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.
May 6th saw the return of Chip Bit Day; a celebration of Chiptune organised by Richard Lewis who you might know as blogger ‘Chip! Bit! Sid!‘ or by his musical pseudonym ‘Jellyatrix.’ Primarily funded by fans using sites like Indiegogo, Chip Bit Day’s second year was just as popular as the debut! With a lineup including festival favourites such as HarleyLikesMusic, and plenty of free goodies from Game Boy cartridge stickers of the performing artists to delicious cake, crowdfunders definitely got plenty for their money. I arrived good and early on the Saturday afternoon, ready for the hard slog of an 8-hour Chiptune marathon to find a few others eager for the show to start.
Welcome back to the first Office Hours session after last month’s Chiptunes = WIN Volume 3 release! This month I am reviewing a recent release titled ‘SNESQUE’ by fellow Longhorn and ChipWIN alum Zackery Wilson.
In addition to his talents as a pianist, Zackery Wilson has extensive formal training in composition and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also one of only a few composers combining contemporary classical music with chiptune elements, intended for a more formal concert setting than most live chip music.
My first exposure to Zackery Wilson’s unique musical style was his track ‘Ain’t Got Time to Bleep’ from last year’s Chiptunes = WIN: Volume 2. Clocking in at a blistering 1:39, this track packs a lot of punch in a short amount of time. In retrospect, ‘Ain’t Got Time to Bleep’ feels like a precursor to this year’s ‘SNESQUE’ release; each track on the album is a brief musical landscape exploring a variety of sounds and textures.
Released in partnership with netlabel Ubiktune, ‘SNESQUE’ was created using original soundfonts from a variety of Super Nintendo games and composed inside FL Studio. Each track is restricted to samples from one specific SNES game, which are noted in the titles. A further compositional guideline for each track is brevity – the longest is just under 3 minutes in length. Like most level-based video game music, the tracks loop seamlessly one time before ending. Combining authentic retro sounds with modern DAW effects is a hallmark of Zackery Wilson’s style, and it is masterfully done on each track of this album. My review separates various elements of composition into their own category, focusing on how they interact within each track of the album.
Earworms Served Au jus [Melody]
Each track on ‘SNESQUE’ is a smorgasbord of delicious melodic tidbits, full of interesting timbres and cool ornaments – I love all those pitch bends, especially in the third track. One of the striking things about Zack’s style is his use of very high registers for his melodies. The melodies on this album seem to be structured similarly to a big band trading solos between players, and you can definitely hear the influence of screaming lead trumpets and altissimo alto sax lines.
Although each track is individually a beautiful and well-crafted miniature model of perfection, my biggest complaint about this album as a whole is the over-reliance on the “freestyle solo” melodic style. I realize that I have spent significant lines talking about the uniqueness of ZW’s style, so it feels a bit like complaining that John Fogerty sounds too much like Creedence Clearwater Revival when I then complain that the melodies aren’t all memorable. However, after listening to the album several times, one does start to get a sense of repetition and melodic coherence – listen to the solos in ‘Snowball’s Chance in ‘L’ for an example of a track that sounds on the surface like one long solo, but there are definite repetitions and similarities between the individual melodies.
We’re In This Together [Harmony]
I have to tip my hat to Zack for this category, as writing in a jazz/fusion harmonic style is incredibly difficult to pull off with any amount of sincerity and he does it with absolute skill and conviction. Going far beyond an amateurish “add diatonic sevenths to every triad” harmonic approach, this album is a textbook in jazz voicings and harmonic progressions. Zackery’s piano chops almost certainly include woodshedding Chick Corea solos, Thelonious Monk’s harmonic language, and the understated beauty of Oscar Peterson. Every single track does something unique, but my favorite harmonic moments are in the keyboard and organ comping in ‘Y So Secretive?’ – that major/minor shift in the first section is really cool.
On the Down Low [Bass Line]
As a bass player I am very appreciative of a hip bass line, and chip music usually has its fair share of neat bass licks. Although the listener’s attention is mainly drawn to the melody and chordal accompaniment patterns in each track, there are a few moments where the bass is allowed to stand out in the texture. Honorable mention goes to the delightfully quirky synth-slap sounds in ‘Earthbound and DOWN,’ but my favorite bass moments happen in ‘Have A Nice Flight.’ Some of the little bass fills in this track and the solo that starts at 1:08 just beg for a pixelated Victor Wooten thumping along in the background of an accompanying music video.
Girl, you decide how HTML elements render in a browser cuz you got STYLE [Musical Styles]
Zack describes the styles of the album as “[f]rom progressive rock to jazz fusion, samba to swing,” which is quite a wide range of disparate elements to pull together! Although I mentioned this next comment as a slight negative in the melodic design, each track flows together quite well when listening to the album from start to finish. No one track sticks out of the texture in a negative way, and there is not single sample that sounds out of place. The cohesiveness of extended tertian harmonies in each track help the music form a single sonic landscape, where electric guitars and slap bass can coexist with flutes and string pads. I don’t quite hear the prog rock influence – perhaps more Rick Wakeman than Dream Theater – but that is quite alright. The textures and repetitious melodies of ‘Suck ‘R Punch’ make this track unique on the album, but it does not sound out of place since the harmonies and occasional screaming lead lines are found elsewhere on the album.
The production value throughout ‘SNESQUE’ is incredibly high. Each instrument is balanced well in the overall mix, and the highs, mids, and lows all sound good. I really enjoy the subtle effects that are sprinkled throughout the album; reverb is not overused, and both pitch shifting and echo help bring a humanizing element to the vintage soundfonts. Perhaps the best way I can compliment the production in each track is that, to me, the post-processing is never obvious or overbearing throughout the album. No, this is not a strict use of SNES samples as it was done in 1991, but at the same time these tracks never stray too far into the uncanny valley of modern-versus-retro audio production.
Insert Coin to Continue [Replay Factor]
While Zack uses repetition as one of his compositional constraints for each track, it never gets in the way of enjoying any given moment throughout the album. Like the best examples of looping in video game music, the loops here are seamless and completely unobtrusive to the listening experience. Essentially, when listening straight through this album you have heard each track twice, although it never feels that way! I have listened straight through the album many times for the purposes of this review, and I still do not feel as if I am tired of any particular track. The track embedded here is a collaboration with Player 2, Zack’s brother Jay who is also a member of the Volume 3 roster. I would be interested in hearing more about their collaborative writing process and if it was a peaceful Mario/Luigi experience or closer to Mario/Wario antagonism.
Zackery Wilson’s ‘SNESQUE’ is an album of tunes that are short in length but absolutely filled with quality from start to finish. The energy of each track remains high until the final note, and there is a seamless progression from track to track. Combining original SNES soundfonts with modern production techniques is a delightfully fresh take on modern chip music and gives this album a unique sound.
Final Grade: 58.5/60 (97%)
That wraps up Office Hours for today – the professor has a lot of grading and midterm exams to copy… Until next time!
Sup y’all? =) President Hoodie here, excited to introduce our multi-writer, full track-by-track breakdown of our latest compilation, “CheapBeats = WIN“, a fantastic collaborative release between CheapBeats & ChipWIN!
Yes, it’s another all-in-one review featuring multiple writers from the blog, much likewe did for TWG’s ACC release. In other words, time to review ALL OF THE THINGS. 8-)
My silly little introduction completed, let’s move onward to the first 5 track reviews by the decidedly dashing DjjD!Enjoy!
Greetings chip enthusiasts and welcome to the first installment of the Office Hours review session! My name is Joseph Eidson and I am a composer living in Pennsylvania whilst dreaming of Fiji. These entries will be structured a bit like my “other” life as a music educator: each track will receive a grade out of 10 and the sum of these will determine the final percentage grade for the album / EP in question. First up is Alex Lane’s recent release ‘Phase Locked Life’ – the red pen* is uncapped and ready to go!
Alex Lane is a chip artist from Newcastle, Australia whose bio simply reads “Standard nerd.” Alex happens to be the very first artist I discovered two years ago when I started working with chip music, so I was very excited to learn that he released new music this past May. Each track on ‘Phase Locked Life’ was created on the Game Boy running a single copy of Little Sound DJ. His style is definitely apparent after listening to this EP and there were only two things I could take issue with in these six tunes. Here’s the track-by-track breakdown:
‘Cosmic Latte’ – I really like how this track begins with arps and a gradual build to the main melody. When the bass really kicks in after the first thirty seconds, you’ll find yourself nodding along with the beat. This track contains the essential elements of Alex’s style: melodies shaped by short pitch bends and register changes, fast arp accompaniment figures, and a strong, insistent bass line. Those arps on the off-beat are mad bashment riddim, mon. ♪ ♫ ♪
Track Grade: 9/10
‘Zero Sequence’ – A short intro gives way to a delicious saw bass at the lowest depths of the LSDJ wave channel. The slight swing applied to the groove is a welcome change that helps this track stand out on the EP. At 2:17 the harmonized melody is glorious, and this track is bumpin’ in the speakerboxx to the very end.
Track Grade: 9.5/10
‘Counter-Revolutionary Activity’ – One of the best things about this track is Alex’s deviation from his usual introduction using arp figures. The tempo is a bit slower and there are a lot of spaces between beats in the bass line, which helps the track breathe. I think this is great track positioning in terms of album pacing after a previous high-intensity jam. The lead in the last third of the song is great!
Track Grade: 9/10
‘Phase Locked Life’ – High vibrato arps are back with a nasty bass line underneath for the EP title track. This track is similar in structure to the first; the bass that kicks in 48 seconds into the tune hits you right in the gut. One interesting thing that we have not heard yet on the EP is the surprising tempo shift that occurs near the end of the song, which adds something unique to the general ingredients of Alex’s style.
Track Grade: 9/10
‘Flux Destiny’ – Remember my opening sentence about the first track? At this point in the album I am starting to tire of the “building arp figures” introduction formula. They sound beautiful on an individual basis, but the fact that there are only six tracks on this collection (the longest being 3:44) makes me too aware of the similarities. Who knows, though – intro formulas work for Pharrell! Despite that criticism, the rest of this track is a pure joy. Wave channel manipulation, four-on-the-floor dance beats, and a killer lead make this the stand-out track on the EP. The ending is also abrupt, which I absolutely LOVE. Good endings are hard to write and some end up being a bit too “precious,” so the sudden stop is very effective.
Track Grade: 10/10
‘Postcards from a Fast Train’ – This is a tough one for me. The introduction is totally different from any previous track, but there is something about the sound that I really do not like. I can’t pin down if it’s the direct repetition of the slow arpeggio figure or just the instrument patch itself. If I were remixing this tune I would probably copy the cool texture that starts at 2:34 for the second time the figure repeats. The track as a whole is a welcome departure from the rest of the album, as the mood is generally dreamy and floating rather than fast and aggressive. Alex’s finessing of the melodic line with different textures and ornamentation are top-notch – the harmony at 0:52 is beautiful, and I like how the bass moves into the upper register for a brief moment before returning to the opening idea.
Track Grade: 8.5/10
Alex Lane’s EP ‘Phase Locked Life’ contributes a refreshingly unique voice to the 1xLSDJ chip catalog. Catchy melodies that are filled with ornamentation combine with fast arp figures and pounding bass lines to create a pleasing mix of moods and textures. The forced economy of channels on the Game Boy is never a problem for Alex, as he is able to get a very full and rich sound in every track on this EP. Despite a few minor quibbles, I would highly recommend this EP to anyone looking for high quality chip music and am looking forward to hearing what Alex does in the future.
Final Grade: 55/60 (91%)
Office Hours are officially over for the first edition, so study hard and join me back here next time for another session!
* – Studies show that red pen hurts your inner child, so I tend to grade in blue or purple.