Hey wassup ChipWINners! Welcome back to Quick Shots: the album review column in which I break down the highs and lows of new releases, then give you a numerical TL;DR to help you decide which new releases give you the most bang for your buck! This week, I’ve got two albums that are very much skirting the fringes of what can be considered chiptune. But, they’reboth incredibly bodacious records from two rad artists thatyou guys should be paying attention to. So if you’re in the mood for something new, straps yourselves in and take a ride with a black guy as we check out new music from Hyperultra and Slothfella!
Welcome, chip enthusiasts, to the second installment of Office Hours! This time I will be reviewing the 8-Bit Operators ‘Enjoy the Science,’ a collective tribute to Depeche Mode. If I had to pick my earliest musical influence, it would be tough to name anyone other than DM. I must have listened to ‘Everything Counts’ hundreds of times, both to steal that bass line and to learn how to program vibrato commands in MIDISoft Recording Session, my first DAW. So when I discovered this tribute album would be released in June, I was incredibly excited to hear what the artists could do with some of my favorite tunes. First, a tiny bit of band history for those of you who might not know these sires of the synthesizer.
Formed in 1980, Depeche Mode has three consistent members: Dave Gahan (vocals), Martin Gore (guitar, keyboards, vocals), and Andy Fletcher (keyboards). After the departure of Vince Clarke in 1981, Martin Gore assumed the majority of songwriting duties. DM is one of the most successful popular music groups to embrace largely electronic means of sound production; they were highly influential in the 1980s with their extensive use of the Minimoog, Synclavier, Oberheim, and various samplers.
Given the immense popularity and longevity of Depeche Mode, one might be forgiven if tempted to dismiss another collection of covers. However, I would argue that the covers in ‘Enjoy the Science’ are perhaps the most unique arrangements of these songs since DM originally wrote them. The desire to stretch hardware to its limits and explore new timbres are common links between DM and modern chip artists, and the sounds that the 8-Bit Operators get out of their sound chips are incredible. Some timbres are incredibly close to the original analog synths, and some are what we come to expect from chip artists – unique interpretations of the original sounds through limited hardware synthesis.
Given that I have so clearly professed my love and obsession with Depeche Mode, I am going to approach this review as fairly as possible and treat it how I might when grading a final exam. I love giving high grades when earned, but loathe giving out 100% marks. Nothing is ever perfect*, so I will attempt to temper my affections with a few honest criticisms. On to the grades!
The most important part of any cover album, and there are some ups and downs on this collection. Depeche Mode has released 13 albums of original material, and six are represented in ‘Enjoy the Science.’ Their first album ‘Speak and Spell’ gets five slots, while two albums are tied with three tracks apiece. I assume the artists had free choice over their selection, but I am really missing something from ‘Construction Time Again’ or ‘Exciter.’ There are some surprising semi-deep cuts – Bacalao’s ‘But Not Tonight’ and Aonami’s ‘(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me’ were originally B-sides in America – but thankfully no one chose that karaoke warhorse ‘Personal Jesus.’ Herbert Weixelbaum’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ is really nicely done and is most likely the track that your average listener will have heard before. His chip treatment of the tune is fabulous; the square wave basses and shimmering arpeggios sound spot on, and that little noise drum break after the first chorus is great!
One unique aspect of chip music is that most arrangements and transcriptions do not contain vocals. In fact, I was actually surprised the first time the vocals entered in this compilation! My favorite thing about every track on ‘Enjoy the Science’ is that each artist took the source material and did something creative with it: the arrangements are not simply note-for-note MIDI files run through a plug-in. Yerzmyey’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ is a perfect example of this transformation, taking the synth-heavy original and turning it into an ecstatic, bubbling track. The chip version reminds me of those incessantly happy and quirky Mario platformer soundtracks from Koji Kondo. Another non-vocal track that I really enjoy is ‘(Set Me Free) Remotivate Me’ by Aonami, mixing the original DM melodies with chaotic LSDj glitch elements and driving bass lines. Honorable mention goes to the ultra-hip detuned solo section in ‘Dreaming of Me’ by gameboymusicclub.
Vocals / Melody
While he may not find himself in the top five, Dave Gahan’s name routinely appears on those frequent lists of ‘Top 100 Vocalists’ and ‘Greatest Frontmen (EVER!)’ The man can flat out SING, and Martin Gore is no slouch, either. So, as with many cover albums, the vocalists on ‘Enjoy the Science’ have big vocal folds to fill. All of the performances are better than you will find at an open mic night, but a few did leave me wanting a bit more since the source material is so rich and vital to the song. Although I am accustomed to hearing these songs in Gahan’s Essex accent and vocal tone, there were some pleasant surprises in these covers. The vocoder-heavy ‘Strangelove’ by ComputeHER is ethereal and absolutely gorgeous. My favorite vocal performance with minimal studio effects is Bacalao’s ‘But Not Tonight’ – it is pitch perfect and floats wonderfully above the chip arrangement I mentioned above. Honorable mention goes to Helen Eugene’s singing on ‘Behind the Wheel’ from Inverse Phase – beautiful!
Although the 8-Bit Operators describe the project as ‘lo-bit,’ do not be fooled: the production quality on ‘Enjoy the Science’ is as high as you will find on any Depeche Mode studio album. The levels are perfectly balanced, and there is a richness in each track that emphasizes the best tones of each unique hardware configuration and vocalist. Listen to the perfect balance between melody, accompaniment, bass, and drums on gwEm’s ‘Martyr’ and the counterpoint between the synth and vocals in ‘New Life’ by Patokai for an example of what you will find throughout the album.
Mass Appeal / Replay Value
The first time I heard ‘Enjoy the Science’ was on the day of its release, and listened to the tracks not as reviewer but as a long-time Depeche Mode and chip music fan. There are three tracks that I stopped and listened to immediately again: ‘Enjoy the Silence,’ ‘Strangelove,’ and GOTO80’s ‘Boys Say Go.’ The latter is a fantastic and unique cover of a quirky DM song, with its bouncing bass and accompaniment swells. If you are a Depeche Mode fan, this collection is an interesting interpretation of songs that you know and love. If you are a fan of chip music, this is a fantastic study in what can be done when old hardware is put to new use. The blend of vocals and chiptune on many of these songs is contrary to what one may be used to when listening to chip music, and serves as a great addition to similar sounds from scene regulars The J. Arthur Keenes Band, Anamanaguchi, and Br1ght Pr1mate.
Following the success of chip albums covering The Beatles, Devo, and Kraftwerk, the 8-Bit Operators continue to impress with their Depeche Mode interpretations on ‘Enjoy the Science.’ Creative arrangements and unique solutions to hardware limitations abound on this release, and some of the tracks actually manage to create far more interesting synth sounds than originally heard on the DM studio albums. The integration of live vocals with chiptune is a welcome addition to a musical style that is largely instrumental, and fans of both DM and chiptune will not want to miss this collection.
Final Grade: 47.5/50 (95%)
That’s the end of an extra-long Office Hours session! Thanks for reading to the end, and enjoy the summer break while you still can – fall is coming!
Hey Guys! Welcome back to RCwK! This time around, I got a hold of an artist I’ve been wanting to chat with for a long time! Sean Monistat is a man of many faces and immeasurable talent. While he’s not quite as prolific as Carl Peczynski, Sean is a similar character in that he does have an act to suit every style of his. So when I reached out to him for an interview, I wasn’t sure which act I was going to get. When he told me which one it was, though, I got super excited! Not only would it offer me a chance to speak with Sean, but also with his wife, Duchess Wendi, and their partner in crime, Rebekah Red. To top it off, it’s an act that is very appropriate for this time of year! Without further ado, I wish all you ChipWINners a Happy Halloween, and present you with a special (trick or) treat: Thorazine Unicorn!
Kuma: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me for the interview!
Wendi: Thank you for having us!
Kuma: So, lets get this thing started with a question I haven’t asked in a while: who came up with the name for the band and why’d you choose it?
Wendi: Our Personal Astrologer, George Courtney, came up with the name. As soon as it came out of his mouth, we knew it was Magickal.
Kuma: Really? That’s an answer I wasn’t expecting. I was aware you guys were magick practitioners based on conversations you’ve had with mutual friends on Facebook, but wasn’t aware you had a personal astrologer. Does your spirituality play a big part in your music, or is it as playful as it seems on the surface? Tell me, what does your music mean to you guys?
Wendi: Our music is a combination of the spiritual aspects of our personal lives, intertwined with events and things in the universe which we find fascinating, and those things for which we feel passionate. Things from the past, present, and future. This may sound really romantic, but we found that with each other, we could finally express our inner voices.
Rebekah: We actually met because of our love of the unusual, and felt we were destined to make music together.
Kuma:Very nice. That seems to compliment your rather diverse sound. I have to say, my exposure to industrial and goth music, so to speak, is limited, but of what I’ve heard of acts like skinny puppy, bauhaus, etc, they seem to lack the sense of, dare I say funk, you three have. When you guys were crafting your sound, was this something you were planning on? Making goth music that was more approachable, or even danceable?
Sean: We make music that we personally enjoy, like the music that I grew up on. Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, combined with the technology that was around during that time. Analog synths and old game systems.
Rebekah: We make music that we like and it’s influenced by a lot of different styles, so when other people find something in it, particularly if it’s not the type of music they usually listen to, that’s very gratifying.
Wendi: I make them listen to the angriest music.
Sean: We don’t plan on sounding like any artist in particular, but i take note of the things that annoy me about certain songs that i love and do what i can to not do that.
Kuma: Hahahahaha! I’d love to find out more about that angriest music later, but for now, I want to go back a little bit to something you said before, about how you guys feel you can best express yourselves when you three are together. What I’d like to know is what it is each of you bring to the table that makes this collective work so well? I don’t just mean in terms of who performs what role on stage, but I mean, emotionally, creatively, what do you guys that the others may not that makes everything fit so well among you three?
Rebekah: I come to music making from more of a singer/songwriter perspective, and working with the tools which Sean and Wendi bring, we are able to make something none of us could make alone. It’s validating to have found people who share ownership and who will let you add to what they have written, and want lyrics about dystopian futures, and lonely space dogs.
Sean: I create songs that express a feeling I have or want to make the audience feel, but I find myself struggling with lyrics and melodies. I felt trapped and thematically obscure before.
Wendi: I’ve been writing poetry since I was very young, but I never showed it to anyone. It was so personal and so private but I have always wanted to share it, but I didn’t know how. I have, with Sean and Rebekah’s help, been able to give my words to other people in a way that doesn’t scare me.
Kuma: Wow, the diversity of that response really made me smile. Although I’m surprised to hear you guys say some of these things!
Wendi, in the couple times I’ve met you, you’ve never come across as anything other than quietly confident. The idea of you seeming scared to share your writing kind of baffles me!
Sean, with how prolific you are and all the musical acts you’re involved with, from +Let’s Disinfect+ to thelonglegs and even TheRaPists, the idea of you feeling thematically stuck when you’ve been so diverse is obscene!
And Rebekah, while I’ve not met you in person, between what I’ve heard of you through the music I’ve heard and what I’m hearing now, you come across as the most steadfast of the group in your vision and what you want to express! You guys really had trouble expressing yourselves without each other? I just…I find that incredibly hard to believe, that despite all this creativity, you guys are all revealing yourselves to be such private, and somewhat inhibited people.
Rebekah: It’s not really that we weren’t able to, I mean it’s not like I’m living under the stairs! But what it looks like when I express myself BY myself, it looks different than this. We’re each parts of the whole, that’s really what I’m saying.
Kuma: You know, I didn’t picture you that way, but now that you said it, I’m compelled to do a bad photoshop of your head super imposed on Harry Potter’s body in his under-the-stairs room.
Reb: That’s pretty great.
Sean: My artistic mission has always been to push things to the extreme, and oftentimes that marginalizes what I do. Good dance music is good dance music, and the songs we create together have a pop appeal that i can’t create on my own.
By the way, I love bad Photoshop.
Wendi: Well, a lot of my lyrics are from really painful, secret times in my life, where no one but my notebooks knew what I was thinking and feeling. I guess I had a shell to retreat to in my writing, and that was very comforting for those times. I definitely did come out of my shell by performing– as a Dominatrix for a time– and then as a puppeteer. I came to find my strength in being on stage. Like, I absolutely do not get stage fright anymore. I just get up there and I’m my True Self.
Kuma: That’s very cool to hear. And that response makes more sense to me, Sean, that in some ways, these lovely young ladies here help reel you in some so you can make a cohesive piece of music together. Wendi’s revelation of her blossoming into actualization through puppetry and Dominance is only more evidence of such.
That being said, lets talk about the album you’ve put so far: Metamortify.
How long did you guys work on that EP? Is there any song one on it that really speaks to you guys individually and as a group as something you’re proud of? has it, now that it’s out there, met your expectations of what you guys wanted from yourselves as musicians?
Sean: I am incredibly proud of it, considering we did it all ourselves. In working together on it so long, the hardest part was deciding when it was finished. We have grown so much in the time we have been together as both musicians and lyricists, that the songs we are currently working on have me indescribably excited for the next release.
Wendi: I’m proud of every song, for sure. They’ve all evolved in their own time and way. Some of them were very different when we first conceived them, but they grew like a chest-burster in Reb’s ribcage.
Rebekah: Picking one song would be like choosing a favorite child. If we wanted children. Which we don’t.
Kuma: But guys: if you have children, you could plump them up and give them to me as a gift, and then I can eat them and make each of you a lovely set of gloves out of their skin! Don’t you want children skin gloves? Don’t you want the cycle of mutual love to grow between us?
Wendi: I don’t know what to say…how thoughtful!!!
Sean: Winter is coming.
Kuma: Winter IS coming, and children skin is the best skin. A second skin, if you will. That being said, when can we expect a second album from you guys? And what is next for Thorazine Unicorn in general?
Kuma: Very nice! Is this your first time performing at this venue? Also, do you have any other shows or appearances lined up in the near future after this? Can we expect to see you three at MAGFest?
Sean: This is actually the first live music performance at Catland, which is a fantastic occult bookstore that we can’t recommend highly enough. The performance space in the large back room is very reminiscent of the underground basement dungeon goth clubs that our music sounds best in.
Rebekah:: After Friday’s show, we have some other irons in the fire, and you may very well see us at the Gaylord!
Kuma: NICE! That being said, Sean, Wendi, Rebekah, it’s a pleasure having you three here with me and getting to know you all better. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing before we wrap things up?
Wendi: Thanks for chatting with us! I’d just like to invite people to let us entertain you! I think we offer something for everyone who likes electronic music.
Rebekah: There are so many different things you can do with this technology, so many ways of shaping a musical landscape. Thank you letting us share some of our vision.
That’s it for this this issue of RCwK! Don’t forget to follow/like/subscribe to Thorazine Unicorn, and if you’re in NYC tomorrow night and need to burn off all that energy from your trick-or-treat induced sugar rush, check them out at Catland at 9pm! Til next time!