Hello and welcome to a very unusual and exciting installment of Office Hours on The ChipWIN Blog! As a classically-trained composer who also teaches college music courses, works from the Renaissance and Baroque eras are heard regularly in my classroom. So you can imagine my absolute delight when a new album combines these periods with another of my passions – chip music. Dear diary: jackpot!
Old Style is a collaboration between cellist Emily Davidson and her brother Chris, who is well known to us on the ChipWIN squad under the moniker Dj CUTMAN. Their project “Baroque Remixes” takes 17th and 18th century composers from a variety of nationalities and arranges their works in a mixture of chiptune and EDM-style beats. Now… if this were a commercial, here is the spot where the narrator is suddenly cut off by a record scratch.
The chiptune community is ripe (some might say “plagued”) with covers of songs in all styles, done with varying degrees of detail and care. Perhaps 20% of these “chip covers” are tolerable, 10% are phenomenal1, and the rest of them are unholy abominations2 that should be killed with fire. Friends, please continue reading because you are about to experience the upper crust of that fabled 10% category.
A Bit of Context
For this review I will be discussing each track separately to focus on the combination of styles, as well as including a small bit of historical context behind the original pieces. Click the link on the “Original” line under each track to hear the source material.
I am also doing away with my usual grading system for the review, as I am definitely NOT an impartial voice in any sense for this release (spoiler alert: it would receive 100% because I am infatuated with this album). Emily and Chris are awesome, and I just would not feel right fabricating a reason not to give the album a perfect score. Being a professional classical musician can be a brutal grind, and I wish only the best for Emily. I also greatly respect and enjoy the large amount of work that CUTMAN does in the chip community, including ‘This Week in Chiptune’ and his mastering work on the ChipWIN releases, which include two of my own tracks. Let’s just talk about the tunes and not worry about assigning points, shall we?
Even if you don’t know Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)3 from a vivisection, you have likely heard his music. Today he is largely known to the public by his violin concerti ‘The Four Seasons,’ but the “Red Priest” was widely influential in his lifetime for his instrumental compositions. This track is a wonderful opening to the album, both as a standalone track and a preview of what to expect from the rest of the arrangements. The opening is slightly modified from the original, adding a few pauses and building to the main theme. Steady drums accompany the simple melodic lines, and the ‘chorus’ as it were contains some beautiful side-chained synth chords. The orchestration at 1:45 is a nice change rather than directly repeating material we’ve already heard, and the closing octaves are a lovely standard effect in chip music.
François Couperin (1668-1733) came from a large musical family, and this French composer wrote keyboard music that was highly influential to Baroque and later composers. His collections of harpsichord works contain extensive discussion on ornamentation as well as having very evocative titles – here, ‘The Mysterious Barricade’ whose meaning is hotly debated. Couperin’s original gradually builds in energy and intensity, and this trait is left intact on the Old Style arrangement. Starting simply with a few bass notes, the main melodic texture soon enters and remains fairly constant throughout. The most interesting aspect of this track for me is the juxtaposition of trap rhythms in the drums combined with the stately, flowing harmony and melody. The little dissonant sounds that occur at the ends of phrases after the first minute are really nice touches that keep the musical texture fresh. Overall I really like the blend of styles on this track, and I could see this new genre of “Baroque chip-hop” becoming the next big thing!
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) is rather infamous in the art music circle, both for his work in music theory and his radical new approach to French opera. If you think classical musicians are a bunch of stuffy, boring snobs, just take a few minutes to read up on the ‘Querelle des Bouffons’ that used Rameau’s music as a scapegoat – sometimes we really know how to sling an insult! This is the track that drew me to this album, as I am obsessively in love with Rameau’s music, particularly his keyboard works. The original depicts a Native American dances that Rameau apparently witnessed, and the aggressive nature of the music is immediately apparent in Old Style’s arrangement. A driving beat and harsh synth tones reminiscent of distorted guitars alternate with quirky synth patches that offer a nice contrast to the aggressive nature of the main section. The descending bass line that starts at 1:20 is KILLER, and the track ends with the same amount of intensity and high energy heard throughout.
Perhaps the least well-known composer represented on the album, Diego Otiz (c.1510-1570) was a Spanish composer who was also very highly important in the shift from the Renaissance to the Baroque era. His two treatises on keyboard and vocal performance were valuable resources for his contemporaries in their instruction on performance practice, and they serve scholars today as an excellent source on early Baroque ornamentation. This piece is a ricercar, an instrumental composition typical of Ortiz’s era where it explores different permutations of motives within a given melody. The sense of constant development is evident in the arrangement here, as the synth patches frequently shift and the the textures also constantly evolve. The ethereal organ patches are an interesting addition to the texture, and I also enjoy the addition of a somewhat sparse beat throughout the track. I did not know any of Ortiz’s music prior to hearing this album, but I enjoy this arrangement enough to seek out some of his original works.
This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), so there has been a surge of interest in his life and works among music scholars and performers. His music provided the transition between the late Baroque and early Classical eras; Mozart even acknowledged his influence, saying, “He [CPE Bach] is the father, we are the children.” This piece is very frequently heard in its original form, and is quite popular with piano students today. Compare the arrangement to the original, and you will hear a refreshing amount of space given to the notes in Old Style’s interpretation. The music is allowed to breathe a little more than most live performances, and the driving four-on-the-floor beat really pushes the music forward. I love the build in the introduction, and the ‘honky-tonk piano’ sound is just wonderful. This track also features several textures and styles, which is unique on the album since most tracks remain essentially in the same sound realm throughout. The pulsing bass break in the middle of the track is a staple of house music, and works well as an interlude before hearing the main melody one final time.
No Baroque remix album worth its salt would fail to include the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Composing at the height of the Baroque era, JS Bach’s music is filled with counterpoint (the simultaneous combination of independent musical lines), and is the ultimate example of Baroque musical thought. Musicologists consistently date the Baroque as ending at Bach’s death year, and if you can get more than three musicologists to agree on something, you have just witnessed a very special event… Much like the arrangement of his son’s work on this album, I really enjoy the amount of aural space between the notes here. Different registers and instrumental patches allow each line to be clear in the texture, and the addition of a steady percussive beat does not blur an already complex aural landscape. Part of this is Bach’s original writing, but I think there is also a good amount of credit that needs to be given to CUTMAN’s production skills on this track. This is one of the only times you will hear the iconic ‘Nintendo bass’ sound on the album, and I really enjoy the fact that it has unique lines to play rather than plunking out chord roots.
Old Style’s “Baroque Remixes” manages to effectively and seamlessly combine disparate musical styles that span centuries of musical thought and innovation. The original compositions were all written without percussion, and in true EDM style the drums add a driving, energetic element to each track without overcrowding the texture. The simple subtlety of the arrangements both do justice to the original material while providing a unique take on cornerstones of the late Renaissance and Baroque styles. Production value is exactly what you would expect from Dj CUTMAN; extremtly high quality work with aural clarity in all frequencies. This album sounds great in the car, through laptop speakers, and played through the system in my classroom. Fans of the composers included on the album will be rewarded with new takes on familiar material, while chip music fans may find some new (old) music to explore.
I hope you enjoyed a grade-free Office Hours this month. Don’t worry, the blue pen will be out and ready to tear into someone with a vengeance again next month!
1 – see: Beethoven/Danimal Cannon “Moonlight Sonata” 2 – see: any MIDI rendered with GXCC and uploaded to YouTube 3 – I’m performing the cardinal academic sin of citing Wikipedia only because I assume most of you do not have free access to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
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!
Gotta hand it to Hoodie, this interview exists basically because of him.
Throughout the course of this month, I had a hard time finding something that really “clicked”. You know the feeling, right? The feeling you get when you’ve listened to a ton of music but upon further self-revision of your collection (regardless of how big it is), you start to feel uninterested.
Nostalgia is a word that gets overused when describing chiptune music.
nos·tal·gia [no-stal-juh, -jee-uh, nuh-] noun
1. A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time: a nostalgia for his college days.
2. Something that elicits or displays nostalgia.
(I never understood dictionary definitions like #2. It’s like asking someone what they meant and having them just repeat their last sentence.)
Nostalgia is relative.
If you have never ridden in the cab of your mom’s (or dad’s) big rig during a cross country cargo run, you would never look at a big rig stopped beside you at a red light and feelnostalgic about it. To describe Dmitry “C-jeff” Zhemkov’s latest release ‘Big Steel Wheels’ as nostalgic is not only a disservice to the depth of the album but also relies on the fact that you’ve drenched yourself in the cartoons of the 80’s and/or the hair-metal rock ballads that served as their soundtracks. If you hear the words “hair” and “metal” together and think of this, or this, or this, then you are about to journey down a rabbit hole of awesomeness, the likes of which may add a whole new sub-genre to your musical tastes. There are those who will envy you for standing on the doorstep of their own nostalgic golden age. Cherish it. Enjoy the ride.
If you’re the kind of person who feels the warm-and-fuzzies whenever you dust off your copy of “The Transformers: The Movie” to re-experience its mind-blowing soundtrack, then buckle up because them nostalgic feels are incoming.
Film scores from the 80’s are a noted influence for Ubiktune founder C-jeff, as mentioned on the Facebook page for the ‘Big Steel Wheels’ release party, and his deep appreciation for them comes through loud and clear with a masterful display of control within his compositions. ‘Big Steel Wheels’ is much more than a love letter to hair-metal, chiptune and Rocky IV. ‘Big Steel Wheels’ by C-jeff celebrates the best of a bygone era by combining a unique blend of hair-metal, rock, and chiptune to create 13 tracks that will appeal to both the curious newcomer and the die-hard fan.
‘Black Lock’ in particular showcases C-jeff’s expert skill, weaving together inspired electric guitar riffs with a big and bold drum kit while captivating synth tones grab your attention and carry you through every beautifully intricate transition into entirely new explorations that keep you guessing right to the end (which is even more impressive when you realize that ‘Black Lock’ is an 8-minute track.) Sound effects sprinkled throughout the album guide listeners through a musical road-trip, be they big-rig engines kicking off ‘A Thousand Bridges’ or the menacing vocal additions during ‘Boiling Point’ coupled with what can only be described as “the most musical gunshots ever heard” that serve to create a borderline radio-play of desperate cat-and-mouse between riffs and silences. The result is a gripping musical experience that pulls you into the world C-jeff has created within ‘Big Steel Wheels’ that will serve as the gateway album for some, and nostalgia fuel for others.
Dmitry was kind enough to answer a few questions about his journey building ‘Big Steel Wheels’ and that mini-interview continues below:
PixelRecall: Tell me about the moment you decided to create ‘Big Steel Wheels.’
C-jeff: During the summer of last year I was watching the ‘Rocky’ series for the first time in my life. It was a great pleasure to watch it. The music was great. The movies were amazing. And then came ‘Rocky 4’. From the very start I was drawn to the music, but as soon as the training montage scene started, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing; this section changed everything. The music stylistically was so close for what I love, and combined with the montage scenes, it was just a perfect combination.
After that, I discovered Vince DiCola. Some time later, Dan Behrens (Danimal Cannon) recommended I check out ‘The Transformers: The Movie’ soundtrack, and that completely blew me away.
The music of Vince DiCola was such a big inspiration for me that I instantly started to think about my next album. I became immersed more and more into the movies and the music culture of 80s. As a result, all those influences expanded my work developing original soundtracks, building from my experience creating ‘Preschtale’.
PixelRecall: What was the biggest challenge you faced while creating ‘Big Steel Wheels?’
C-jeff: The biggest challenge was probably to keep the sound more or less consistent from track-to-track, especially when I decided to include such a wide rage of genres.
PixelRecall: Do you have a favourite piece of equipment or software that you used to help create ‘Big Steel Wheels?’
C-jeff: Native Instruments Massive was the thing I was very impressed with. It allowed me to create a huge number of patches that I used throughout the album. While ‘Preschtale’ was mostly sample-based, ‘Big Steel Wheels’ jumps on software synths and I think that it really helped improve my sound.
PixelRecall: What is your personal approach to building a track?
C-jeff: With ‘Big Steel Wheels’ I tried the technique of parallel writing. I started a number of songs, building them to a certain level, and then started another song, working on them in parallel while jumping from one to another and vice versa. For example, ‘The Path of Machines’ was the first track I started for this album, but one of the last ones I finished.
As for the songs themselves, it depends on the situation. Sometimes I just play with ideas and do some sketches, making a couple of patterns. Other times I have a theme or a scene which dictates the vibe.
PixelRecall: Now that ‘Big Steel Wheels’ is released, what’s next for you?
C-jeff: I have a number of ongoing projects. Some of them are just single tracks, which will appear on various releases and compilations. Other ones are bigger releases, such as albums and soundtracks.
We have an album in progress with my friend Megus (with whom, back in 2010, we released Around Past as Teleidofusion), that should appear sometime in 2014.
Also, I’m involved in the creation of a soundtrack for the amazing space shooter/platformer Temporus, developed by Firebelly Studios. I’m really excited to be a part of this project.
PixelRecall: Is there anything your fans may not know about you or about ‘Big Steel Wheels’ that you’d like to reveal?
C-jeff: The creation of Big Steel Wheels took me about 11 long months, so I have a lot of curious stuff to share, which I would like to feature in some kind of a diary someday in the future.
‘Big Steel Wheels’ is polished, layered, and most importantly, welcoming. Download your copy on Bandcamp for $7, climb into the cab of your big rig, and enjoy the ride.
Pixel Recall ~ (R. Morgan Slade) ~ Support the artists you love