What’s up, gamers. If this isn’t the first article of mine you’ve scrolled through, you know I’m a sucker for living examples of collaboration in action. I love seeing different creative directions come together to present a totally new musical idea or experience, and, like many of you, I fucking adore LSDJ chiptune and Famitracker-based synthwave. Basically, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m about to unleash a whole article about ‘PWRNEON,’ an absolute banger of a single and cover of toasterpastries’ ‘PWRMEOW’ by Techno Mage, a Seattle-based duo comprised of famitracker musician Dan Butler and guitarist Austin Schuyler. The track premiered last night on Nightride.fm alongside a playlist of recent LSDJ tracks curated by Dan himself. There’s more to be said about Nightride, but first I’d like to kick things off with my own review of ‘PWRNEON.’
For anyone unfamiliar, I’ve talked about ‘PWRMEOW’ (and the rest of ‘(Empty)’) here before, but as a quick summary of my thoughts: ‘PWRMEOW’ is a great example of the power behind sequencing a DMG with other hardware via arduinoboy. The track kicks off with a filtered intro which leads smoothly into the driving backbeat and melody. The wave channel and pulse arps come out swinging and remain dominant throughout the course of the song. The application of effects and samples with the KAOSS pad (that Jack never misses an opportunity to mention) is really noteworthy in this track, with filters and reverbs appearing a myriad times throughout. Similar to most of the tracks I’ve talked about, Jack’s use of panning here is extremely compelling. While a tad bit repetitive in certain sections, ‘PWRMEOW’ more than makes up for that with its raw gusto. This is a song that just demands to be listened to.
The first thing I have to say about ‘PWRNEON’ is “holy shit.” Dan and Austin have added so much zest to an already compelling track, and the result is fucking phenomenal. When I asked these guys about their motivation for the project, they told me that when they heard ‘PWRMEOW’, they knew the track was perfect for Techno Mage, and I couldn’t agree more! Techno Mage starts by giving the memorable ‘PWRMEOW’ “wah” bass sound a gravitas and seriousness of tone that catches the ear. The opening famitracker riffs are echoey and somber, while still emphasizing the same melodic elements as the original. Then the guitar hits, complementing the scene that has been set with the inclusion of dramatic and powerful instrumentation. A punchier drum kit based on real percussion instead of lsdj craftwork compliments this proto-synth-turned-chiptune aesthetic further. The adapted leads, while sacrificing the iconic buzzes and blips and crunches of LSDJ, gain the versatility of famitracker sounds which pair a little more naturally with synthwave-style instrumentation, for which Techno Mage is renowned. Around 0:36, the central melody of ‘PWRMEOW’ is augmented with cadential flourishes and other modifications not seen in the original, guiding the listener to the next verse with bated breath. The fami lead is then partnered with growly guitar hits and booming drums, culminating in a build whose crescendo is punctuated with a badass sample that really pops. From here, Techno Mage articulates the primary melody from the original ‘PWRMEOW’ pairing it well with the commanding backbeat, endowing it with a renewed drive towards a sense of progression and finality. The new guitar riff which accompanies it features many new elements and variations in the forms of flourishes and improvisations. The inclusion of sudden pauses for dramatic effect is another great way Dan and Austin gave ‘PWRMEOW’ a strong dose of the Techno Mage aesthetic.
Austin’s incredible skill with the axe gradually begins to take control of the track through its extended climactic progression. More active guitar sections engage the listener with a growing number of well-executed musical embellishments and ornamentations, leading into the final guitar solo, one of the elements written entirely by Austin (which y’all will be hearing more about in just a little bit)! The solo kicks off with a dramatic breakdown, which quickly mushrooms out into an electrifying build that marries the melodic direction of toasterpastries with Techno Mage’s wild guitar and famitracker combo game for a truly remarkable crossover-episode of badass. Descending diatonic additions evoke the sense that the climactic finale of the piece is nigh, and shortly we are delivered to a gripping reintroduction of the chorus famisynth pattern layered over with Austin’s eclectic, manic, guitar elaboration. The song finishes out with a unison of the fami and guitar instrumentation that is “One Punch Man’s” Saitama-levels-of-strong (that is to say, earthshattering) , producing a satisfying finale based on the original ‘PWRMEOW’s’ hook.
As mentioned earlier, ‘PWRNEON’ premiered yesterday night on Nightride.fm, an independently owned and operated synthwave internet radio station. Its producer, Kaarin, is a champion of the scene and an incredible resource for chiptune musicians looking to engage more with the community and present their work to a larger audience! From what I’ve heard, the broadcasts featuring curated chiptune playlists and song premieres are going to become a semi-regular occurrence, so y’all should absolutely keep an eye on these cool cats for what’s in store! I’ve also got a link to last night’s broadcast so no one’s missing out! The curated playlist included with the premiere also features Dya, Lateralis, 3D63, and yours truly (among others)!
Guess what? That’s not all I have for you today, my dear friends and readers of ChipWIN. Who reviews a single track and calls it quits, anyway? What I have tonight for you wonderful humans are two interviews! The first with Dan and Austin from Techno Mage, and then followed immediately by a great interaction with toasterpastries AKA Jack! I’m sure you’re all salivating; who can blame you? We’ll jump right in with the former pair’s thoughts on the experience!
Rhyphte: So first off, you had a whole album of solid choices. What about PWRMEOW drew you to it specifically? Does it fit in nicely with the rest of your lineup?
Dan: For me personally, the driving rhythm and memorable melody of PWRMEOW were a really obvious pairing for Techno Mage. So much of our music places focus on melody so that song really stuck out to me
Rhyphte: My understanding is that your workflow as a duo is quite a bit different from Jack’s. Could y’all tell us a little bit about your plan of attack for this project? How did you approach the arrangement of the original into guitar and famitracker?
Dan: Not every song starts in the same place. This one, for example, was completely written in DAW before it got the tracker treatment. However, there are a lot of mainstays to our workflow that apply to PWRNEON. For example, I usually arrange all of the percussion, synth, and chiptune before pulling Austin into the ‘drafting room.’ This time wasn’t an exception other than Austin bringing in some unexpected and ambitious ideas for the guitar.
Austin: I’ll preface by saying that Dan writes like 95% of the guitar parts, and I come in and lay it down. That’s true of all the Techno Mage material, he is the mastermind behind it all. With this cover though I felt like there was room for a solo, which you’ll hear soon, so that has to be my biggest contribution to the song.
Rhyphte: I actually wanted to ask about that solo anyways! It was fucking killer, dude. I definitely noticed a number of creative contributions from you in there! Were those additions something you planned to incorporate upon hearing the original, or did you just grow towards them as you got in the groove of things over the course of many takes?
Austin: Oh so you’ve heard it, awesome haha. Thank you, I definitely had a lot of fun with it. I had been learning/practicing the song for a week or so but I wrote the solo the day of recording. The start of the solo is very wide open, and I was playing around with what Dan had already written there, so that beginning part is me expanding on the idea and throwing my own spin on his climbing melody. I kicked it up a notch in the next phase to match the energy when the drums come back in. The rest came together pretty quickly and it made for a fun, expressive solo.
Dan: It was pretty wild. He just showed up on recording day and casually says: “I wrote a solo this morning and wanted to hear what you think of it.” Then he pulled this beast of a solo out of no where and blew me away. What Austin lacks in his willingness to claim songwriting credit, he more than makes up for in technical competence and sheer musicianship. Seriously, just check out the playthrough video on our YouTube channel. It’s impressive.
Rhyphte: I take it this is a track you think you would have a lot of fun performing live then?
Dan: Without question. The song is packed with energy and I see that translating really well to the stage
Austin: Oh definitely, like Dan said earlier, I think the arrangement on this is in line with our previous work but we felt it was a good song to really let loose on and see what we could do. I for one can’t wait to rip that solo on stage!
Rhyphte: Do you mind if I ask you a bit about your background? I get the sense that VGM seems like the kind of experience that would really lend itself well to this kind of project. You ever done any work covering game music? If not, any interest in it?
Austin: Of course. I’ve been playing guitar for about 13 years now and I have been teaching guitar for the past 4 years around the Eastside area. In and out of high school I was in a rock band with some friends and performed around the Seattle area for a few years. I’d say I’m most a kin with rock and metal but I like everything, who doesn’t. When I get linked up with Dan to do some session work on Rizer when Techno Mage was getting started, I was really enthralled with how well metal guitar and chiptune/synth mix together, and personally I had never delved into this kind of music so it was really refreshing to be a part of it and it offered a new challenge for me. Video game music has always been a big influence on me, mostly Koji Kondo’s work in the Legend of Zelda franchise.
Rhyphte: Well, you’re in good company! It’s an excellent chain of genres with a lovely community, and there’s so much talent all over the place. Speaking of the chiptune side of the equation — Dan, were any of the LSDJ elements or effects challenging to recreate or reimagine in Famitracker? Jack is quite experienced with the medium; did any of his techniques or instrumentation pique your interest?
Dan: Everything about Jack’s sound design is interesting to me. He wields the Gameboy like a true veteran of chiptune. Every time I listen to one of his songs, I find something new–which is mind boggling considering the Gameboy’s 4-channel limitation. To more directly answer your question, I didn’t put too much stock in trying to recreate his techniques. To me, that’s like trying to mimic someone’s production style. There’s a point where you have to ask “what’s the point if someone already did it?” I think it’s important that a cover brings new elements to the work in a way that is respectful of its spirit. For PWRNEON, that meant we borrowed a lot of the song’s structure and melodic phrases but we had to ensure it sounded like Techno Mage. Once those key elements were in place, I kept my nose down and worked in a vacuum.
Rhyphte: That’s a very thoughtful way to put it; I totally agree. For this style of cover, it was clearly the move. That has me wanting to ask about the bonus track, seeing as it was developed with a slightly different philosophy. I think it’s a great complement to the cover. Did working on it allow you to explore any thoughts or ideas that didn’t quite come to fruition in the cover proper?
Dan: I think more than anything, it opened a really direct dialogue between the two. Since the bonus track smashes both chip tracks together, it highlights a lot of their differences. Some elements from the original (like the beautiful stereo imaging during the chorus) stand out really clearly whereas other elements blend together cohesively (like the percussion in the final chorus). It was a treat to work on!
Rhyphte: It was also a treat to listen to! I adored the cohesion between the soundchips. Well, I think that about does it for me! Is there anything else either of you would like to say before we call it in? Once again, excellent job on the project, guys. You fucking killed it!
Austin: Thanks again for talking with us, and to all you fine folks out there, be sure to check out PWRNEON on Bandcamp!
Dan: Yeah, thank you for taking the time to talk with us! We hope everyone enjoys the new song and we look forward to sharing even more music in 2020. You can learn more about PWRNEON (and hear some rad chip music) when you check out Chiptune Night in the Nightride FM archives.
As mentioned, I also got a chance to talk about the project with Jack of toasterpastries!
Rhyphte: Hi Jack! Do you think you could start off by telling us a little about your thought-process for PWRMEOW, and the workflow that produced it?
Jack: Hi and first off, thanks for your kind review of my album on The ChipWIN Blog earlier this year! As far as how the song came together… I’ll be the first to admit that my process is kinda random chaos. Most of my material came together in scattered bursts during train rides and lunch breaks. Prior to this song, I had fallen into a rut of doing a lot of four-on-the-floor, kick and bass in the WAV channel stuff. I wanted to break the pattern so I tried a different beat and sought to do something more melodic with the WAV channel. I’m pretty sure the chorus was the first to form, and material developed around it slowly until I finally sequenced out what I had and worked on transitions. It originally had a different title and some different samples, and slapping some meows in there just happened on a whim.
Rhyphte: ‘(Empty)’ was excellent and reviewing it was my pleasure! What element of Techno Mage’s adaptation did you find most creative, or impressed you the most? Was it the guitar solo? It was the guitar solo, wasn’t it? ;)
Jack: I don’t want to minimize how excellent everything else is but YES HOLY SHIT! The guitar solo is insane! Before even hearing that though, my first sentiment was “wow, they put so much more effort into this song than I did!” The production value is leaps and bound above the original, and brings a much more cohesive energy to the track. Musically, I really enjoy how there’s some subtle changes to the beat and the delivery of certain parts that make this song flow with the TECHNO MAGE sound.
Rhyphte: I assume that by now you’re aware that a mashup of the original and the cover is being included with the release! Any thoughts you’d like to share with us on that?
Jack: This is gonna sound both self-deprecating and pretentious at the same time… I feel like I’m having a Bob Dylan moment about all of this? Like “yeah, maybe I wrote this, but you make this sound better than I do so it’s yours now”. Both of their takes on my tune improve on the original in every way. The mash-up is fun because you get more of a raw take on how the ideas interacted… like a Venn diagram of the creative forces involved.
Rhyphte: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your creative vision in general? For instance, what brought you to the title “PWRMEOW” for your track?
Jack: Most of the LSDJ material I’ve released was created in sporadic bursts on bus rides and lunch breaks, and assembled and worked on over time. As a result, it has kind of a copy/paste arrangement feel in many parts and is just a little bit too unfocused. I’m currently looking to expand further into using LSDJ’s MIDIOUT mode with an ancient sampler I have to get closer to the ‘chiptune plus’ sound I’m after, with a focus on live performance. PWRMEOW was one of the very times I changed a song title, to be honest. I didn’t like the sample I had based it on, and changed it to the stock MEOW for no real reason. It was funny to me so I recorded my partner meowing loudly… I put that into LSDJ and liked it, and the title just happened. Obviously some songs like SUPA or HONEY because of the samples in them, but most of them are just some joke or random thing I pick right at the moment. Maybe I’ll be more intentional in the future, but… probably not.
Rhyphte: Well your process is very much your own, that’s for sure! That answers all my questions, thanks for the great and detailed responses!
That’s about all from me, everyone. To those who made it to the end — Congratulations! Your reward is the knowledge that you are up to date on the coolest work happening in chiptune right now. Go give the cover (and the original) a listen, and I’ll see you guys next time!