My introduction is going to be a bit of a gushy personal disclaimer. Sometime in mid-February of 2015, I was chilling out at home browsing Bandcamp, skimming ‘videogame’ tags and fan accounts, my primary way of finding new music back then. I stumbled across Kubbi’s album ‘Ember’, a breathtaking experience that I fall in love with every time I hear it. It’s stuck with me all this time, and while I’m sure it’s influenced me as an artist, Ember has done much more to help shape me as a listener. Looking back, some things have stayed the same (I still spend an occasional evening all to myself on bandcamp), but there’s just so much that has changed since 2015. I discovered Chiptunes = WIN, learned new things. I made new friends, left high school, grew up… and now I find myself here. I know I wouldn’t want to be judged for who I was three years ago, and I certainly wouldn’t want my music to be judged by what I made back then either.
So, as honored as I am to be talking about one of my favorite artists, on one of my favorite blogs – I’m going to try and set that aside, and refrain from any comparisons in regards to Kubbi’s past work too. I’m honestly more excited for right now, and the memories that haven’t happened yet. I used to have one definitive favorite album. With ‘Taiga’, I now have two.
If you’re used to reading the ChipWIN Blog, the typical review format is to highlight a few tracks and talk about them. I think there is a lot that an opening can establish though, especially in an album like this one. So rather than approaching this linearly, I’ll be discussing a few elements that the first track ‘Retrospect’ sets up, and how they apply to Taiga as a whole. If you’ve heard it already, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well, I like to think I’m pretty convincing 😊
The most apparent aspect of Retrospect (to me at least) is its rich atmosphere. It opens with deep ambience – relaxing, but also a little playful. Simple harmonies gravitate in the middle, surrounded by these beautiful synths that rise up from nothing, as if placed in reverse. When the notes end they don’t disappear; they reverberate, everywhere. One sound in particular enters from above and swoops down, feeling less like an effect descending, and more like part of the background. It isn’t an electronic background either. It’s reminiscent of something much more alive, like a forest at night, or birds in the rain. A natural landscape. And while the sounds and sheer depth of this immerse you in this setting, the track goes on: Taiga’s unparalleled use of filters, effects, and layering all come together to give this active environment a sense of time, progression, distance.
This nature and sensitivity has a remarkable effect throughout the entire album. Many of the tracks endings have an ambience carrying over, or beginnings with a sound coming in where another faded away. The introduction in ‘Wake’ speaks for itself. These seamless transitions give the album an evocative continuity, which again helps create such a self-contained immersion and space.
The atmosphere doesn’t stop when the music gets more active, either. Those building synths really help give ‘Spiritdancer’ its personality, with the backwards effect showing up in more striking and coarse ways into ‘Prey’. That melodic layering is in almost everything Kubbi does, ‘Antlers’ having some very direct examples. Reverberation is everywhere. ‘Hunter’ is soundscape heaven. Filter use is prevalent all over the place, creating such a consistent deep and full sound, and this along with all those earthy synth effects are downright essential later down the road with ‘Resurgence’. When you listen to ‘Cold Snap’ where the keys first come in, each note doesn’t just come and go, it seems to travel off into the distance, finding its place among a beautiful world that’s just barely in sight.
Oh, there’s this one moment in ‘Plume’ (around 1:15) where all these exciting chords just disappear, but if you listen closely there’s this collection of sounds that just echoes above everything else, left over from what we heard before – bouncing around nearly until the drums come back in – little details like that shape such a distinct texture, it’s amazing.
The track that stands out to me the most when it comes to atmosphere and nature is actually ‘Prey’ – which, if you’ve heard Prey, probably sounds like a weird claim to make. It’s initially memorable for anything but. There’s this harsh drop, aggressive basses pushing each beat, artificial drum breaks clanging against one another. But think about how the song starts. Slow, deep, echoing and reverberating, with a sound and style the album has presented before. It’s familiar, and natural. Even moreso if you recognize synths from Kubbi’s earlier stuff (something in this intro actually reminds me of Vian which is an absolutely amazing band that Kubbi’s in, please check it out). By setting up this atmosphere initially, the direction Prey goes in isn’t just distorted, it’s actively distort-ing the world we’ve been in thus far. Which helps make it so memorable… and also just wicked cool. The natural and artificial elements aren’t meshing together now, they’re at odds with each other. This comes into play even more after the first drop. There’s an unresolved background harmony (B♭ I think? It’s the ninth of the first chord) that’s held out for ages, adding so much tension, it almost hurts. This along with the crunched up drums are added to the pretty intro we heard before, forming the second verse, which continues to corrupt the natural image we had before. The idea culminates in the second drop, where rather than isolate the aggressive electronica again, we instead hear the expressive melody fighting to climb above the heavy glitches. With Taiga as a whole moving from the peace of retrospection and awakening, towards the conflict of a hunter and prey – this musical addition of sudden tension works incredibly well. Artificiality thrust upon such a natural world.
Before I move onto my next section, Kubbi mentioned that he likes to read reviews for critique, so here are a few minor things that didn’t work for me:
1. I can’t follow the opening rhythm in Wake at all until the drums come in. Not sure if this was intentional.
2. The kick and snare in Hunter feel a bit weak.
3. The snare roll ending for Resurgence is awkward, mostly when compared to the percussion choices in previous songs since they’re all masterful and flawless.
…Yeah that’s all I’ve got. Before anyone raises their pitchforks, I’m really picky about drums, with just about anyone who’s ever asked me for feedback. As for Wake, I could make the same complaint about the first few seconds of Toto’s Hold the Line, which is a treasure, and if you don’t like it then you’re dead to me.
Back to analysis.
Kubbi describes the main theme of this album as coming out of hibernation. Just as Kubbi’s music has evolved, Taiga’s concept conveys the story of that too. From reflection, to waking up, chasing after something, braving the cold – this journey has a clear beginning, and takes you through those evolving ideas before arriving at its conclusion. The entire album feels very cohesive, if you pay attention to the details you will notice a lack of repetition. Wake’s soaring chorus keeps you on your feet with every line and every chord, with just the right amount of variety and energy. Prey’s momentum is constantly adding new ideas into the mix. Whatever melodies show up again are then placed in a new light, accompanying something else moving it forward.
Especially considering the album as a whole, we can follow the ways Taiga introduces something new (no, not that something new) as it progresses. It opens with Retrospect, which is not just reflective but also so direct about what it’s trying to do. The decision to start with a slow track that has no percussion is a deliberate risk that seriously pays off. Not just because of the potential for a variety of listening experiences, but also for the way it sets up anticipation – we’re not used to hearing a song like this without a crucial part of the instrumentation, but placing it as the beginning lets us adapt. This isn’t just effective for the narrative, it also makes the arrival of drums in ‘Wake’ that much more powerful. It’s the reveal of a new piece in the puzzle. It’s like if J.J. Abrams actually opened his mystery box.
Part of why this works so well is that it matters. Once the drums come in they play a crucial role, as a tool for Wake’s dramatic entrances, as an indicator of Plume’s punchy upbeat style, and then defining moments in the ambitious ‘Spiritdancer.’ Its transition out of the first chorus almost seems to temporarily leave the main triplet feel and enter another, before entering another pretty refrain to set the scene once again. But the new rhythmic ideas aren’t all that Spiritdancer brings to the table. It also introduces a more complex EDM style, with more active basses, heavier synths, and much jumpier phrasing (I call this complextro, specifically in regards to the phrasing, but I’ve seen that term used differently in other circles). This style and feeling is elaborated on in ‘Prey,’ which is a shining example of how the musical elements and this sort of overarching thematic direction can complement each other. Which still impresses me, even after listening to this album on repeat way too many times. These aren’t just good tracks in their own right, they build on one another.
From there, ‘Hunter’ comes in softly, a clear contrast from what precedes it. After all, you would expect a different perspective between Hunter and Prey. What is one without the other? While Prey may not lend its aggressive style to what follows, it does contribute to keeping the album’s flow, as its final release leads into a chilling reprise. Then we hear Andreas W. Røshol’s wonderful singing. The ways Taiga uses new ideas comes front and center. Bringing in vocals more than halfway through the album is a refreshing changeup – but not the igorr-chicken-break kind. It’s simply a new part of the adventure. There’s no drastic transformation: we still have pretty keyboard chords, lush atmospheres, arp-esque chiptune parts, and heartfelt melodies. They’re just evolving as the album moves forward, and Kubbi continues exploring that. The lyrics allude to the main idea of the album pretty directly, as does Aria Fawn’s gorgeous artwork. The design and master are rock solid as well. Everything feels in tune, the people involved so in sync with the final result. Taiga.
Hunter’s step away from electronica’s aggressive side paves the way for the rest of the album, as the final three tracks grow and grow. Antlers has this simple retro grit that I just get totally lost in, Resurgence is exactly what it sounds like, and they lead up to Cold Snap where everything just blooms. But the track order isn’t the only way that this album maintains such excellent pacing. Another tool that ‘Retrospect’ establishes is subtlety. Made up of slowly moving melodies, understated effects, and a soft-spoken pretty soundscape, the finer details never stand out. This isn’t just important for the sake of individual subtle ideas working well, it also leads the listener to tune in on a broader level and take it as a whole.
Due to the nature of “subtlety” I’m not going to try and extensively provide examples, but I will ask this: did you notice the noisy filtered riser before the first big drop in Prey? Not the crazy reverse drum FX in the last measure, but rather, the background rising up through the whole buildup section. Did it grab your attention? I sure didn’t catch it in my first few listenings. But it’s still there, and it works. As much as I like talking about Prey though, I think the subtlety extends beyond technical music elements. The whole theme of Taiga as coming out of hibernation is one I probably wouldn’t have the words for, if not for Kubbi putting a name to it. Yet even without that knowledge, the music here would still be just as successful in what it’s trying to convey. That may speak more to music as a medium, but I still think it’s worth noting for how this album comes together.
With such a focus on subtlety and atmosphere, it seems like it would be easy for elements to overstay their welcome, but Retrospect brings just enough to the table to let you sit back and get ready to enjoy the ride. The rest of the album follows suit – considering two thirds of the tracks pass the 4min mark, it goes by surprisingly quickly. I attribute this to elements I’ve already mentioned, but one thing that’s especially important for pacing is the rhythm. Kubbi incorporated much more of a breakbeat influence than I was expecting, and I’m pleasantly surprised. It contrasts nicely with the more subtle elements, but it’s also pretty damn perfect for Kubbi’s style, which already features some unique syncopation. It isn’t progrock, (at least not usually) but there have always been some creative rhythmic ideas in how Kubbi arranges everything from melodies and arps to chord plucks and progressions. The breakbeats set a very nice foundation for this. ‘Spiritdancer’ is the obvious go-to for syncopation running wild, but outside of pure rhythm section stuff there’s plenty more: the harmonic elements in Wake, and Antlers’ melodies running in tangent, both have some neat offbeats, polyrhythms act like 3:2 and 3:4 before pausing to catch up with each other. Plus, there are a few moments in Prey where it suspends everything for two beats before “dropping” on 3 (also one instance of dropping on 2). This is yet another way that track builds tension, but the thing here is that it’s never too extreme, nor does it seem to come out of nowhere. These rhythmic elements generate momentum, but always in a way that fits with what’s going on around them. There’s a balance there, between the easiness and moving forward, which never seems to tip the scale too far one way or the other.
Even with such a dynamic energy, Kubbi still treats the music with this delicate approach. Intriguing instrumentation, rhythms, and themes are all there, but never right in your face. This calm is honestly a significant part of how Taiga stands out in its originality and execution. I’m not just saying that from the perspective of a music nerd, it seriously expands what the album can accomplish for others too. My dad is far from a critic or an EDM enthusiast, but he told me that this album in particular has really helped him rest and relax, in spite of not feeling well lately. Had anyone else produced Taiga, I’m not too sure my dad would have said that.
After all this analysis, I can’t really tell you why this album is “good.” Sure, I can talk about how some of it works for me, or why I think it’s effective, but there’s no simple explanation for these magical emotions I feel as I listen on repeat for days. There’s no cause I can point to for the watery eyes and absolute inspiration we felt as Cold Snap played in the release party. I think if I could point to a reason, a grand moment, a perfect idea – the thing I’ve spent this whole article searching for – then the effect it has would be different. Taiga is expressive, complex, moving, and subtle. I wouldn’t rather have it any other way.
In conclusion, I wholeheartedly hope my thoughts help you appreciate Taiga in new ways, and I encourage you to find your own. Take a step into its gorgeous world, and experience its powerful journey. My one caveat is that you please go into it without expectations, without the past. This is its own world, telling a new story, in a very special way. So listen without looking for something that isn’t there, because there are a lot of things that Taiga is not. That, in itself, is a bold and beautiful departure from anything Kubbi has done before.