen to this song.
The first thing that springs forth from ‘Affinity & Beyond’ is that everything is a melody. Everything gets its time in the spotlight, dynamic, each part bursting with horizontal motion. Again, I love how Impulses plays with their foreground. The intro’s cute staccato line quickly becomes a smooth and flowing background, complementary to the main melody. The bass slowly veers outside its comfort zone with more aggressive riffs at 1:20, only to return to normal once its taken its turn. The scene gets a little less crowded, and the percussion gets its chance to shine. The vocals arguably do moreso, but the drumming is at its busiest here, and I revel in the way it covers everything from intricate breakbeats, to old sound chips, drum machines, rapid fire FX, and clapping, booming percussion. The drums all across the board on this EP are just infectious. Finally, the triangle synth, hiding behind everything else for over two minutes, gets its feature (2:20) in a masterfully understated moment, and it works so well.
Though, I do wonder what some of these ideas might sound like if a section or two abandoned the groove altogether. Not necessarily the drums, but also this prevalent edm bounciness. I love it, but Impulses displays such a powerful ability to craft gorgeous melodies that interact with each other, with a strong aural range. There’s a special contrast in devoting part of a piece to that, letting pure lyrical lines carry the full weight. I especially find this true in regards to edm that uses chopped vocals and emotive arpeggios. This is less of a critique and more of a suggestion, as I’m really looking forward to what Impulses does next. If I have any constructive criticism, its that occasionally a track ends with some lingering ambiance, but cuts off a couple seconds too soon (this track and ‘Outro’ are the biggest offenders). That’s a small thing, and it’s the only thing here that doesn’t glow with enthusiasm, care, and polish.
There are two reasons why I love this track. First, Impulses’ obsession with motion takes on such a fascinating new meaning when paired with the dark, and this track’s cold lightless dissonance feels impressively heavy. There’s a hectic anxiety to it, disjointed rhythms, best showcased a little over two minutes in. Once again you’re filled, with melodies interacting, but this time they’re so close, so damn tense, and I’m really glad this track is here, in this album, in this spot, because it recontextualizes the elements it’s been playing with since the beginning, and I’m too much of a nerd to only watch this movie once. Even if you’re not, ‘Darkness’ is still a phenomenal decision, managing to convey such a different energy with the same familiar tools. It’s a gutsy pick that earns its place and serves to make the whole release even more coherent.
Second, I love how this jolting compositional foundation is accompanied by fitting sound choices. Alongside the usual bass octaves and distinctive drums are crunchier leads, clamoring 8bit noise hits, and even this weird ominous growl. These add a lot of character, which doesn’t just reinforce this track’s aesthetic, it also benefits the EP as a whole, showing variety and a willingness on Impulses’ part to step away from smoothness while retaining their unique sound.*
Making use of a full arsenal of tricks, techniques, and personality, ‘Darkness’ is the track I heard and knew I had to talk about. It’s dense, unresolved, harsh, and so effective. It actually reminds me a lot of Tuxic in that regard, which is one of the biggest compliments I can give, and yet another way this release makes me feel things. All in all, this track is a risk with one hell of a payoff.
* Speaking of their sound, Impulses has a lot of different instruments at their disposal, one of which I hadn’t heard of: Digital Math’s Chiptune Machine! ‘L | \/ E’ especially makes use of its triangle, and I’ve been toying with the VST a bit for myself recently. It’s probably not a go-to for anything technical, it’s not speccy chiptune, but it’s surprisingly versatile, and I’m a huge fan of some of the neat timbres you can get from working with the convenient filter and “destroy” options. As far as free plugins go, it’s grittier that 3xosc, more saturated than magical8bitplug, and it has a pretty special tonal quality to it – worth checking out if that sounds like your jam!
Last, but not least, I want to highlight the ‘Outro’. From the very first moment, something about it had this unbelievable familiarity to me. Not only in an “I’ve heard this before” sense, but something along the lines of, “I’m home.”
Speaking technically, this track is actually an interesting divergence from the ones before it, with much lighter percussion. A bit less crunchy, and a bit more graceful, both in its retro vibe and its melodies. There’s even a nice bit of crackling ambient background noise which I didn’t catch anywhere else. The atmosphere is relaxing. Still, the sense of bounciness, repetition, raw sound, melody, and emotion stays the same. And every single thing in this song drives home the feeling that you’re somewhere you know, somewhere that welcomes you. It’s wonder, but not an adventure, or a world to explore. It’s thought, affinity, ease.
It’s just… there.
This concluding piece, on a visceral level, accomplishes something incredible for me. It’s full of comfort, and simplicity, and that is a poignant way to end an album of punchy grooves and complicated interactions. I’ve listened to more than a fair share of music, especially chiptune, that’s evocative, heartfelt, and creates a feeling. But Impulses often manages to circle back around in my head, as I can’t quite describe what I’m feeling, which is so intertwined that I return to the music. The emotion becomes a melody again. I think back to all the times I’ve started writing a song, just to try and get out a feeling, just to express what words can’t – and in that regard Impulses is on par with everyone I consider the best of the best. More importantly, hearing that desire so clearly, it’s the biggest inspiration I can get, both as an artist and writer. ‘L | \/ E’ captures this closeness, in that it isn’t just evocative of a feeling – it makes me feel the music. It makes me connect to that feeling, it makes me want to feel, and it makes me want to connect with others. Music is connection.
We are melodies interacting. Thank you for feeling this too.