Many chiptune composers and enthusiasts alike will reminisce about their favorite video games and their soundtracks; oftentimes because of their soundtracks bringing such a large breath of life to the gaming experience. Fortunately, thanks to a huge effort of many groups of people celebrating video game music, we have come to a point where we are celebrating the music and composers that helped shaped our youth, imaginations, and lives. However, most to all of the contributions have been to primarily video game music, be it tributes to old or new content for (equally amazing) games. While you would never find me complaining about this, part of me had wondered what would happen if one of the composers of what I considered “the golden age of video game soundtracks” were to make a new chiptune (or at least chip-inspired) album?
Apparently, legendary Famicom-era pioneer, composer and (coincidentally) an influence of my own personal musical tastes, Keiji Yamagishi (along with director Mohammed Taher) were already a few steps ahead of me, and after the jump I will explain to you how it feels to be given a gift by a legend.
After two years of work, musician Keiji Yamagishi and director Mohammed Taher have released part one of three of their project titled “The Retro-Active Experience” under the label Brave Wave.
Of course, to anyone not familiar with the name Keiji Yamagishi directly, you may be familiar with the nickname “More Yamasan” or “K.Y. Jet,” two (of eight) different aliases he went under during his days as a video game composer. Keiji Yamagishi is rightfully described as a Famicom-era pioneer that has composed music for some of gaming’s most beloved franchises such as Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl, Captain Tsubasa and (one of my personal favorite soundtracks) Gitaroo Man.
His first-ever solo project, split into three parts to be released throughout 2015, begins with “Retro-Active Pt. 1,” which is inspired by his Famicom days and fueled with more passion and focus than ever. However, purists beware, even the pioneer has gone beyond using the old hardware. “My music is not only based on nostalgia,” Yamagishi emphasizes. “With Retro-Active Pt. 1, we employed heavy guitars, dance beats, Vocaloid, and other modern techniques. My aim was to create a futuristic and emotional chiptunes world. Welcome to my world!”
This, of course, isn’t his world alone. There are many faces you may recognize from both veterans of the industry and incredible talents from the VGM community. In Retro-Active Pt. 1, Keiji Yamagishi infuses his early Famicom roots with modern sounds and production in collaboration with Marco Guardia (of Flutlicht, DJ Tatana, Monomirror) as a mixing engineer. Yamagishi decided to dabble in melodic and guitar-driven compositions, including collaborations with Mega Man’s legendary composer Manami Matsumae and guitarist Stemage of Metroid Metal. Stemage was also the mastering engineer behind the latest Chiptunes = WIN compilation, ‘chipWINter Wonderland‘, and Kubbi’s latest album, ‘Ember‘. On top of that, the album includes (amazing) remixes by Brave Wave’s Takahiro Izutani (of Metal Gear Solid 4, Bayonetta) and new comer Smoke Thief, as well as Riki Arai, a longtime friend of Yamagishi’s from their Famicom days.
However, it would be an injustice to only explain to you why this album’s reputation precedes it. Let us begin with…
The Play-By-Play Track Description
When listening carefully to the appropriately-named first track, ‘First Contact,’ you can tell many of the synth sounds are familiar to the Famicom system, recognizable as either recreated or recorded and then altered sound waves from the 2A03 Soundchip using the VRC6 module. From the fading in bass synth to the chorusing effect used in the collision leading up to the climax of the intro, Yamagishi is showing his expertise on conveying atmosphere and tension building. The entire song gives off a late-90’s, early-2000’s sci-fi adventure theme with its use of synth bass, pitch modulated sound effects. turntable scratches, and a VRC6-esque pulse lead that sounds to be cycling a changing pulse width. When Yamgishi changes up the form in the song, anyone listening carefully will note that each segment transitions exceptionally well into the next; making the bridge’s melody (hinting at a baroque nature) and its buildup not only sound appropriate but emphasizes what feels like a message.
I would assume that the message would relay that this is the return of a composer who has written complex, melody-centric music before most of us could even pick up an instrument. If I had to summarize this track, it would be to say this was an excellent introduction to the album to new and veteran fans alike; displaying the overall conceptual design of how the album might sound in places while giving you an example of all the talents which fans of Yamagishi’s work are well familiar with by now.
Full of deep bass lines, dance rhythms, bouncing arpeggios, and lead instruments as reminiscent of the 2A03 chip’s pulse channel as they are reminiscent to Ninja Gaiden; ‘Bounty Hunter’ almost sounds like it’s a re-imagining of a track once considered for a specific chase scene. While the form does not vary as much in style in comparison to ‘First Contact,’ this is still an emotional, melodically-driven track full of references to his Famicom-era compositional days. There is a particular echoing technique used at the end of each chorus that was very synonymous with Yamagishi and Ninja Gaiden. Similarly, in certain spots in the melody, technically-inclined chiptune composers might recognize the excellent use of chorusing (two instruments in unison slightly detuned from each other) in parts of the melody.
‘Starfish Cluster’ starts off with crashing waves reminiscent of the acoustic version of the Legendary Theme in Gitaroo Man. What I was then introduced to was a bouncy, summer-like beach jam that used a drum kick similar to the triangle drum kick seen off of most Famicom games (and still used to this day by many in Famitracker.) ‘Starfish Cluster’ starts off relaxed with a suggestion of a soulful rhythm section (or, perhaps since this is suggestive of the ocean and there are very soft guitar chords playing in the background, one could suggest it sounds similar to third-wave ska.) The song builds up over time into a nearly a hyper-melody atmosphere while delivering a catchy lead accompanied by a prominent guitar lead. Much like anything suggestive of the ocean, Starfish Cluster ends with a fade-out of the same crashing waves, completing the oceanic theme to the song.
‘Memories of T’ begins a hard rock-centric track full of melodies and arpeggios looping harmony notes and a shifting duty cycle. This track displays Yamagishi experimenting with guitar melodies while maintaining his knowledge and composition experience. However, from shared knowledge through many guitarists and pianists that also make chipmusic, there are times where one creates melodies and solos that may accidentally be too difficult to perform on the instrument intended. This track is a stellar example of being able to pull off a heavy rock genre of music with chiptune elements while still maintaining both the natural complexity of chiptune and the practicality of being able to perform many of its elements live, a crucial part of rock and other genres where your music (and instrument) requires to be performed live.
Speaking of the natural complexity of the composition of chiptune, ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a track that features the composer of Mega Man, Manami Matsumae. Returning to the dance elements of chiptune, this song plays out with a highly-emotional melody that almost feels as its own story. Even from the start of the song, there is a heavy use of arpeggios, pulse width cycling, and reverb on what sounds like triangle wave pads; creating a sound reminiscent, but admittedly infinitely fuller, than what you would expect from a Famicom. While the percussion brings hints of latin and disco to the dance beat pattern, there are times where the harmony goes from being bass rhythm-focused to almost heroic in emotion with string chords accompanying the root rhythm.
Each segment of the song’s form has a unique melody that makes transitions from verse, to refrain, to bridge literally flawless. When I arrived to the first solo-centric section of the song’s form, I felt as if I was sitting in on a masterclass on how to make emotional, exciting and dramatic solos in a dance-rhythm track. The stuttering performed at the end of this section not only gave another hint at a latin dance vibe, but ended up being an incredibly powerful emphasis to the transition back to the refrain. It is (and has been) clear that neither Yamagishi nor Matsumae have let any time or talent go to waste between projects. and it was a very wise decision to have collaborated with each other.
‘Drifting Love’ is, much like the suggestion of “love” in the title, a lighter-hearted song that feels adorable in nature and carries a light but appropriate amount of drama. Considering the different instruments used in this track, it’s an impressive display of how various instruments can go along with a pulse melody. Many elements have gone into this track, from a triangle-wave counter-harmony to a funk-rhythm guitar to a toy piano performing an accompanying lead, and each instrument could not fit any more seamlessly into the song. When the track builds up to a collision and the Vocaloid synth voice takes over the melody in the chorus, you can almost picture a montage love scene in your head. Many technical techniques including arpeggio note slides, rising and lowering hardware slides, and excellent usage of lower-octave triangle notes for a deeper bass that, keeping traditional to the 2A03 sound chip, tends to somehow stay prominent even when it seems to be getting overshadowed by louder, higher-octave notes.
Retro-Active Pt. 1 is a testament to being able to explore the boundaries of using chiptune elements in music without being specifically intended as a nostalgia purist’s approach. Every song tells its own story and manages to live up to the expectation set by the last, and, even after multiple play-throughs, the album never disappoints.
From both a technical and chiptune composition aspect, while one would certainly assume there would be, a lot of technical knowledge has been put on display for the world to see. While witnessing someone express their passion for these sounds is a wonderful feeling, having someone from the industry they helped pioneer return to debut the same passion combined with decades of well-honed skill and knowledge is equally exciting and refreshing as it is an honor.
Yamagishi is a living legend from the Famicom era of both video game music and chiptune composition, and to have him embrace the public’s re-emerging passion for chiptune music as a centric element to his debut solo album is equally fitting as it is flattering to all chiptune enthusiasts.
You can find this album at Brave Wave’s store, and is available for digital download at $8 USD. Never in my life have I been more able to justify the concept of purchasing music than with this album.