I’ve been feeling a bit down lately, chip citizens. Perhaps it’s these cloudy, gray skies here in London, England. I’m accustomed to a bit more variation, a bit more sun back where I’m from in the U.S.A. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a little rain every once in awhile, and I like the mildness of the weather here; I’m certainly not a humidity fan. I’m just after a little change from time to time.
I sat down at my tiny hotel desk this dreary morning of Monday, August 24th to get to writing my monthly blog entry for ChipWIN with my current sensibilities, desires, and emotional state in mind. “Something different would be nice today,” I thought to myself as I began to peruse over the several sources I go to when finding my next would-be review.
I browsed through four or five recent releases before I encountered Pocket Fox’s ‘SALTWATER’, a self-proclaimed “little four-track EP of nautical wishy-washy nintendo-fueled tunes”. Ahhhh, Surf Rock with 8-bit instrumentation. Perfect! This is where I want to be right now, chip citizens; on a sunny beach somewhere with a surfboard, a DMG, a guitar and an amplifier.
Time and time again I am drawn to the ideologies of chipmusic, and how it has evolved over the years since its inception. These chips we adore so much started as a means of conveying complex, organic ideas in a simplified digital manner due to technological limitations. Many of the original composers that did scores for the old games we know and love were keeping a particular genre in mind when they composed. There was no such thing as chipmusic, you see. Sound chips were a tool, an instrument. Only with the creation of modern-day electronic music were we able to see these retro systems as all-inclusive production studios. There was no language back then for what we do now.
Perhaps it is due to this [over]abundance of the modern day mentality, the pursuit of having that chip of choice be your voice, your melody, your harmony, your bass, your percussion, that I am in a rut over the state of chip as frequently as I am. Yes, when we collectively started repurposing these consoles and computers to perform these tasks for us it was revolutionary, something new in a sea of musical and artistic repetition, but that theoretical big bang was a decade ago. If one could argue we are a genre rooted in innovation, then what are we when innovation goes out the window? Are we just one of the rest now? I hope not, friends. I pray it isn’t so.
It is perhaps for these reasons that I found Pocket Fox’s EP to be a lungful of fresh, salty air. Here we have an example of what the sound chip had been designed to be, an instrument, but without the limitations of the days of their creation. We don’t need to keep it strictly chip, you see. That was necessary back then, and although repeating that process in the modern day has its merit as a means of artistic expression, it really isn’t mandatory now. I can guarantee you with one hundred percent certainty that the original innovators of this technology would consider this approach to be more true to the spirit of their original intentions than what we fall back on so frequently in this genre. They crammed it all into a format that could be synthesized on a chip because they had to, not because they wanted to. Many of the early iconic chip composers were emulating genres such as baroque era classical, reggae, and rock. They would have loved for you to hear a wider array of sound waves. They just couldn’t make that happen for you at the time.
Ideological analysis aside, ‘SALTWATER’ is an EP with an edgy, agitated soul placed in the midst of a genre that is typically considered upbeat and cheery, reminiscent of sunny days spent on the shoreline. As you listen to Pocket Fox here, however, you come to realize the sun has set, and the anxiety of lost love and loneliness has taken hold. In a way, surf rock has been used in the same way chipmusic has here, outside of its normative habits. Meshing these two forms together, our protagonist has created a new structure that cannot be easily seen without investigating closely. This is innovation.
As for the actual chip elements of the release, I’ll be blunt: the compositional work done in LSDJ for this release is rough around the edges, rudimentary, without the polish the all-encompassing approach frequently has, and in this particular case I think that’s perfectly fine. Part of the blessing of tying other instrumentation in with simplistic synthesis is that it provides a larger canvas, where one can round out the hard edges of the 8-bit aesthetic.
With the first track of the EP, ‘Sandy Dungeon (Lonely Bones)’, a major key obscures the lyrical content in such a way that one can get a sense of satisfaction from paying close attention to everything happening. The best art doesn’t slap you in the face with any particular message, in my opinion. It misleads sometimes. It makes you think, analyze, and create your own thoughts and feelings regarding the work in consideration. The sample at the end of Ed and Ein from the iconic anime, “Cowboy Bebop” further illuminates that there might be something foul afoot. “Hey, wait a minute Ein. We have to share and share alike. …Ein?” This form of alluding to a message without telling you outright what the artist is going for is, in my opinion, one of the attributes of high art. It is in music as it is in quality writing: Show, don’t tell.
After several playthroughs, I came to the decision that the title track, ‘Saltwater’, was my favorite of the four. It certainly seems to be the most lyrically dense, and has several tempo changes that allow for movement between levels of aggression alongside noticeable alterations in guitar effects between stages in the song. There are obscure techniques that took about a half dozen sit-throughs to pick up on as well. At certain points both guitar and LSDJ are being used to create a rhythmic guitar pattern known as “chucking”, where one mutes the strings with the palm of their strumming hand while playing, allowing for a more staccato note, (and increased string control, meaning you can play faster.) Having this sound fleshed out by an additional pulse channel just increases my appreciation for the creative and ingenious approach to songwriting in this album.
All in all, I found ‘SALTWATER’ to be a very consistent work through its four movements, with an undeviating sense of sadness and frustration mixed with surrender. Much like sitting on the beach and watching the waves to calm one’s nerves, I have found this EP to be a relief for my own anxieties. Thank you, Pocket Fox.