Hello everyone and thank you for reading The ChipWIN Blog! Today we’re going to review ‘Titan’ another great Cheapbeats release, and the second full-length album by Austral-English chip legend Alex Lane!
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Alex two years ago at Eindbaas, in Utrecht, NL. We were set to play the pre-party open stage, it was our first ever show abroad, let alone in such an important event, and we were super stressed out. Then, this round-faced guy comes up with a BEAMING smile and says hi. Stress was lifted. We hit it off instantly. Alex has the reputation of being the Nicest Guy In Chiptune™ and to be honest, I couldn’t fault anyone for thinking that. My point is, don’t be surprised if this review comes off as a little ♥biased♥. I like Alex a lot as a person. But holy moly do I love him as a musician.
After his first LP Override, also released on Cheapbeats, Alex sought to expand his sound palette. Primarily an LSDJ musician, he pioneered his new sound on the track Caustic, as part of the Chiptunes=WIN Vol.5 expansion release, Forest = ВИН! On there, he completed the jagged sounds of the Gameboy with fat, round, analog basslines provided by MSSIAH on the Commodore 64. It was a match made in heaven.
On Caustic, even though both sounds blended together really well in the arrangement, if you pricked your ear you could tell the basslines did not come from a Gameboy and added a nice exotic flair to the song. On this album however, the C64 addenda are used on three songs and seamlessly enmeshed with the sound, providing additional channels, richer harmonies and texture, yet never distracting the listener from the actual music.
We will soon discover that ‘Titan’ is both an aptly-named release, and a very worthy follow-up to Override. Let’s dive in! Here’s a selection of my personal favourite tracks from this beast of an album.
Track 1: ‘Chinon’
Titan is beautifully introduced by the track ‘Chinon’. A vibrant song rife with lush harmony, soulful melody and soothing textures. Inspired by his travels to the Loire castles in France, ‘Chinon’ starts off the album like a funambule, walking the line between a sense of vulnerability and confidence, solar warmth and fever, calm and awe.
On the technical side, Alex braids together beautiful pulse channel harmonies with the Gameboy, while the C64 provides a warm yet sharp bass that never clashes with the gameboy sounds, and on the contrary, complements them to near-seamless perfection. The leads deliver a delicate melody shared between the pulse and wave channels who provide a very steady, confident sound. Effects are scarce but never feel lacking. At times, notes just resonate together, long and bright, untouched in their bare beauty.
Managing to convey such a range of emotion and texture while keeping a sense of simplicity is no small feat. It’s easy to go all out with crazy sounds in LSDJ and Alex is very capable of complex sound design when he needs to. But choosing to shed all the unnecessary outer layers and letting the emotional core shine through is what sets ‘Chinon’ apart as a truly unique song.
Much to the happiness of my French-ass ears, the intro ‘Chinon’ finds a soulmate in the delicate interlude ‘Reinette’ on track 6. I would also like to congratulate Toni Leys for his amazing mastering work on this release. His touch really brought the variety of Alex’s sound to life. But in my opinion, it is on ‘Chinon’ and ‘Reinette’, where the subtle compression and master reverb glow beautifully, that his contribution was most felt and enjoyed for me.
Track 2: ‘Titan’ (Paul’s highlight)
Right after a very efficient transition at the end of ‘Chinon’, Alex lays down the intro of the album’s title track: ‘Titan’. Choosing to forgo a more traditional verse-chorus approach to songwriting, Alex Lane seems to have laid out this track into several movements, allowing him to deliver a very interesting and well-paced narrative, full of surprises and changes, but very coherent throughout.
The rhythmic structure acts as the backbone of the track. Very square, four-four eight note patterns contrast with the flowing, ternary feel of the intro track. Unrelenting beats keep the entire song deep-rooted and firmly grounded. On the flipside, this strategy allows Alex to explore a very wide variety of composition techniques.
After the introduction, a melody comes in. It starts off as a unison between the lead and bass, which gradually gains a more detailed presence. The lead shifts a third up and follows the melody, harmonizing 16th note arp patterns to a dizzying degree, while the drums prevent it from being too scattered.
The dual arp melody then takes flight, acting both as a lead and as a harmonic section. It is grounded down by a thick layer of bass which clarifies the chord progression and follows ever forward. The balance between complex and straight-forward that Alex manages to build up in hardly the first minute of the track is amazing.
After this awe-inspiring display of harmonic mastery, the track reverts to the eighth-note and octave intro motifs, leading to a wav channel solo. Bass bleeps, wubs, and warps playfully dance, still kept in check by the ever watchful drums, who still allow themselves to have a bit of fun with the occasional hi hat roll and amen break splice thrown in for good measure.
Then, out of the blue, a thunderstorm of distorted bass layers cracks down. The C64 warm tone meshes and phases together with abrasive pulse and wave textures. The note stays the same, rooted to the spot, allowing the listener to take in the rich and detailed texture work. A daring key change then shifts the weight of the track in a new direction. The intro motif is heard one last time to signal the ending of the track and transition into the next.
So much has happened in barely three minutes and a half, at this point we’re aghast and still trying to process what happened, but Alex still takes a few seconds to take our hand and show us to the next room of his musical museum. If you’ve ever had the chance to see Alex Lane play live, mixing between two gameboys and playing the C64 bass lines live with a midi guitar controller, you will have noticed one thing: this guy definitely knows how to do transitions and build a perfect set. I’m thrilled to see elements of that integrated into his album. Then again, I come to wonder how I could ever have expected anything less.
Tracks 4 thru 9: Slice and sizzle, spice up, slow down. A lesson in songwriting.
If there’s one thing we can say about Alex’s approach to songwriting, it’s that he knows how to take risks and make them pay off. His leads often blur the lines between melody and full-on harmony with dizzying yet focused arp flurries. It’s definitely not uncommon to hear arpy melodies in chiptune but no one does it quite like Alex. Just like on the amazing title track ‘Titan’, many other cuts of this album use and abuse this composition device that he seems to have mastered to perfection. These leads feel effortless yet so very finely crafted, ending up in an explosion of pure, blissful fun. A notion so easily forgotten in songwriting.
Secondly, his approach to rhythm and groove is truly unique in the landscape of Chiptune, let alone LSDJ-centric releases. Alex Lane sometimes likes to takes things achingly slow. It’s a big risk to take but when done right, it can really set your songs and sound apart. Needless to say, Alex does it like a pro and delivers a deep, organic, almost reggae-like sensibility to his rhythm sections. Coupled with the jagged, electronic sounds of the Gameboy and C64, these apparent opposites collide to make a multilayered, multifacetted disco-ball.
But Alex doesn’t stop there! Even after establishing his signature blend of deep bass and sharp arpeggio leads, he never shies away from breaking it all down and starting anew, with surprising but very effective rhythm shifts!
On the tracks ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Logic Bomb’, Alex happy switches up from elephantine dubstep-like patterns to a very groovy and upbeat four-to-the-floor feel. This works so well because Alex chose to make these songs even slower than the standardized dub tempo, and pulls it off like a champ.
On the tracks ‘Nova’ and ‘Antiphase’, the beat follows a chopped-and-screwed, syncopated yet extremely well-rounded trappy feel. Suddenly, Alex doubles it up, giving way to a very British brand of slow and heady drum’n’bass. Alex delivers freshness and modernity, constantly reinventing tried and true formulas. And in the same track, he harkens back to the grooves producers used to sample back in the days of the breakbeat golden age. On a gameboy. In 2017. Alex, you’re a damn time machine.
But the one track that really embodies the notion of risk and payoff in ‘Titan’ is…
Track 3: ‘Iris’
Where the following tracks speed-up seemingly mid-tempo grooves, ‘Iris’ brings risk-taking to the next level. This song starts off with a head-bobbing reggae skank, around 120 bpm. After a few bars, the drums come in, and not only do we notice that the tempo is actually HALF of that, with lone, pounding kick drums an snappy snares set very far apart, but also that the song is in 6/8, that is to say a ternary groove. I don’t usually like to use the term ballsy, but i have to admit, that’s exactly what this track is.
Writing fast, 4/4 songs in LSDJ is very intuitive. It’s not easy to make it good, but it is significantly easier than writing ternary dub at 60bpm. To make triplets in LSDJ, you have to manually cut every phrase after 12 steps, and set several grooves to an even match that is divisible by 3 and 4. TL;DR, it’s super clunky. Very few artists actually venture into these hostile tracking territories and it’s truly mind-boggling to see how brilliantly Alex pulls this off. I’d lie if I said it didn’t make me a teensy bit jealous too.
On ‘Iris’, Alex puts the DUB back in dubstep. His gritty growl bass is expertly crafted and locks in with the ternary feel seamlessly. The pulse arp skank on the upbeat feels so very satisfying. The melody strikes a perfect balance between solo-y complexity and extreme catchiness. I found myself feverishly whistling along right into the second listen.
But where Alex truly takes you by (yet another) delicious surprise, is when he chooses, not to double up his tempo, but actually GRIND IT DOWN EVEN MORE, breaking the beat into a series of regular but disjointed hits and raspy bass harmonics, wilfully confusing the listener. After a short while, Alex’s signature downward arp lead takes over, effectively sub-dividing the slow tempo into faster, more discernible sections of a heady trap beat. Alex then trudges along like a boss to the end of the track. I can totally picture his trollish grin when he came up with that one.
‘Titan’ is a very rich and dense release indeed, but also very intimate and sincere. It only takes a couple of listens for Alex Lane to take you in. I think the word I said most times in this review is “seamless”. Well it is truly not an undeserved epithet for an album that manages to go in so many directions and yet feel so very coherent.
Alex Lane likes to surprise his audience, both live and on record. He likes to throw curve balls, but still tells you where they will land, if you listen carefully enough. He likes to take you on a journey, to many faraway lands, show you his many influences, make you laugh and cry while handing you a tissue. And before inviting you in, Alex has carefully arranged every step of the way like a passionate museum curator. And after you’re finished, he’s always ready to give you another ride.
You’re amazing Alex. Be safe, say hi to your wife for me. You two are welcome at my place anytime.