Beyond all the glamour and pageantry of the blips & blops, a misunderstood way of making chip music has grown and bloomed away from the spotlight of the scene – yes I’m talking about FM Synthesis. Of course, this is not a complaint, as we say in Spanish: “para gustos los colores”. The point is that, most of the time, a lot of cool things happen under the surface, things that are worth talking about and, from time to time, seem to be buried in the huge mass of crunchy sounds. The album series I’m covering today is not that. I can even say that it’s well known by everyone nowadays, precisely because the intention was –and still is– to direct your attention to the music and techniques used by those incredible musicians. Today I want to go back to one of the greatest compilation series centered on the FM side of the Micro Music, Demoscene, and Chiptune. Apt for newcomers and veterans, it will make you move and ignite the fires of love and interest in this particular approach to chip musicin your soul – hoping the inferno grows so big that it encourages you to search for new music or even make your own. So let’s take a look over the ‘SOUNDSHOCK’ Series by Ubiktune.
A pleasant the end of May to one and all of the ChipWIN nation! This month, it was my distinct pleasure to review ‘The Blossoming Years’ by Russian artist MmcM. This Ubiktune release is a collection of his early works, spanning 1999 to 2001. Mmcm composed all but two of the tracks on the album using a ZX-Spectrum and ProTracker 3. Mikhail Ivashenko and Oleg Nikitin each contributed a remix to the album, in the way of ‘Bugs in My Mind‘ and ‘Changeability‘ respectively.
This album is truly epic in scope, weighing in with a hefty 24 tracks. I really enjoyed and appreciated most of the tracks that are here, but I can only give a fitting review to just a handful of them in the space I have. As such, these are the four tracks that were my absolute favorites on the collection. By no means does that mean the other twenty aren’t worth checking out. They are, and I encourage you to take your own listen, and find your own, be it four or all of them. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
There is something that can be said about those who incorporate chip elements into making a larger-scale composition. Many of these people, such as Marshall Art, Danimal Cannon, Professor Shyguy, and Dunderpatrullen (to name a few) have blown audiences away with their own unique visions of how they want to musically express themselves.
One name comes to mind; and it genuinely surprises me that I had not heard of him before early October of 2014 at a wonderful show put together in the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. That name is Zantilla. And, much like how I felt when I heard him perform on stage for the first time, get ready to be engulfed through a groove-filled, funky soundscape. One where tentacles have tea parties that (surprisingly, yet refreshingly) won’t give you the feel of a certain alternative Solarbear album cover.
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? =) Prez Hoodie here once again, this time with the final entry in my special Volume 3 judges interview series! Appropriate, as the V.3 judging is finally wrapped up and we’re all excitedly awaiting it’s release on September 1st. In the meantime, check out this chat with the Russian progchip master, C-jeff! ENJOY!