Welcome back to the August edition of Office Hours! My classes begin next week so I need to finish up lesson plans and a syllabus before the big day on Monday. Thankfully, an album came to my attention that serves as perfect background music for work or studying, and I will definitely be recommending it to my students as the semester begins. Put on your sailing caps and don’t forget to pack the vitamin C, because we’re going ’round the world with this one!
Released on August 17th, ‘Brave New World’ by Brazilian chip artist Gors (nee Osvaldo Cruz) is an exploration of the four cardinal directions on a compass. Composed in Famitracker using the NES 2A03 sound processor, the four tracks on this release all clock in at over 6 minutes in length. Perhaps because of the extra-musical associations with directions and corresponding mythology, all four tracks are surprisingly different in their sound and composition. I write ‘surprisingly’ not as any sort of perceived slight on Gors but rather as a compliment, since I assumed before hearing the music that all of these extra-long tunes would follow the same sort of structural musical narrative. Gors skillfully evokes the intended setting of each cardinal direction, and treats the listener to an array of Famitracker tricks that are sure to put a smile on the face of anyone who has used that program to compose music.
‘The gentle seashore seems to tell us a story. Amidst the waves, the tale of love and courage begins to unfold.’
Opening with clever sounds evoking the sea and a plaintive, folk-like string synth, it is quite easy to be transported to a warm, sandy beach. I really enjoy the percussion and the louder hits in the first section, contrasting nicely with the melody and droning triangle bass. Beautiful arps at 3:33 seem poised to lead us to a gentle transition, but in a manner reminiscent of the sudden modulations and texture changes of Danny Elfman, Gors deftly shifts gears. This section is quicker and much more aggressive, perhaps evoking a storm at the treacherous base of the Lorelei rock on the Rhine. As quickly as it arrived, the aggressive music transitions back to the opening texture for a slight recapitulation of the melodies at the beginning of the track. I enjoy that this is not a direct repeat of music we have already heard, but just enough of a resemblance as to not constantly bombard the listener with new material. Ambient music seamlessly exists with music that is more thematic and melodic, which will remain a constant across the four tracks of this release. This style of writing has the advantage of letting the listener choose whether they want to actively listen to each unique section of music, or a passive listening experience as background sounds that flow together without interruption.
‘The land never explored before, all in your hands. Many beautiful things are shrouded in mist, just waiting to be discovered.’
To the Ancient Greeks, Ananke was a deity representing destiny, fate, and necessity. The beautiful rising and falling in the introduction is texturally reminiscent of ‘Corridors of Time’ from the Chrono Trigger OST, and immediately evokes a lush landscape filled with endless wonder and possibility. This track is closer to the idea of theme and variations rather than the freer formal structure of the opening. I greatly enjoy the tempo shift and then return of the opening melody at the faster tempo when it first happens around 2:55. Perhaps my favorite thing about the presentation of these soundscapes is that Gors does not rely on musical clichés to evoke the intended setting. He is able to write convincing pentatonic melodies without resorting to stereotypical (or even borderline racist) depictions of so-called ‘Eastern’ music, though his intended setting is presumably centered closer to Greece than Japan or China. The reprise of the unaltered theme and original texture at the end of the track is a welcome return at the end of this musical journey. Finally, I continue to be surprised when writing this review and checking timestamps – has it been nearly 7 minutes already? The sense of musical pacing is really fantastic across these four tracks, and I never find myself getting bored or checking the clock. Bravo, Gors.
‘The African deity rules over the sea, taking care of her children. Her elegance and kindness give her a mystical look.’
Yemanja (or Yemoja) is the patron saint of women in Yoruba mythology, and this track opens with a more rhythmic approach than the previous two on the album. The slight syncopations create an interesting texture without being as busy as some typical Afro-Cuban or Brazilian dance. I love the low, ominious Phrygian rumbling of the accompaniment; this music may seem contrary to the motherly nature of the goddess being depicted, but a sultry melody successfully diffuses any aggressive intents of that ostinato. If you were not yet convinced of Yemanja’s benevolence, just wait until the sick cuíca sample happens at 3:23 – surely no one who plays the cuíca can be evil at heart. Hey, it worked for the Goron soundtrack in Ocarina of Time, and I love it here! The overall texture of this track is much different than anything else on the album, and I think that is why it might stand out for me among the rest. The menacing ostinato continues for quite a while, but is kept fresh by the ever-shifting melodies above, similar to a group of jazz soloists. Gors also uses several Famitracker tricks here, including some neat detuned square waves in octaves to fatten up the sound. I would love to have at least one thing to criticize at this point in my review, but that cuíca is still slaying me…
‘Tumbleweeds roll across the dirt – not a hospitable place to live. And yet, a legendary woman makes her name in the Wild West…’
This track is another spot in the release that would be very easy to fall back on well-trod musical material to evoke the American western frontier. As a quick aside, for all of the Americans who have quickly forgotten their US history lessons from high school, read up on Martha Jane Cannary – she was quite a character. The introduction of this track is fantastic, with some ominous unpitched noises and a rumbling (well, as rumbling as possible with 2A03) triangle bass. Gors manages to capture the wilderness and outlaw spirit of the wild west without dipping too far into Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western style – there IS one ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ quote in there, but it’s cleverly hidden! One of the things that I appreciate about this track is the tempo inversion compared to the other three tracks on the album. Where most of the previous music was slow and transitioned into a faster presentation of the main melody, the final track begins fast and gradually slows down several times for contrasting sections. Listen carefully for the imitation of horse hooves around these transitions – very clever sound design, and it adds to the overall scene rather than becoming Monty Python-esque comedy. My only nitpick for this track (and the album as a whole) is the ending. In a perfect world, I would have liked for Gors to push Famitracker a bit more with a triumphant climactic moment before keeping the same soft, understated final bars. I totally dig the ‘fade into the sunset’ ending that he gives us, but after four epic-length tracks it would be nice for one last blast of noise.
‘Brave New World’ is an album that delivers on the promise of a whirlwind tour of the four cardinal directions, each vastly different than the last. Gors provides us with extended-length Famitracker jams that manage to be enthralling and entertaining without overstaying their welcome. This is no small feat when writing music in any genre, but the limitations of chip music do not always lend themselves well to symphonic-style presentations. Gors effectively transports the listener to a far-away place in each track on ‘Brave New World,’ and I am looking forward to many more listens of this album. Go get this album, you will not be disappointed – it has a cuíca!