If we’re really honest with ourselves, there are certain kinds of chiptune that are more visible than others. If I walked up to a random Joe at MAGFest and asked who their favorite chiptune musician was, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that they’d bring up an artist known for either Game Boy or NES music, or if they’re over the age of 30 they might mention some demoscene artists and their love of the Commodore 64. But unless you really go looking for it, it seems like it’s hard to find anyone making music on the venerable Sega Genesis, or at the very least made with the YM2612 soundchip. It seems that way – but nothing could be farther from the truth. I’d like to take a few minutes and bring to light some real gems out there of an under appreciated console and, if you’re inspired by the end of it, give you the tools you’ll need to make your own original content to take to the club.
[3/18/16 Edit: Thank you to the community for reaching out to help with a few missing points/bad links in the article – these have been amended/added.]
I’m willing to wager that there is no city as equally saturated with chiptune projects as Meriden, Connecticut. This is, of course, all thanks to the massive output of one man – his name is Carl Peczynski, although you might know him as Radlib, or Oxygenstar, or maybe Steady C or sadNES or one of his other aliases. Carl is, to me, the great unsung hero of American chiptunes – I’ve yet to meet someone who is more than casually into chiptunes who doesn’t know at least one of his acts, and although he only does a few shows a year, he’s managed to stay relevant. Is it his many personae that are allowing him to meet the changing demands of the scene, never falling into a the trap of making the same thing over and over? Is it because he specializes in gear that often goes unused by others in the world of chiptune? Is it his love of early 90’s hiphop? Honestly, it doesn’t matter – because regardless of the origin of his powers, Carl’s music slays. I had the pleasure of chatting with Carl not too long ago, and the following are the fruits of that interview.
A rare picture of Carl without a backwards baseball cap.
Welcome, friends, to a new article segment I’ve been putting together. Unlike most of my work on The ChipWIN Blog and my writings with Nerdfit, I wanted to address some things that I’ve seen plaguing many new and promising artists. I do this in the hope that those new folks will realize that their problems, much like many new artists’ problems, are not only common but solvable. If you’re new, relatively new, or just having issues with thinking that you’ll ever make a great track, join me for a monthly pick-me-up in Bit by Bit!
"Glenn I know this is more of an intro article, but you need to have
an image in there somewhere."
Is that so? Well then, loophole achieved. On with the content.
As time goes on, I find myself being less and less hyped up on new albums. Perhaps it just comes with having too much to do as an adult, or being over-saturated with great music means it takes a lot more to “wow” me these days. Maybe I’ve gotten used to the familiar names and faces, and am waiting for something new. Or, it’s because nothing else has been Kartmaze’s ‘The Lighthouse.’ Some of you may recall my previous interview with Mads Aasvik, our Norwegian friend who put out ‘Seven Journeys to a New Home’ last year. Mads swore that a pre-Christmas release of his new album was extremely unlikely, but it looks like he secretly kicked his butt in gear and got this thing churned out.
It’s difficult to find words to describe this album without sounding trite and cliche. I’m one of those people who, when someone comes to me about something and says “OH my G~~~O~~~D, THIS ____ISTHEGREEEEAAAAAAAATEST,” I immediately lose all desire to partake of whatever this thing is and it is forever dead to me. So what I have to say about The Lighthouse is simply the measured truth:
This album is a wild ride from start to finish.
If you think you’re prepared for this album, you are wrong. I’m going to go ahead and call this the sleeper hit of 2014, because I don’t think ANYONE (except, perhaps, Mads himself) had any inkling as to how good this album is.
Weighing in with 9 tracks and just under an hour’s worth of music, this album is simply impressive.The first track starts, and the only thing I could think was “This is what Danny Elfman would sound like if he did chipmusic.” You’re immediately hit with a slow, sweeping, cinematic introduction, without any hint of “chippyness” to it, and already you know you’re miles away from anything you could have guessed.
By the way, I hope you packed a lunch, because this is going to be one hell of a trip.
‘The Waves’ opens up with the more familiar synth sounds one might expect. It’s start is still incredibly calm and peaceful, as though easing us into something more exciting. As the pace starts picking up, it still sounds like you’re in some sort of fantasy story – until the drum breakdown, and then you realize you’ve been led into a prog-rock ballad, only to crash back into calm, slow jams. The album is playing with you. You are a ship on the waves, catching bare glimpses of light (or in this case, pulsing rock) as the sea rolls you ever forwards.
Sweeping you into the third track, appropriately named ‘Storm’. Between driving leads and speedy, urgent drums, you can tell that the game has changed and you’re getting somewhere. This is the Kartmaze we know and love, and he is fully aware of it. The ‘Storm’ passes, and we’re left with a brief piano interlude before realizing what lays before us.
As we get into ‘The Reef’, the mood changes. Everything is mysterious. There are big space synth sounds and echo effects. The melody sounds hopeful, but the clashing chords it is up against instill a sense of worry. Being the longest track on the album (which is saying something, given that they’re all quite lengthy), you really get taken on an emotional rollercoaster as the track goes from curious, to hopeful and upbeat, to urgently driving forward, only to lull you into a false sense of security hits with the slow portion because the last movement of the track is higher energy than anything else we’ve seen. This is my favorite track, and for good reason.
As we fade into the next track, all becomes calm again. ‘The Sunrise’ has come, and whatever urgency that the night may have pressed upon us has passed.While this song is calm, it also has an air of desolateness. It invokes the feeling of being the sole survivor of a rough night at sea; the only one left to see the sun come up.
Then, something crests the horizon, and we have cool violin parts and an angelic choir – have ‘The Ships’ come to save our stranded listener? This track goes back and forth between the tight “real” instrumentation we heard in the opening track with violins and slick percussion and woodwinds into the dirty prog rock we all know and love.
As the album continues, and we go into ‘The Light’ and the listener knows that here we are – this is what we’ve been waiting for. This is the behemoth of a track we knew was inevitable, the epic prog ballad the likes of which would make C-Jeff proud. This track, as the kids say, “goes hard, y’all.” It’s rough, it’s punchy, it’s like a shot of espresso driven right into your eye. As it goes, there is a building fervor that happens not only within the track but within the listener as well, and Kartmaze plays around with that, slowing down the track at key points to tease you, to slow down the process and to hold off the inevitable climax…of the album, I mean. What did YOU think I meant?
Finally, the end comes with’The Sunset’. With this sad little refrain and the sound of rushing waves, we know that the journey has come to an end.
I said it above, and I’ll say it here in summation: This album is what would happen if Danny Elfman and C-Jeff collaborated on an album. I don’t think I can pay it any higher compliment. If by some stretch of the imagination you haven’t gotten this album yet, you done goofed – but while the consequences may never be the same, you can fix your error by following the links below. I can’t wait to see what Mads has in store for us next year. You might say that I expect his work to rock progressively harder?
Alright, I’ll take the sound of the angry mob forming outside as my cue to leave.
Contrary to popular belief, I DO actually listen to compilations other than ours, and in doing so I occasionally run across someone amazing. In this case, I’m referring to Mads Aasvik, better known as Kartmaze. I first heard him on the Project Chipmusic Heroes compilation last year, and his intense prog rock chiptunes melted my face. After grabbing a prosthetic face out of the stock I keep on hand for just such an occasion, I found out that he had actually released a full album. Three more prosthetic faces later, I knew this guy was someone I couldn’t wait to hear more from. With rumors on the Internet saying that we may be getting a new album from him sometime soon, I took it upon myself to hunt him down and question him, for your pleasure and mine. Enjoy!
Adam: Alright, preliminary barrage – what’s your name, how old are you, and how long have you been making chiptunes? What’s your preferred compositional set up?
Kartmaze: I’m Mads Aasvik, I’m 27 and I’ve been doing chiptune for a year and a half (since December 2012). My favorite setup for making music: MIDI programming in Reaper, note by note, using a wide array of VST-plugins with my acoustic guitar on my lap.
A: Now THAT’S interesting! You’re much more a fan of the VST method of doing chiptunes, as opposed to trackers or anything like that? That puts you in quite the minority, from what I’ve seen. What made you pick going that route as opposed to anything else?
K: That’s a really good question, actually! Ever since I (finally!) stopped writing music in the guitar tab software Guitar Pro around 8 years ago and was introduced to proper DAWs, I have exclusively utilized MIDI with VSTs in either Cubase or Reaper. To be honest, I have never touched a tracker in my life, and I wasn’t even aware of the concept until after I started lurking around in the chiptune community last year. After I’ve become aware of its existence, I have never considered trying it out as I’m more than happy with my current workflow. I’ve never cared about (or involved myself in) the chiptune vs. fakebit discussion either, which often comes along together with the VST/tracker subject. I just make music and let people think whatever they want in the process.
A: Right on! And speaking of making music, I remember first hearing you on the Project Chipmusic Heroes compilation last year. How’d you get involved with that?
K: I was approached by Travis, AKA __twc, who had this idea of gathering a few less established chiptune artists and making a collaborative album together. He asked me if I was interested, and I was.
A: A few months later, you dropped your first full length album, ‘Seven Journeys to a New Home.’ How long did it take you to put all that together? Did you know you were going to do a full album when you got The Rise of Zeus on PCH?
K: The thing with Seven Journeys was that only a couple of the tracks were written for the album explicitly. The rest of the tracks had actually been written during a time span of several years in advance. A few years prior to Seven Journeys I played guitar in a prog rock band where I did most of the writing myself, and some of the tracks on Seven Journeys were actually written to be played in that band. We never got to start playing most of them, hence they remained unused. During December 2012 I “converted” one of these tracks (‘Brownout,’ which was actually just a working title I didn’t bother to change) to chiptune after being challenged by a friend to make a chiptune track and posting it on r/chiptunes on Reddit. I got some good feedback from it, and from then on I used some of my old material as a base for some of the tracks that ended up on the album. Everything was ready for mixing at the end of February 2013. I knew I was going to do a full album when we released the first PCH album, however when we started planning PCH, ‘The Rise of Zeus’ wasn’t anything but bits and pieces of old material I had lying around, so the track was made as it is today during the time leading up to the first PCH release.
A: Other than filling out your Soundcloud, what have you been up to musically in the past year? Have you been doing any live shows?
K: Besides what you can find on Soundcloud, I haven’t been doing a lot except working on my next album. I have been working a bit with three talented guys from the US (two from Buffalo, NY and one from Houston, TX). [Adam Note: Mads lives in Norway! The more you know.] We call ourselvesMegalixir and are mainly doing SNES covers (I have posted one of our tunes on my Soundcloud, but more will come). I have also started experementing with a synthwave-like genre for use in promotional videos (I have also posted one of these on my Soundcloud, and more will come on this front as well). Last, but not least, I’m currently doing a small collaboration with a fellow Ubiktune artist. We’re quite early in the process, but you definitely have something to look forward to! Regarding live shows, I’ve actually never even considered doing one. If I was to perform some of my own material live, it would have to be with a full live band with me playing my electric guitar, I think.
A: Okay, so, the real reason we’re getting down and dirty here: You’ve got a new album coming out! What can we expect from it? Are you branching out, trying anything new? Is it going to be as facemelting as Seven Journeys? Can we expect more heavy prog rock, or are you switching genres on us? When should we expect it out?
K: Yes, I have! You can expect an epic progressive concept album, musically not too far from Seven Journeys. It will be packed with heavy riffs, catchy themes and melodies, plenty of odd time signature changes, swirling arpeggios, polyrhythms and face melting synth solos! However, it will not be a pure chiptune album. It will have a more hi-fi synth feel to it with more acoustic sounding drums and more complex synth sounds. Regarding the release date, I’m very uncertain. It all comes down to me and my productivity (which is highly irregular nowadays), as I still lack about 1/4 of my planned album length. Last year I hoped to release it this summer, but that’s not going to happen. If I’m going to look realistically at it, a release before christmas is unlikely, I’m afraid. But I’ll assure you that it will be worth the wait!
A: I can’t wait! And thanks a bunch for your time!
So there you have it! If you need some proggy brain obliterating funtimes, look no further than Kartmaze! And you can join with me in counting the days until he makes an official album announcement. In the meantime, keep your eyes glued here while we continue to YELL AT YOU ABOUT CHIPTUNES because the ONLY WAY you can truly learn more is if we YELL AT YOU ABOUT CHIPTUNES.