Welcome to the February edition of Office Hours where class is in session even in the face of a massive snowstorm! Last week you were treated to an interview from President Hoodie with Marshall Art, and this week I have the distinct pleasure of reviewing their recent self-titled release.
Marshall Art is an international collaboration between NES master Jeffrey Roberts (jmr) and guitarist Mikhail Ivanov (streifig). Fresh off their performance at MAGFest 13, jmr and streifig have hit the ground running with the release of their new album ‘Marshall Art.’ One of the most interesting things about this duo is their wide array of musical influences – make sure to read Hoodie’s interview linked above for a comprehensive list. There are some predictable names on their list, but some of the more obscure and avant garde artists piqued my attention. Such a wide array of influences is indeed on display in each track of this album; time to dive in!
Papercut You Into Little Pieces
Two things immediately catch my ears at the top of this track: the catchy and ominous intro, and high production value. One of my favorite things about this track is the instrument design, using various tricks of the NES sound chip to affect the patches rather than simple square or saw waves. This album sounds great on both headphones and speakers, and the mix stays very clean and bright throughout each track.
streifig’s guitar blends very well with the overall texture of the NES, both in production quality and the tasteful nature of the playing. One musical feature that will remain constant throughout this album is the seamless blending of styles within the same track. Notice the difference between the ethereal textures that allow plenty of space for each note, contrasting with the more rhythmic sections accompanied by driving percussion.
The opening texture of this track is really nice; the combination of NES instruments with sparse guitar accompaniment and a steady beat create a very spacious, pleasant sound. But wait a dang minute – let’s talk about that supposed steady beat… What initially sounds like a standard phrase in common time (4 beats to the bar) actually contains an extra beat at the end of the second measure. This extra beat is further complicated by the regular use of a triplet in the drums. These three evenly-spaced notes throw off the steady beat as well as highlighting the fact that there is an extra, unexpected pulse at the end of the phrase. Listeners tend to hear music with a certain level of expectation, and often the greatest moments in any piece are those that defy expectation or delay a resolution in the best possible way. This extra beat is, on the surface, a simple musical element of little consequence. But when combined with the overall steady pulse and listener expectation, the extra beat adds a tiny bit of intangible aural magic that really makes this track stand out on the album.
I really enjoy the different guitar tones used by streifig for the contrasting sections of this track. The mixing of clean, reverb-laden guitar with a cruncy mid-range distorted tone helps to give each section of the music it’s own unique sound. The only thing missing from this track is a booming bass line (says the bassist…), but the triangle bass that kicks in at 2:50 is a very welcome addition to the texture. I also enjoy the NES lead around 3:00 to contrast with the guitar as the only solo instrument. Marshall Art’s sound has been compared to Pink Floyd in the past, and I can hear a bit of that influence with the extended solos, use of reverb, and the wall of sound approach to the noisy parts of this track.
They’re Like Locusts (ft. spamtron)
Man, the beginnings of these tracks are all stellar. This track opens with an extended NES solo that utilizes detuning and microtonal nuances to shape and color the musical lines. The first time I heard it, I immediately wanted to hear more and was not disappointed! Marshall Art collaborated with spamtron for this raucous, noisy jam that features a very ambitious rhythmic structure once the full band kicks in. Sounding almost like some of Conlon Nancarrow’s polytempo studies for player piano, the fast-paced texture beginning at 0:53 sounds like a speeding train that is on the verge of derailing at any second. jmr and streifig are both inspired by mixing musical styles, and that element is definitely a central theme in this track. The otherworldly opening mixes nicely with the following fast section in triple meter, eventually dissolving into frenzied noise. Each of these three elements could be their own separate entity, and it is a daring musical risk to use them together in a single 5:52 track. I think the risk definitely paid off, as this is a very engaging blend of sounds from all three musicians.
Nothing Can Be Fixed Here. God, Burn!
This track is, according to streifig, inspired by increasing political tensions and that influence is definitely heard in the increasing tempo and dissonance that builds throughout the piece. The sinister-sounding texture at 0:40 reminds me of the album’s opening track, and adds a welcome rhythmic groove to the overall sound. One element that stands out to me is the constantly shifting tempos between sections. This helps to not only give each section it’s own rhythmic DNA, but the steady increase in pulse rate adds to the frenetic texture. The music eventually becomes pure noise and chaos by 4:00, perhaps inspired by the avant garde soundscapes of John Zorn’s ‘Absinthe’ recording with Naked City. The evolution of musical styles and increasing dissonance clearly captures the influence of political strife, and the ringing tones in the guitar that close the track recall the opening motive. Whether that calm texture represents a plea for peace or the silence after mutual destruction is ultimately left up to the listener.
Ahh, the rare triple title1! ‘Marshall Art,’ from the record ‘Marshall Art’ by Marshall Art – so nice they named it thrice. In all seriousness, this is one of the most ambitious undertakings that I have encountered so far in my exploration of chip music. ‘Marshall Art’ is a journey of extreme proportions, serving almost as an overture or microcosm of this album as a whole. Clocking in at 19:19, this is music on a scale comparable to the massive symphonies of Gustav Mahler rather than a bouncy guitar + NES romp found on Soundcloud. However, even with the extreme length of the track, I do not find my attention span being tested, thanks to the combination of textures and interesting sections of music. The opening texture is nice, and goes on just long enough before transitioning to a swinging dance beat. An extended guitar solo follows, which dissolves into my favorite moment on the entire album in the airy textures at 4:43. Pay attention to the slow and subtle tempo shift around 8:30 that leads into an interesting section with vocals, seeming to sample and distort the words ‘Marshall Art.’ The rhythm solidifies again with hihats and chip leads, swelling to a jam with the full ensemble by 15:23. The gargantuan track closes with a mass choir singing a happy lead with the NES – check the album credits for the complete list of singers!
A track of this scope is risky as the closer to a diverse album, but again the risk pays off and provides a very unique entry in the vast sea of modern chip music. Closing with the choir is another unusual trademark of this track, and something that I really enjoyed hearing after such a diverse journey.
If I were to pick three words to describe Marshall Art’s self-titled release, I would choose ambitious, expressive, and unique. Each track contains a variety of miniature sound worlds to explore for a brief moment, which is often a dangerous thing in the hands of lesser artists. What could easily be a technique that results in a lackluster, unfocused product is handled expertly by jmr and streifig, holding the listener’s attention through each transition. These kaleidoscopic moments bring a vitality to the music by providing several different moods for each track, rather than focusing singularly on ‘ambient,’ ‘ballad,’ or ‘shredding.’ All of these qualities combine to create a release that, to me, stands out among the current market of chip music. The combination of NES chip sounds with guitar is done in a way that both timbres are usually allowed equal weight at some point in each track, rather than focusing solely on one instrument.
Finally, this album is an interesting combination of active and passive listening experiences. The music is interesting enough to intently analyze what happens at any specific moment, but ambient enough that listeners can choose to focus elsewhere without becoming distracted by uneven transitions. I have listened to this album both ways, and I find both to be a different and equally enjoyable experience.
1 – my favorite of these being ‘Iron Maiden’ from ‘Iron Maiden’ by… you guessed it – IRON MAIDEN!