I feel like x Critical Strike x has been criminally underrated for far too long. His 2016 release ‘Never let go of your dreams’ is one of the most quintessentially “Chiptune” albums you’ll find, from the overall message of doing what you love with a smile to the combination of chirpy, harmonic melodies and happy hardcore bass. In the 5-year gap between this and his last release ‘Starfighter’ in 2011, x Critical Strike x must have been busy as this is a 19-track monster! I’ve been lucky enough to see him perform live, as well as an absolutely stellar ChipBattles showing, and I want everyone else to check him out.
‘Never let go of your dreams’ opens with its title track, setting the tone for a bouncy ride full of good vibes. Major-key harmonies and arpeggios build up to a chorus of sampled crowds shouting “Never let go of your dreams!” The album’s theme could not be clearer and for such a large release, a well-established theme is important in keeping the listener engaged. x Critical Strike x’s composition skills are on display right from the start, making use of a wide variety of LSDj instruments to fill every bit of available space and mix up simple melodies with pitch bends, vibrato and arpeggio chords.
The bright, positive theme continues in tracks like ‘Believe in Yourself’ and ‘Don’t Give Up.’ These upbeat tunes show a great deal of complexity and creativity, with subtle melodic touches that need to be heard to be really understood. I could say, “transforming melodic interludes into arpeggios like many musicians use vibrato adds a unique texture that I haven’t really heard anywhere else,” but that wouldn’t be as fun as just checking it out! You’ll see what I mean, and bounce in your seat while you do.
Another aspect of ‘Never Let Go of Your Dreams’ that you don’t hear in many other Chiptune albums is the addition of vocals. ‘Stage collapse’ and ‘Best friends forever’ feature the vocals of Emma Tate, adding a real nightclub feel in a way that many overlook. It can be difficult for purely instrumental music to really connect with people, but with lyrics like “We got top 8 on Starcraft two, I bought red and you bought blue, When I level up I wait till you do, cause games are so much better when played with you,” I’m taken back to hanging out with my friends in a way that only direct references to a game’s musical themes would be able to do otherwise. Plus, the crowd-shouts return with “We! Are! Best Friends Forever!” I hope this track makes a live appearance soon as the audience will definitely shout along. On the other hand, if you prefer your chipmusic vocal-free, instrumental versions are included towards the end of the album.
While at its heart this is a happy hardcore album, there are a few tracks that differ from the formula, drop the tempo and add a more industrial edginess. The same creative and technical composing is very present, but ‘The war machine’ and ‘The Absolute Power of Wilfred Fizzlebang’ (which remains one of my favourite ever titles) show that the UK’s most positive chiptuner has a dark side too. The slower tempo allows for more complex use of LSDj’s wavetables, showing that there’s more to this album than fancy pulse-wave work.
When these sections hit, it’s a very pleasant change of pace and breaks the expectation that you’re in for a solid hour(!) of the same sounds, well-produced as they may be. My personal musical tastes match with the heavier parts of the album so I can definitely appreciate a good bass-wobble to counteract the liberal helping of major harmonies throughout.
An unexpected bonus at the end of the ride comes in the form of a cover version! Rymdkraft’s ‘When I wake up’ gets the x Critical Strike x treatment, making me want a true collaboration between two of the scenes happiest melodic artists more than ever! The track may be one of the shortest on the album at a little under three minutes, but their styles of bouncy, simple-but-effective melodies complement each other so well that I think they should get to work on a Critkraft release right away. Both artists understand the ‘less is more’ mentality but x Critical Strike x’s well-optimised composition style adds a fullness to Rymdkraft’s tune that I wouldn’t say was “missing” in the original, but it’s a really nice touch that fits well in the theme of this album.
Overall, my personal pick from ‘Never let go of your dreams’ would have to be ‘Stage Collapse’ featuring Emma Tait. Sandwiched between two bright, bounce-tastic tracks, this one is a little more serious and down to business, with a strong nightclub pulse and Emma’s vocals adding a unique touch that makes me feel like maybe Chiptune can make it into the mainstream music scene. From a technical perspective, it’s refreshing to see relatively simple LSDj patches being used in creative and powerful ways. Subtle changes to the pitch and timbre of the percussion create a natural feel that’s difficult to achieve in a genre dominated by ‘boom-tss-boom-tss’ drumkit samples.
One of the major benefits of LSDj over anything but the most modern samplers is the ability to create rich cymbal sounds out of simple white noise. It might be relatively insignificant compared to the strong, melodic pulse-waves and while many of the ‘ghost notes’ might be subtle in the background, it speaks volumes of x Critical Strike x’s production skills that they’re present.
I would absolutely recommend ‘Never let go of your dreams’ to anybody even considering exploring the Chiptune genre. There’s aspects throughout that will appeal to gamers, clubbers and production nerds alike. At 19 tracks and over an hour in length, its consistent quality in varying styles stands out as a real achievement.
‘Never let go of your dreams’ is available now! Find out more, plus stream and purchase x Critical Strike x’s music below.