For the March installment of Office Hours I have the distinct pleasure of reviewing the just-released ‘Lunaria’ by Danimal Cannon. This album is exciting to me on several levels, as I first discovered Danimal shortly after learning LSDJ. His Youtube videos of guitar + Game Boy showed me the incredible potential of chip music and helped inspire me to get started making my own. I am also excited to hear new music from him, as 2013’s superb ‘Parallel Processing’ collaboration with Zef feels like an eternity ago!
If you are reading this blog about chip music, it is unlikely that you need an introduction to Danimal Cannon. His shredding guitar blends seamlessly with the Game Boy, providing both melodic and solo material as well as rhythm accompaniment when the pulse and wave channels are pushed to their limit. He has performed shows with Metroid Metal, Armcannon, Weaponex, and solo around the country and abroad. Finally, prior to the official release of ‘Lunaria’, President Hoodie published an interview with Danimal Cannon – it contains several interesting insights into the composition of this album, and should not be missed!
art by Minerva Mopsy
‘Lunaria’ is a musical melting pot of wide-ranging influences that draws equally from thrash metal, prog and industrial rock, operatic arias, and ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. The album is loosely based around a scientific hypothesis of the origins of our moon through an impact event, and several tracks feature lyrics that reflect this theme. Danimal Cannon has been perfecting the art of combining Game Boy with live guitar in his live shows, and this experience has paid off very well; the album artfully combines just the right amount of guitar to complement rather than overshadow the Game Boy.
‘Axis’ is exactly the kind of opening track I was hoping to hear; changing time signatures, polyrhythms, chugging guitars, and exploring the extreme register of the Game Boy. Danimal gave us a taste of this album last year when he released an audition video for NPR’s ‘Tiny Desk Concerts’ that included a live playthrough of ‘Axis’. To finally hear a studio-quality recording of this song is a real treat, especially the shimmering texture around 2:14. Most of this review could be taken up with dissecting the prog rock influences on this track; there are a LOT of different sections of music presented here, and they flow together seamlessly. My favorite event in this track harkens back to ‘Gorelax’, where Danimal describes one section as ‘an instrument breaking down’. This ‘breakdown break’, as it were, happens around 3:57 and shows a definite evolution and improvement in compositional and programming craft. Very cool!
Lunaria (feat. Emily Yancey)
The ridiculously cool opening of ‘Lunaria’ combines guitar, Game Boy, and the hauntingly beautiful vocals of Emily Yancey in a dissonant crunch that will have your head spinning in the best possible way. Where the opening track relies mainly on the Game Boy for the heaviest sections, chugging guitar propels this track forward like an asteroid on a collision course with an exquisitely fragile object. Danimal’s collaboration with composer Eric Whitacre obviously served him well, as the vocal melodies float effortlessly above an energetic Game Boy accompaniment. Emily easily handles every octatonic subset, augmented triad, and metric modulation that Danimal throws at her, making the song of the moon’s violent origin sound easy and beautiful in the process.
Long Live the New Fresh
‘Long Live the New Fresh’ is a dance floor jam that pulls back a bit on the seriousness and drama from ‘Lunaria’, giving our ears a brief break from extremely complex (but cool) tunes. I love the warbly synth in the introduction, and a really neat guitar pedal called the Miku Stomp that almost sounds like a wave channel synth sampled through a vocoder. The breakdown in the middle of the track is another clinic in how to use and abuse effects in LSDJ, followed by a brief guitar solo before the main melody returns.
Beautiful legato lines and a plaintive melody create an elegiac mood for the impending impact and creation of the moon. Careful attention to detail and humanizing elements for each individual patch – especially in the exposed Game Boy solo moments – really separate Danimal Cannon’s work from your average LSDJ user. A short blip on attacks or a bit of vibrato at the end of a phrase really brings the music alive, and is an integral part to the overall sound of this album. ‘Collision Event’ is a mid-tempo tune that gives the listener a chance to catch their breath on the album, but still has a few heavy moments up its sleeve. Danimal finally gives us several extended guitar solos, channeling (but never imitating) the very best of Kirk Hammett’s melodic chops.
With a title like ‘Behemoth’, you can expect a good deal of face-pounding action and Dan gives it to us in spades. Chugging guitar triplets alternate with faster riffs, and a ridiculously cool transition at 1:04. I love the short section around 2:40 where the texture completely changes into legato lines, ending the track with a guitar solo. I would have loved to hear what that ethereal texture might have developed into if given the space, although every track need not max out LSDJ lines and clock in over 6 minutes. Knowing when to develop material or move on is a key skill for any composer, and perhaps some of the charm of that section is its brevity.
A moment of cheeky ‘title select music’ breaks the album into two parts. I am a sucker for a syncopated square wave bass, and the neat melody that floats over the top fits very nicely. If free time were no object, it would be great to hear Danimal’s take on this style of music in a longer setting.
Pulsing bass and maxed vibrato accompaniment create an eerie atmosphere for the opening of ‘Red Planet’. Plenty of guitar abound – both rhythm and lead – paired excellently with Game Boy shredding. The steady eighth note riff at 2:57 is arguably the heaviest moment of the album so far, and the busy texture that happens shortly after combines the various musical elements heard in the track. I really like the warbly wave channel lead two-thirds of the way through the track, and the sudden ending is a pleasant delight. Make sure to check out the accompanying cyberpunk/hacker themed music video in all its glory.
‘Surveillance’ again features vocals along with the guitar/Game Boy duo, this time sung by Danimal Cannon himself. He writes about this process in the Hoodie interview linked above, and I think he should definitely continue exploring this sound in the future. This is perhaps the first track on the album that I remember hearing the classic Danimal double kick, and it helps propel the musical energy forward from start to finish. With a variety of vocal effects and intricate guitar work, it will be interesting to see how ‘Surveillance’ is incorporated into his live show!
Halo of Dust
Although the opening is reminiscent of ‘Collision Event’, the rhythmic energy of ‘Halo of Dust’ soon picks up and creates a unique sound not quite heard yet on the album as a whole. Legato musical lines and rhythmic percussion are mixed expertly underneath a compelling melody, with synth string pads coming in and out of the texture. There are a lot of unique phrases in this track, and I suspect this might be the instance referenced in a recent interview about saving chains by inputting 6/8 as 4/4 in the LSDJ screen. To represent the destructive creation of the moon, Danimal smartly relied on musical finesse and beauty rather than shredding or the brute force of heavy riffs. Overall, I think ‘Halo of Dust’ is very effective in conveying the message of the album, although it may end up struck from live sets in favor of more uptempo tracks.
Steady eighth notes create a sense of foreboding and inevitability in the opening moments of ‘Coalesce’. Impressively massive music follows, which is sure to rattle car speakers and concert halls! A majority of the guitar work supports the Game Boy on the track; again, Danimal carefully balances the amount of guitar music to retain its effectiveness in the track as a whole. Long notes and staccato stabs that accentuate the Game Boy’s rhythmic pulse are the majority of the texture, with a few very short solo licks tastefully inserted in transitions. I really enjoy the ebb and flow of energy in this track, as it creates a very natural, organic feel to the music that is sure to translate well to a live set.
Postlude (feat. Emily Yancey)
Emily Yancey’s elegant voice returns for the postlude of ‘Lunaria’, accompanied by clean guitars and minimal percussion in a smooth bossa nova groove. Music similar to the interlude is reinterpreted by live performers, allowing for a unique bit of ‘back hearing’ that gives more depth and context to the interlude. Wrapping up the storyline of the moon, the postlude’s lyrics allude to the shared fate of the earth and moon with references to the pull of the tides while providing likely the first time the words ‘spacetime manifolds’ have been set to music. This is a surprisingly light-hearted end to an album filled with intense, serious music; I am generally not a fan of the Picardy third, but thematically I think it works here. The postlude completes the story arc and ties up a bit of musical loose end from the interlude in a satisfying and convincing fashion.
Axis (piano version feat. Shnabubula)
In a twist on the ‘chiptune version of live instrumental music’, Shnabubula reinterprets the main elements of ‘Axis’ in a solo piano version. This live version reveals the source material to be strikingly jazzy, and the opening transforms into an allusion to Steve Reich’s work ‘Violin Phase’. Shnabubula’s playing is as virtuosic as Danimal’s guitar shredding; complex polyrhythms and counterpoint are not skimmed over, with almost every musical line covered from the original in an impressive display of piano proficiency. This reinterpretation serves to reinforce my believe that great music transcends its medium, and where chip versions of live music may be common in our genre, we should explore the inverse of that arrangement if they may turn out as well as this collaboration between Danimal Cannon and Shnabubula.
With a variety of styles, song lengths, and thematic elements, ‘Lunaria’ takes the listener on an incredibly unique journey. Danimal Cannon set out to expand his musical range and prove that he can rock our ears in a multitude of ways, and this record definitely succeeds. With the amount of attention paid to Danimal’s use of the guitar + Game Boy archetype in recent press interviews, there are surprisingly long sections where the Game Boy is playing alone. Like some of the greatest jazz soloists, Danimal Cannon knows exactly when NOT to play. This restraint gives the guitar entrances much greater impact, no doubt a product of his experience with live shows. Collaboration is often explored in our small chip music community, and ‘Lunaria’ benefits both from the gorgeous singing of Emily Yancey and Shnabubula’s formidable piano skills. Musical progress is often a risky proposition, and the ambition of ‘Lunaria’ will certainly reward any listener willing to press play.