[Editor’s note: I nearly un-retired from review writing to cover this magnificent new release composed by one of my original childhood inspirations; Tanaka-san’s Metroid OST is largely responsible for initially engaging my interests in both VGM and chip, if not music in general! I’m glad I didn’t, however, as Paul has done a marvelous job conveying his own enthusiasm and appreciation for ‘Django’ as a chipmusic composer himself. Regardless, please enjoy this lovely take from a member of the new chiptune generation on one of the forefathers of chipmusic’s latest works! ~Brandon L. H.]
If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you know how laudative and enthusiastic I can get. But today is a bit different. Here I am, listening to this album again, reading up on Tanaka-san’s bio to research the article, recalling the mind-bending experience that was seeing him live at Square Sounds Tokyo last September. Here I am, writing about the article, instead of the album or the artist, trying to sound meta and smart, keeping my composure, because I don’t want you to know that words are failing me.
I don’t want this article to be a string of enthusiastic platitudes and generic descriptions of the music. I love this album and I want my review to do it justice, beyond the fact that I’m still starstruck and not in any fit state to be objective.
And even if this album refuses to fit nicely in a traditional 2k-word album review, which it probably will, I’m still gonna give it my best shot. Here we are. Let me tell you about Chip Tanaka, and his album, ‘Django’.
Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, also known by his stage alias “Chip Tanaka” has just turned 60 years old, as I’m writing this. He’s had time to do a lot of great things in his life. I’m extremely admirative of his journey so far, and I’m expecting every day of it from now on to be the beginning of something new and awesome. Happy Birthday, Tanaka-san. Let’s get a few factoids out of the way first so that I may catch my breath and actually try to focus on the music at some point.
I’m not even exaggerating too much when I say that CHIP TANAKA IS THE REASON CHIPTUNE EXISTS IN THE FIRST PLACE.
That’s right. The quintessential chip daddy. No sweat Brandon. Be worthy of the title. [Editor’s note: Geez, thx bud. No pressure, ya jerk… Σ(‘◉⌓◉’)♥] Tanaka-san has worked as an electronic hardware engineer for Nintendo during the 1980’s. Some of his accomplishments include designing the sound chips for the Nintendo NES and Gameboy. Let that sink in. And that’s only part of what my Capslock sentence above encompasses. He has also co-developped the Gameboy Camera and Printer, and worked as a sound effects designer for the original Donkey Kong game (That’s right, the guy who made the Mario jump and coin sounds. Talk about seminal and influential.)
And OH YEAH, he has worked as a composer for some little-known Nintendo franchises such as Smash Brothers, Kid Icarus, Metroid, Mario, and the Mother series (known in the West as the games Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound). I purposefully saved these for last because, A, they’re my favourites, and B, Tanaka-san has channelled a lot of the Mother OST’s feel into his album ‘Django’, so I’m using that as a transition. There. Transition. Now read that paragraph again, giggle like a 12 year-old, and press that beautiful play button.
OK time for the actual review
If I had an unlimited amount of time on my hands, and if I didn’t care at all about my readers’ comfort and attention, I would gladly take it upon myself to comment every single song on this 14-track record in great detail, with a lot of expletives, superlatives and hyperboles. But for the sake of common decency, let’s focus on the cream of the crop, my favourite songs off of Chip Tanaka’s ‘Django’.
Some of the words I’ve seen used most to describe Tanaka-san’s music in other reviews are “whimsical”, “quirky” and “carefree”. I can’t help but agree with them to an extent, but not going further than this assessment would feel almost criminal.
Listening to ‘Beaver’, one of the feelings that comes across most vividly is one of day-to-day joy. It’s a very important cultural concept in Japan, coined in the beautiful word “Nichijou” (日常). The song is laid out on a light-hearted hip-hop beat, which quickly tightens up into an upbeat reggae skank, emphasized by square wave staccato chords. Harmonies sound very warm and major, and they mesh well with the deliberately detuned, drunk-sounding saw bass.
At first, ‘Beaver’ sounds very accessible and easy to listen to, but it doesn’t mean the song can’t convey emotional depth or substance. There’s a very thin line between “carefree” and “careful” that Tanaka-san seems to play with extremely well. Not unlike a virtuoso pianist, whose playing sounds fluid and effortless, Tanaka-san manages to smooth out the edges of what is actually a very minutiously crafted song.
This aspect of his songwriting and sound design is particularly visible in the melodic section of ‘Beaver’. Leads are written in a very unquantized, free-flowing way, across a widely varied instrument palette. Intricate yet accessible, loose and free from the otherwise ever-present electronic beat grid, the glitchy sample-based vocal lines pop right out of the mix, enticing the player to pay close attention to its many minute details. The melodic motif in the chorus, with its hanging high note, is in my opinion the most beautiful moment in the song: a glimmering hint of melancholy in an otherwise very joyful song, which proves much deeper and richer than it first lets on.
After the more experimental and contemplative title track ‘Django’, and its harmonies that would feel right at home in a Mother game, Tanaka-san goes meta and cranks the volume up, with a track meant to shake up the cones of big beefy party boomers. While ‘Beaver’ seemed like a celebration of the joys of the everyday life, ‘EMGR’ takes it up a notch, and makes me want to leap and whoop with glee.
‘EMGR’ is an unapologetic and hilarious take on modern electronic genres. Among a fiery festival of chord confetti, the bombastic, hard-hitting, EDM snares samples should sound caricatural, but they really don’t. Buildups and interludes seem to be wearing clown makeup. Childlike cheers and party whoops echo against each other among more familiar EDM vocal samples, effectively freshening up the traditional formula of typical late 2010’s trap beats.
Tanaka-san manages a true tour de force here. ‘EMGR’ flourishes in a kaleidoscope of influences, as much a love letter as a parody, laughing but never mocking, reminding us that music is meant to be played, and played with. Half a pastiche and cheeky caricature, half an erudite commentary and exploration, ‘EMGR’ can be perceived in a number of different ways. Genres are summoned to this colourful parade with espièglerie, exposing their gimmicks, their shortcomings and their power at the same time. In this spectacular circus of a song, Tanaka-san is hinting at the dawn of a lush and beautiful Post-EDM musical landscape.
‘OBIRIGADO DUB’ (Paul’s Highlight)
Throughout the rest of the album, Chip Tanaka braids together a wide variety of genres and wears his many influences on his sleeve, weaving them into many interesting textures. Several of the following tracks exemplify how important it is for him that musical experimentation stay accessible and, well, musical.
The track ‘Hungry’ manages to keep a steady sense of direction and enticement, thanks to an interesting game of chassé-croisé between the rhythmic and harmonic sections. Whenever harmonies stray into atonality, clear-cut drum patterns help to tie it all down. When in turn, drums squiggle out of their grid, chords and melodies become simpler, allowing the listener to keep a sense of place in the track’s progression.
Not unlike ‘EMGR’, ‘Prizm’ experiments on genre codes, sewing together a patchwork of House, layered with a VGM- and Jazz-influenced chord progression. Towards the middle point of the track, a series of beautifully crafted and very groovy drum fills help the song transition to more modern and niche rhythmic influences such as Footwork beats, and old school Dub. In ‘Rad Moose’, Tanaka-san shows influences stemming from the seminal era of UK Garage, Grime and 2-step, once again putting the Dub back in Dubstep.
Tanaka-san’s love for Dub is a well-known fact, and yet it has never been exemplified so clearly by his own musical output. As we draw nearer to the end of the album, hints become increasingly present and obvious, with ringing tape delays and bass patterns forming an inevitable stylistic leitmotiv in tracks like ‘Ringin Dub’, ‘Drifting’ or ‘Pop Bomb’.
But it is in the final track of the album ‘Obirigado Dub’, where I feel the wave finally crashes. This track is one of my personal favourites in this album. After all the heavy hints dropped before it, this song acts as a pinnacle for the album, bringing a sense of closure and conclusion. It feels very logical as the album’s closing track. A feverish, almost obsessive bass pattern drones on among vaporous tape delays, and the listener can finally sit down to reflect on this fourteen-track journey. But there’s something else still, enticing us to look forward.
Glistening vocal textures begin to flourish in the top-end, reminiscent of none other than Björk. The track progresses at a very slow pace, but never feels like it’s dragging along. On the contrary, every moment shows us details we didn’t see before. Experimentation in this track somehow manages to become the cornerstone of its cohesion, one of the many prowesses that Tanaka-san seems to perform almost effortlessly.
This album feels like the genius work of a veteran, but with none of the pompousness usually associated with so-called “works of maturity”. Tanaka-san has managed to distill his childlike enthusiasm and sense of wonder into every track, while at the same time offering a lot to the attentive listener. This album acts both as a catalyst of Tanaka’s experience and eclectic influences, his “creative pinnacle”, and an essay on musical evolution and inovation.
‘Django’ is available on Bandcamp as digital and physical releases. Purchasers of the CD edition will receive a download code for a bonus unreleased track!