Welcome to the January edition of Office Hours, where the weather is frigid but the tunes are smokin’ hot! This month I have the distinct pleasure of reviewing a release that isn’t even available if you are reading the column the week it was published – how cool is that? Keiji Yamagishi is one of the pioneer composers for the original Famicom, and his soundtracks for Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl are among some of the best chiptunes of that era. Last year, Keiji released his first solo album ‘Retro-Active Pt. 1’ on the Brave Wave label. This album was the first in a planned trilogy of releases with the theme of a ‘futuristic emotional chiptunes world,’ and it is my great pleasure to review ‘Retro-Active Pt. 2’ this month.
Like last year’s release, ‘Retro-Active Pt. 2’ blends Yamagishi’s Famicom roots with modern production techniques and synths. For those readers who might be unfamiliar with the trilogy so far, I would describe the overall sound of the project as similar in production value to Shirobon or Chipzel, with slightly more emphasis on the Famicom’s instrumental capabilities. Despite the long wait for a dedicated solo album from Yamagishi, the tracks on ‘Retro-Active Pt. 2’ sound immediately current with their crisp production, while still retaining some of the magic inherent to the original chiptune era. Each track manages to carve a unique niche for itself on the album, and there are a variety of musical styles with something sure to please even the pickiest listener.
The album opens with dance music that freely mixes with hellish dissonant metal, grinding in the tastiest way against our expectations of what the album might hold within. This is one of two tracks that provide a bit of callback to ‘Retro-Active Pt. 1’ with its emphasis on guitar-like textures. Two things that I adore about this track are the jerky rhythmic syncopations and the use of pitch-bending sweep effects throughout the track. The octaves that build around 1:35 provide a good amount of intensity and anticipation for the solo section that follows. My single complaint about this track is one of the hardest things to pin down when composing – the issue of ‘too many riffs.’ After the short solo section, yet another cool riff comes in… but at this point it is hard to mentally keep track of them all! This is certainly a good problem to have – and Yamagishi does bring in the original bass line in counterpoint, bridging the two – but it is a delicate balance that must be struck when choosing musical material.
Yamagishi collaborates with Ninja Gaiden II composer Ryuichi Nitta for ‘Total Escape,’ a four-on-the-floor dance track that would fit well in the middle of any live chip set here in the States. The pumping bass and steady percussion provide an extreme contrast to the opening track, while retaining the sweeping pitch bends that we eventually will recognize as a constant element on the album. Yamagishi makes great use of stereo panning in both the lead and accompaniment, and this effect, combined with the pitch bends, creates some delightful musical textures. Like the combination of chip music with EDM elements, the warbly lead that enters at 2:23 is a mixture of old (table effects to create a unique synth) with new (modern production mixed with EDM).
[Nobody Knows Me]
If you are listening to the album in its presented order, this track is yet again another large musical departure from the music we have heard so far. The opening sounds so much closer to what we might associate with the nostalgic Famicom soundtracks of the 1980s, and the use of triple meter instead of common time also helps this track sound unique among its peers. There is a wonderful balance of repetition mixed with new music here; this is nearly impossible to pin down and may be different for each listener, but in contrast with the opening track, I don’t feel overwhelmed with thematic material. There are a lot of elements that I’ve mentioned in previous articles related to humanizing electronic music: subtle pitch bends and vibrato being key here to creating organic-sounding melodies. All of these elements combine to form one of the album’s strongest tracks in ‘Nobody Knows Me.’
Another musical element you might have seen me mention before is that I am a huge sucker for a nasty bassline. If you are like me, ‘Transistor Memory’ will probably be your favorite track as the wave forms are bumping here! The pitch bend elements reappear in this track as slick accompaniment figures and warbling alarm noises, almost like the space pirate tracks on the Metroid Prime soundtrack. With this track, Yamagishi proves he can do nostalgic ballads, dance floor bangers, and funkdafied music all on the same album without losing focus. There is a very interesting musical twist that happens at the end of this track, where the mood shifts from ecstatic to somber in the blink of an eye. The melancholy texture is a brilliant move, as it is certainly unexpected and creates something that stands out as memorable on the whole album. If you start listening to the album with this track, I guarantee you will be hooked!
‘Chaotic Code’ was released as an album preview on January 14, and this is another track that sounds very contemporary within the chiptune scene. There is a huge emphasis on the Famicom in the introduction, coupled with great studio production and subtle effects made possible by modern DAW software. There are many different texture elements on this track: glitch sounds, arpeggios, short melodies, and later a funky as hell bassline that rivals ‘Transistor Memory.’ Once the bass kicks in, the energy level really spikes and this is another strong contender for the best track on the album. Once again the pitch bends appear in both the melody and accompaniment, allowing Yamagishi to keep one unifying element constant across a variety of musical styles.
The final track brings back a laid back, chill texture reminiscent of ‘Nobody Knows Me.’ Both the melody and accompaniment are warm and inviting, evoking a sunny, beach-like bossa nova. ‘Eastern Sky’ contains the prettiest melody on the entire album, and there is a fantastic bit of counterpoint at 0:56 – this is perhaps my favorite single moment on the album. There are a lot of busy textures on the final track, and Yamagishi does give the listener a moment to breathe in the middle where the texture thins out a bit before building up again. Overall, I think this is a very fitting final track on an album that has several high points and many different styles to digest from front to back.
Keiji Yamagishi’s ambitions ‘Retro-Active’ trilogy is a group of albums that manages to successfully combine the best nostalgic pieces of chiptune with modern production techniques. ‘Retro-Active Pt. 2’ successfully blends these aspects with several musical genres, forming a very worthy sucessor to last year’s Part 1 release. Fans of retro chiptune will love the emphasis on melody and the heavy Famicom usage, while fans of contemporary chip music will have their eardrums tickled with sparkling textures and thumping beats. ‘Retro-Active Pt. 2’ releases on February 5th – join me in refreshing the Brave Wave Bandcamp page until then!