The new year is in full swing – MAGFest has come and gone, Chipwrecked is preparing for another great lineup, and we’ve already got a few fun 2019 chiptune releases! But such an active community also makes for a lot you may have missed, and I’d like to give the last year a final sendoff before moving onto this one. I’m proud of the work I did in 2018, but there was a lot I didn’t get to talk about as well. This scene is bursting with music to enjoy and appreciate, so while I can only cover a small portion of it, I’d like to try and spotlight some tunes that deserve the attention.
Naturally, I will be doing this in the silliest way possible.
THE CLOVER AWARDS: 2018
(Hosted by Clover)
(Sponsored by Chiptunes=WIN)
Before we begin the ceremony, let’s establish some ground rules:
- There will be 8 award winners, one for, uh… each bit. 8 bits. Sure, I’ll go with that.
- Nominations must be for things released in 2018. No, January 1st isn’t close enough, even if 2018 is in your title. Sorry, I had to cut down on this list somehow.
- No one I’ve reviewed on here before. Tenfour and Knasibas have both had great years, but you can already read me fangirling over them!
- Nothing that someone else on the ChipWIN Blog has covered! We have so many great writers! Check them out! Also, without this rule I would literally die! Don’t kill me please!
- AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA (this is not a rule, just a cry for help)
- Only FUN categories for FUN people! No one wants some lame generalized “best chiptune track” award! Yes, we all know it’s ‘🅱️lackhole 🅱️oss’, but come on, this can be inclusive!
- Each section gets *30 minutes tops* of my time. I’ve dug myself into a hole with a shovel made of MAGFlu and procrastination. If you’re reading this, it’s not too late. Get your homework done. Finish that compo track. You can do this, all of y’all. I believe in you.
- Last but not least – inspired by this article and this tumblr post, each category will have TWO WINNERS! I don’t actually have a jokey reason for this, it just feels like a good system and helped me organize my thoughts ^-^
WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, MAY I PRESENT… OUR OPENING ACTS!
BEST PURE CHIP EP, That Is Exactly Five Tracks Long
(made by someone who I hung out with up front at the MAG chiprave)
(AKA the “I swear I only snubbed ‘Battle Jazz Classics II’ by accident” award)
Starting with Dimeback’s ‘Wandering Floor’ almost feels like clickbait. This EP resonated so much with fellow chiptune artists, and a lot of this goes without saying. Nonetheless, our award show would be considerably incomplete without it.
I’ve highlighted ‘Let Yourself Loose’ as it decidedly demonstrates what sets Dimeback apart from others, especially if you’re coming at it with more specific knowledge and a careful ear. From a technical perspective, Dimeback bears more than a few similarities to say Kipptune, or other pioneers of the overclocked fami style. But while Chibi-Tech has mastered the art of using this tool for the perfect dance tunes, unparalleled in energy and rave-ability, Dimeback has opted for something different, something a lot more… loose. The pacing is more dynamic, and it throws punches with smart and layered setups and payoffs. Chipmusic is often about working under limitations, crafting a song around what fits – Dimeback seems to throw this out the window. It never sounds restrained, or even compact. It’s free.
Wild harmonic basses and colorful intricate leads make the tunes explode, but this brilliant sound design is still just one piece in the arsenal of tricks that make the music interesting, and each new idea feels appropriate and purposefully utilized. The “good stuff” comes and goes as needed, and I’m just as often impressed by a simpler refrain, or a delicious melody line (Dimeback was in a jazz combo at one point. IT SHOWS). It’s as loaded as overclocked tunes come, but the complexity comes in so many different flavors. This is not to suggest that it throws the baby out with the bathwater (why is this a phrase?) though! The second drop in “The Running Man” is a great example of how this careful structure can coexist with tense, tight, heavy EDM, full of technological wizardry and “holy shit how did he do that?!” moments, especially once it starts jumping between gritty growling and melodic catchy synth hits. Technique is designed and placed to complement the broader piece.
DEFENSE MECHANISM’s ‘Sunburst’ is, as its title states, a joyous gush of sunlight. The entire EP is glowing, full of enthusiasm and interest. It’s also another great example of technical prowess wielded by someone first and foremost committed to variety and a writing focus. ‘illumin8’ is fittingly a shining star, and I love its overall sound. I never would have expected some of this stuff to come out of a DMG, in a sense that it’s got such a distinct personality and the choices are unique, even concerning the “impressive lsdj” aspect. The leads have this sharp definition to them, and the arps are sublime, all contributing to a bright and surprisingly full scene.
I’m not a gameboy gal, but I can still tell how DefMech’s tunes show both the knowledge of how to do cool shit and the restraint of knowing when to use it. It’s clearly skillful and deliberate. He’s a great guy to talk tech with – it’s great hearing what inspired his sound, how he achieved it, and he even included the save file to this whole EP for anyone interested! ‘Near Miss’ particularly exemplifies his compositional direction and gusto, with wonderful harmonies and rhythm, seriously empowered by how it fits into the restrictions of its sound design. Honestly, I really couldn’t name a track that doesn’t stand out. The entire release is imaginative and fun, full of wonderful textured moments, and overwhelming happiness!
As we all can tell, no awards show is strictly about the music. It’s also about the presentation! Which is why our next award is….
BEST PHYSICAL CD That I Own, Specifically of a Gameboy Album
(which happens to be over 10 tracks)
(Just in case I missed something good, I’m covering all my bases here, ok?)
The second Bytedoll Records release to win an award, I was surprised when I realized yukkerom’s ‘REDLINE’ came out in 2018. Bytedoll has grown quite a lot this year, and if this album’s any indication, they also make sick CDs! This one has a really engaging pixel style, with just 2 or 3 colors and a very stylish jagged look.
yukkerom has a propensity for fast, soaring pop, which gives this record a consistency that makes it great for tossing in your car stereo and jamming out on your way to wherever you need to go. It’s shockingly versatile, not despite this, but because of it. ‘Undicemver’ uses polyrhythms and uncommon meter that stand out because it’s still this specific kind of edm influence, and ‘C-C-Burger’ starts off noisy and barren before somehow growing into a chipzel-y trance tune! That being said, ‘Promine’ is still easily my favorite tune. It’s peppy and intricate, emotive and resonant, and presses the limits of the gameboy just a bit more than the others. It makes me smile, but tugs on my heartstrings, and you’ll no doubt feel a bit of wonder when it throws out a few neat surprises.
Don’t sleep on this!
3D63’s ‘Electric Pawer’ album is defined by infectious pulses, both the waveform kind and the steady rhythm that pushes forward. It’s also defined by cat puns. Another consistent gameboy release, when compared to yukkerom this is somehow both less in-your-face but in another way more. Also: It comes with cool stickers!!!
I’m highlighting ‘Rise & Strike’ because I think it best demonstrates the paradox I was describing. It’s such a slow burn, simple, but so effective. There’s just such an intensity and pull to each element that doesn’t seem to be there if you just analyze a small part of what’s going on. The minimal elements mark this maximized execution. I love how 3D63 relies on that full dragged out conflict and resolution, and it’s a fantastic example of how to craft a strong piece that seriously impacts me without a fast pace or killer theory chops or blowing my mind with complicated sounds. It’s all movement and organization.
No awards show strictly gives out trophies to the albums, of course. How would that even work? CDs don’t have hands! I hope. Now, it’s time for our award to go to the people! The artists!
The GAMERS ahahaha god damn it I can’t keep a straight face saying that, what kind of script… who wrote this?
It is my honor to give out:
The MOST PROLIFIC Chip Artist (of 2018) Award
(I don’t have a funny name for this one, sorry, I’m too tired)
Néstor Ovilla, better known as “Crab Sound”, is an enthusiastic, kind, and incredibly fun chipmusician hailing from south Mexico. He got on my radar when appearing on ChipWIN Volumes 5 and 6, with punchy and crunchy LSDj tunes, equal parts bassy and bizarre. If this is all you know him for, however, you’ll be surprised by the variety in his musical output. I remember when his ‘Memorias y movimientos’ release came out in the final week of 2017 – it is often smooth, melodic and reflective. I quickly discovered it to be one of the very few albums I can completely get lost in, forgetting where I am or that I’m even listening. I can even fall asleep listening (really rare for me). Ovilla went on to turn this into the beginning of 4 full length albums released over the course of a year (one under the alias “Theory Person”). Each with its own fascinating personality, Ovilla’s music shines, with interesting horizontal movement, texture, and poetry. He’s also been creating some downright amazing artwork, sometimes even for other chiptune releases.
As per the awards show’s standard, I’ve highlighted a track from each 2018 release. ‘Jóvenes Teporochos Mutantes’ (and much of ‘Data.creatures’) is ballsy, boisterous, badass, unprecedented. It’s like, my favorite thing ever? Just hear it for yourself, you’ll know what I mean. ‘Cangrejos de nieve’ (and the experimental ‘Theory Person’ project as a whole) is on the other hand, dreamy, sweet, pink. Ovilla’s rhythmic feel and melodic impulses are still recognizable, but bear a newfound openness. It’s much more freeform, yet this also feels more deliberate in a way, embellished by the slower clearer movement. Despite the different moniker, our insights into Ovilla’s style here can easily carry over to his gameboy tunes, especially timeless anthems like ‘Super Helado!’. Spirited but nonetheless calming, it captures enjoyment in a much more pure sense, and encountering it made me realize how much Crab Sound’s music has helped me. It’s delightful, and new, music for when I don’t have enough spoons, music for when I want nothing more than just music.
With so much to offer just this past year alone, and bringing such a unique voice to this scene, I can think of no one more well-deserved to win an award tonight. Thank you, Néstor.
Joe Swensen is another artist who’s had a huge year, less in sheer quantity but even more in how adaptable their approach is and how much time I’ve spent with their tunes. Joe’s releases are astounding, with mad good composing chops and a rich intensive diversity that allows every track to be comprised of cohesive elements and individualized energy. I love how their decisions are passionate and tactful, with demonstrable skill and an overwhelming sincerity. Joe released two albums this past year, ‘Melancholy With No Reason’ and ‘Away From Here’. Both dearly deserve your attention.
While you should definitely check out Joe’s substantial discography at your own pace, here are some good jumping off points:
- ‘Autumn Is With Me Once More’ possesses these pop funk sensibilities I can never get enough of in chip music – and if you like the groove, bass, and those delectable turnarounds, then you’re sure to enjoy ‘Your Rival’s Hopes and Dreams’. (‘Chase Your Own’ too! That one sounds like a DonutShoes track to me, full of weird pulse lines and Leroy Anderson incarnate)
- ‘Empty Skies / When the Moths Return’ is a stark contrast, delicately evocative of a jrpg, not just in sound but also in how it strolls along an animate path. Not only imagery, but scenery. I love this application of Swenson’s abilities, with compelling instrumentation, depth in every moment and how they react. ‘Nightfall in the Residential District’ is another example of an elegant and flowing piece, that really gets to me.
- Last but not least, ‘It’s Time To Move On’ feels so true to its title, I don’t believe I could do it justice describing why. It goes by so fast, giving so much to put so much on display. It belongs here, and it’s a great chance for some time to prepare, before we move on in the article, and more importantly as we move on from 2018.
Cat stickers are fun and all – wow that segue really would have worked better earlier – but chiptune isn’t all goofs! Even outside of our diverse and personable community, it can be so much more than just making neat music. It’s art, it’s meaningful, and this medium we’re all fond of has the potential for such special experiences. So last, but certainly not least, I’d like to highlight two musical journeys that really resonated with me. These stellar releases show how music can be dynamic, original, powerful, expressive. They’re gorgeous, outstanding among the rest – with a sense of direction and emotional intelligence that’s kaleidoscopic, and understanding.
I’m proud to present:
The D.O.P.E. G.O.K.U. Award
Phracta’s ‘Phyr’, more than anything else, feels like it’s coming from a small corner of the world. That is what this award means to me. It’s not a song, or an idea, or an emotion. It’s a location. At the end of the day, this music took me somewhere. I love this little place it drew me into, a spot on my map that I’ve now come to know so well.
I like ‘Avenge from the Future’ as the pick for an awards show performance: heartfelt, accessible, and in the moment. But if this article accomplishes anything, if I’ve convinced you to listen to something, please let it be this EP. I first discovered it through browsing the bandcamp “chiptune” tag by new (yes, really) and I am so grateful. I had the opportunity to find my own fairytale inside of it. It’s very much an indie and lo-fi release, but not always in the ways you would expect. Genre divergences, an ephemeral fantasy vibe, and the general use of time and atmosphere make this a release you can’t skim through or jump around. Listen from beginning to end for yourself, hear the perfect and imperfect, visit the populated and the natural. Come explore this beautiful and peculiar land, that’s so far away, yet held so close to my heart.
‘Comeback’ is an inherently personal album, and I encourage you to go read its description before we go further, as that’s an important part of the release. I have nothing against emotion for emotions sake, but the context for this really strikes a chord. ‘Gnossienne’ still makes me cry, and having this framework for making sense of that leads to an even stronger message conveyed. It’s more than just an illustration, too, as the story being told is woven into the musical fabric, devoted fully to conveying this narrative.
Opening with dazzling exposition that sets a wide scope, ‘Comeback’ begins its travels along a transient path, shifting from the harmonious landscape into the tumultuous roots and motives behind our journey. Raw in more than one meaning of the word, to me it captures something internal but deeply projected outward. A soundscape, a scene, but also the thoughts that comprise its creation.
And that’s just the first two tracks.
The climaxes in songs like ‘Wanderlust’ and ‘Neon’ remind me of a lo-fi Nardis’ Call (probably the most emotive dubstep album I’ve ever heard, highly recommended), and if we had a full album of that I would be singing its praises. Yet ‘Floral’ stands in between them, starting off as what could almost be a Roboctopus track, before erupting into a new idea, seeming to pour out self aware affliction considering what could have been. This album loves to push and pull, place our expectations right in view and take things away until we look at the horizons. It resembles many things, only to define itself by reaching further.
At 12 tracks, ‘Comeback’ takes its time, and for good reason, progressing with each track as the narrative unfolds. It is not only ambitious in rhythm, meter, pacing, space… not only taking risks with instrumentation (vocals!!!), chords, shimmering acoustic harmony or mechanical aural abrasion… but furthermore maximizing the impact of each, taking advantage of its full duration. Everything is written only as it serves the journey as a whole. I seriously cannot understate how one-of-a-kind this release is, in its composition, in the dedication and concepts it presents in their entirety.
I won’t spoil all of it, but I’ve highlighted ‘Blank Verse’ for two reasons. First, to me it functions as a microcosm of the kinds of bold and honest choices Offbrand (FKA Pixeltune) makes. Sound, tonality, tempo, and even a basic structure – tension and release are thoughtfully and suddenly subverted, without compromise, all in the pursuit of telling a new and important story. This piece is deconstructive and reconstructive, signalling ‘Comeback’’s evolution on a macro level, while emblematic of its courageous intimacy.
Secondly, I’ve written at length before on music dealing with a core theme of coping, not just a theme of internal struggle but moreover the relationship our music can have with that. The effect ‘Blank Verse’ has on me is similar, however, what amazes me here is how Offbrand gets at the sort of meta expression behind this so literally. I’ve never heard this done to such an extent before, and certainly not in a chip release, and it’s one of the most eye-opening ways ‘Comeback’ explores innovative storytelling. I continue to be inspired by this album’s ability, message, and self definition – how it is so direct, and developing, and real.
You’re going to reach the top of this mountain. I can’t wait.