On January 11th, 1992, Alex Soborov was born. Since then, he has made dozens and dozens of chiptune tracks and other music as Purely Grey and, previously, Twistboy. He has contributed to Chiptunes = WIN as both a musician and a judge, and he’s run a family-owned (aren’t they too cute?!) netlabel called Tracked for chiptune releases and cassette tapes for nearly three years now. In 2018, Alex released a track every single week, and on January 11th, 2019, many of them were put together to form ’27’, a celebration of Soborov’s 27th year on this earth. Supposedly. Based on this music, he may have been studying the arts somewhere else, learning another plane’s stellar wisdom.
Bursting with clarity, consistency, and an endearing freshness to it, ’27’ is shaping up to be my favorite album released this year, and I’m saying that in February. It’s full of enthusiastic decisions, delicious instrumentation, fun harmonies, interesting melodies, gutsy and smart rhythm, and an integral originality in how each track is structured and how they bounce off one another.
Let’s start at the ending.
Track 21, the finish line, the place this release arrives to, where we are now. ‘Bedtime Stories’, stories as we leave one piece of time, one conscious period, and enter another. It’s almost a little hymn-like, reminiscent of both an amenable tradition and childlike voices coming together to sing a simple song they know. I can also hear a bit of a soundtrack influence, the case for many of these songs. This piece reminds me a bit of Grant Kirkhope, but less grandiose; like the softer and floaty ‘Wrinkly Kong’s Ghost’. These ideas meet at a single point, lightly resembling childhood, and hinting at something a bit otherworldly.
‘Bedtime Stories’ is evocative of both a literal scene and the emotional movement behind it. It’s magical, but in preparation: whimsical harmonies feel just as much about the describing of the adventure than the adventure itself. The melodies hit the spots you expect them to, but take their time. The piece works as an introspective closer, but functions just as well as an introduction, with a natural but seemingly dated sound, a framework that establishes this capsule of time and space we’re looking into.
Our journey has a lot ahead of it. ‘Still A Long Way To Go’ is easily one of the standout tracks: aware of the distance we face, but also the closeness of an adventurous spirit. It’s full of so many sounds just in the background chords alone. This diversity extends into not just the leads and harmonies, but also how it chooses to transition from one section to another, opting to carry many different energies rather than merely building up. Purely Grey utilizes some awesome syncopation, with bass hits complementing the more active hi hat. As a whole, this really establishes Alex’s unique sound: fresh and funky bass work, full synth chords with fascinating textures, risky chord changes, and so many little flourishes and pitch bends. It’s everything I could want in a whole chiptune synthpop arsenal. ‘Still A Long Way’ is not without influence though, as the melodies call to attention LSDj users like Defense Mechanism (especially when he pulse switches the lead for a measure), while the flexible harmonies and adapting sus chords are quite Fearofdark-y. This track is a clear sign of not just knowledge but experience, as Purely Grey’s instincts make for a lovely trip as we set off on the path ahead of us.
After choice encounters with witches and cerebral devices and the like, ‘Panic Attack’ is our biggest obstacle yet. Despite the name, this tune actually calms me. It’s a fantastic expression of time and sound, leaving your senses in a place outside of a singular space and more among a series of stressed connections. It’s, fittingly, very horizontal, with elements such as a contrast of 5 and 10 (in this case 2+2+3+3, differentiating it from ‘Witches” use of 5 right after it) maintaining throughout the whole piece. These permanent fixtures hold the song in one spot, unable to move, barred from advancing. It’s also a shining fucking star when it comes to Purely Grey’s love of detune, which I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, but perhaps not in this petrifying context. Despite the track’s solidified nature, it is not without progress, as hints of a struggle shine, like the disconcerting note that comes in at 1:19, which is musically fantastic and emotionally such a perfect “holy shit” moment. The way the bass grows is a subtler distortion of the all-encompassing noisy tension. Overall, this track’s sense of direction and manipulation of sound is genius.
‘CMOS DEATH’ signals not just a narrative scene, but also a death to the emotional rhythm that is usually on display in this album. It’s another great use of the full track duration, as in order to have death, you need to establish life first. Mechanical yet autonomous, it has less of an ambiance and more of a canvas, where the air of it is a melody of sorts and the melodies are more like the instruments, tools for conveying this direction of sound.
While, I’m sure the mix here was very intentional – Purely Grey’s reverb is goals – I do wish the filtering movement in the bass was clearer. To my ears, it just seems as though the bass could be felt a little more without distorting the image or losing the point of the thing. Then again, some of the sound design in this album reminds me of ‘Taiga’, so I’m spoiled. Not that this doesn’t also spoil me, with the kind of chord progression only Purely Grey would use in this specific way. This is also one of a few tracks off this album (‘Witches’ is another) with a general soundscape I would compare to Bejeweled 2. And, to quote my best friend, listening to the Bejeweled 2 OST is a “core tenet of my personality”, so this track is getting some of my highest complements. The most telling resemblance this track has, however, is with this album’s own ‘Bedtime Stories’. With mallet percussion melodies and major cadences, ‘CMOS DEATH’ could seem so similar, yet it’s anything but, using these elements with a cold repetition, and a machine-like atmosphere.
‘Polygon’ is one of my favorite tracks. If earlier (later? If you didn’t notice, I’m reviewing these backwards. We’ll get there) tracks were scenes of an adventure, ‘Polygon’ would have to be the fight. But it’s not necessarily gritty, just armed. More valiant as opposed to aggressive, the pretty and lo-fi vibe articulates the polygonal polyrhythms and makes the melodies sparkle alongside an angst that feels proud and defiant. It’s a fantastic instance of how nothing in Purely Grey’s music is dry, how production and composition overlap. And, boy, does it stick with me when I have to fight, bringing a bit of joy on some of the toughest days. Much as its title suggests, ‘Polygon’ is very much a shaped track, with angles where you can look up and down, especially in the drops with bass synths and other lines converging, as perspective fills the time and makes for such an interesting and targeted push forwards. There’s also a run 2 minutes and 22 seconds in that I love for the simple reason that it is good, much like I love another thing named Polygon for the simple reason that it is good. #Relatable #content!
I’m going to move on now.
‘Uvs Nuur’ feels like a distant memory, a natural and simple emotion that is compressed and complicated by the act of recalling it. Notes in weird relationships to each other form lines that move closer towards the middle, similar to how the actual piece itself acts in relation to the audio around it: both a stream of water and a stream of music. With both of these sounds staying relatively the same, it’s like trying to frame a memory as a single moment, despite both music and memory requiring the movement of time in order to exist. Stylistically, this track reminds me of To The Moon, which is a much more expansive exploration of how we think about memories, and the way we tend to look back… in reverse.
‘Variations’ is conceptually solid, but I’d opt to call each “variation” a “reflection” instead. This song is full of surfaces, as each iteration of the theme is like light rebounding. The swinging dance feel and intricate-but-pulsey synthpop sound design remind me of Hex Room, which sometimes reminds me of Carly Rae Jepsen, and recently I was listening to Carly Rae Jepsen and was reminded of ‘Variations’. Something about the path this song flows along really brings out my brain’s endless mirror maze of associations. This is all in addition to the many synths and layers that even sound like reflection. Or perhaps a conversation. Not the most direct call and response, but rather parts that think and adjust to each other, which is appropriate in an album covering a year of life. When I imagine that year and think of this as a soundtrack to past adventures, it’s usually along scenes and paintings. To me, ‘Variations’ is a surprising switch to something interactive.
The phenomenal synthpop vibes continue with ‘Heatwave’. If I had to say only one thing: the chorus is fucking brilliant. I love how it allows you to contextualize everything you’re hearing while showing a beating heart and such a fluid melodic personality that fuels every second. I really wanted to share this song because of the specific overall sound, which I haven’t heard too much in chip or really anywhere outside of Purely Grey and Make Acid (or zircon, kind of?). It’s happy and earnest and makes me smile. To my chip artist readers: make more of this please. Everyone else, send me recs, I need to hear more of this.
‘Chillax’ feels like a counterpart to ‘Panic Attack’. It’s very good, and very vertical, but much like ‘Panic Attack’ actually calmed me, ‘Chillax’ tends to make me a bit anxious. It’s a sound that wants to move but should really still itself, especially in the restrained bass and antsy percussion. It also reminds me of ‘Variations’ a little, in how there’s a core theme that seems to learn from itself. I love the A♭ that comes in around 45 seconds in (its an 11th I think?), as well as the string-like synth that seems to both linger around uncomfortably but also have its phrases cut off too short. It’s just really interesting how a track named “Chillax” sits with me, full of contradictions. I think of what I said about ‘Bedtime Stories’, as much about describing the story as it is the story itself. Perhaps describing a panic attack can give some comfort. Perhaps describing something chill and relaxed can tense us up, waiting for the inevitable, our knowledge of stories telling us there’s conflict to come.
We’ve made it so far, now we’re almost to the beginning, and ‘Patchwork’ is such a culmination of the dense and infectious quality this release contains. Look at the fluttering echoing synth that comes in at 0:41, how it contrasts the tighter punch happening around it, but is also so so needed in order to lead your ears to the dynamite that goes off next. I absolutely love this track’s evolution of sound, how elements are pieced together, not just layered like a patchwork but stitched together, trails of huge supersaws and oscillating melodies. It’s got such a glorious and overwhelming chaos to it, I can’t get enough. And it’s so groovy too! The chorus/solo progression never resolves, just constantly pushing against itself, giving this rush of urgency and collision to every pounding bass note and every bouncy instrument dancing around in this aural ocean. It’s enormous. Then the snare fill clinches the experience, as all that’s left of the fireworks is a little bit of whistling noise, descending, as the patchwork returns… to where it started.
‘Untitled’. It captures something without association, a name for something chosen for its own sake, acting as almost no sake at all. As a track that makes you search for “what is this?”, it moves slowly and gives you plenty of time to find an answer. Yours may be something about the synths, or the floating harmonies, or the pensive movement. There’s plenty here to latch onto. But my answer is a bit different. I would call this piece… a birthday.
When I first heard ‘Untitled’, the day it came out, I enjoyed it, but there was something I couldn’t grasp, something familiar, like there was another song this should be. I still couldn’t tell you for certain – I’ve referred to quite a few things today, I’m sure more than one similar piece is at play – but the day before I wrote this article an association finally came to me, the one I’d been searching for. There’s a beautiful song called ‘Another Chance’ off an album I’ve been listening to since middle school. At first I really couldn’t tell you why exactly it sprung to mind, it starts on a slow pretty E major chord I guess? The similarities end there. ‘Another Chance’ grows and picks up much quicker. Plus the soundscape is all wrong. Purely Grey’s ‘Untitled’ is much more like an ambient tracker epic than an orchestral hype builder.
But ‘Another Chance’ comes from an album titled ‘One Year Older’. That must be the connection. I suppose somewhere in my head there’s a special place reserved for this, and ’27’ now occupies that space too. There’s something really poignant about a birthday – not in the contemporary sense, except maybe the way its meant when Frosty the Snowman says “happy birthday!” – but definitely the way music can convey one. ’27’ begins with ‘Untitled’, much like a life begins with the day someone is born, but in the way a birthday can also be an anniversary: a marker establishing two points, just as much about all the days in between. It’s music, it’s sound, it’s the wave between two peaks.
Above all else, this album is a challenge. It asks the listener to look at a long piece of time, and rather than finding a story, development, or evolution, instead I discovered moments – memories compounded on top of one another. Purely Grey sat down and created a song for each week across a whole year. I’ve been writing for this blog for a year now. We all have our own anniversaries, our own celebrations and things that cause us to reflect on a great deal of time and space. It’s a lot, but so is standing at a window, looking out at the journey ahead. When so much can happen in just a single day… you’ve still a long way to go.
Life will always have changes, beginnings, and ends. Somewhere something is new, unknown, untitled.
What will it sound like?