Hello and welcome to the February edition of ‘What’s on Tap?’ After a work-related hiatus of a few months, we are back and ready to brew up a review for the ChipWIN blog! This month I have an excellent pairing of the earthy, spicy saison style with a brand new EP ‘The Mutual Promise’ from chiptune legend chibi-tech. Here w-
Yep, that’s me. Bet you’re wondering how I got into this spot, huh? Reviewing new music by chibi-tech, chiptune mad scientist and compositional hero to anyone who has even considered installing Famitracker. Well, that’s an interesting story and I’ll try to keep it short – I called dibs.
When a musician you admire releases something new, it can often feel just as intimidating as it is exciting when listening for the first time. I have heard from students and colleagues that they sometimes feel an artistic paralysis when confronted with the dreaded ‘masterpieces’ of our musical canon. Although this EP is chip music rather than a symphony for 80-piece orchestra, it is still humbling to experience chibi-tech’s skill and artistry. Thanks to my lovely artist brain, imposter syndrome also extends to writing reviews of excellent releases! My advice to those readers who may share these feelings is that, unlike the current Hearthstone meta, music composition is not a ‘solved’ equation. Everyone is unique in some way, and focusing on how to express that individuality through your music is a much better use of energy than wishing you’d written ‘Moe Moe Kyunstep’. Not everyone can be Beethoven – or chibi-tech – and that’s a good thing.
Now, let’s talk about a fabulous twelve minutes that you can cram into your earholes.
‘Tense Max Beam’ is an apt title for this track, as it explodes with energy. chibi-tech describes this release as ‘mixing darkstep DnB and trap’, and those elements are laid bare in the opening track. There are three main musical elements at work here: the legato opening melody, a chromatic rising transition, and the main portion of the track with chaotic, jittering rhythms and a heaping helping of glitched noise. Melodies in chibi-tech’s music tend to be on the shorter side, and it is refreshing to hear a slightly longer melody laid bare in the musical texture that opens ‘Tense Max Beam’. When this portion returns near the end of the track, I appreciate the extreme contrast with the previous three minutes of busy music. If I had to make any suggestions or criticisms of the opener, it would be that the two main elements never fully interact. It might have been interesting to see how the melody worked when played over the breakbeats and the bass, either in a pure form like the opening or something chopped up and glitched to match the rest of the texture.
The meat of ‘Tense Max Beam’ is the frenetic, driving section that is sure to get everyone moving at a live show. Stuttering hi-hats and a bumping kick fuse some of the elements of trap music with chibi-tech’s own style, combining with a nasty triangle synth that is a pretty good imitation of some of the characteristic snarls and glides of a Reese bass. Despite the uptempo, chaotic nature of this music, each element in the texture stands out in the mix. This aural clarity is something that I appreciate, and contributes to not inducing ear fatigue during the busiest moments in the track.
Voice samples through the 2A03 chip are peppered throughout ‘Tense Max Beam’, replacing the traditional ambient samples heard in contemporary darkstep tracks. These vocal samples are an element that strikes me as a defining feature of chibi-tech’s style. Previous releases have demonstrated some absolute wizardry at manipulating sine and square wave effects to achieve vocaloid speech sounds almost like a demoscene Hatsune Miku. I enjoy some of the sudden unexpectedness of the speech samples in this track, as the textures are usually very busy and the listener’s attention is focused elsewhere.
‘Neuromageddon’ is a grimy, intense track that explores some seriously grimy noises from the Famicom chip. chibi-tech’s vocaloid samples usually come across as playful and cute; here they are warped into guttural demonic wails that may haunt my nightmares. The introduction of ‘Neuromageddon’ manages to both set expectations and establish a texture that is deliberately avoided for the remaining duration of the track. A plaintive melody plays underneath a chaotic swirl of noise channel work, and this music could easily be the Koji Kondo underscore to some tragic moment in a Zelda cutscene. chibi-tech quickly moves away from this texture and inserts a thumping bass drum pulse that drives the rest of the track forward. In contrast to what I wrote about the first track, I think not returning to that melody just for the sake of repetition really serves ‘Neuromageddon’ well. There is a slight hint at the opening melodic contour hidden in the bass in the last 0:45, but that may even be an unintentional reference – love it either way.
Like ‘Tense Max Beam’, this track has three main sections that are easily identifiable. After the opening, the majority of the track focuses on a driving bass drum rhythm accompanied by arp tables and some gnarly bass patches. Notice, too, chibi-tech’s layering of noise channel with the kick and the subtle effectiveness of changing the pitch of those elements to match the rising and falling of the arp/bass texture. For all of the frantic textures in the first track, I believe ‘Neuromageddon’ is perhaps the more impressive of the two tracks when focusing on sound design. To achieve clarity in the mix, those noise layers gradually drop out of sync with the kick as the bass gets more active. This not only frees up room in the EQ but allows for other interesting white noise effects within the overall texture.
The third element that I cannot ignore is one of the nastiest basslines we’ve heard on a chibi-tech release. There is an art to inserting rests and pauses in music, and it is very difficult to harness that magic effectively. Not every piece can have a pause or they loose impact, and the length of rest has to be that magical duration to leave the listener on the edge of their seat. chibi-tech gives us two brief pauses around this break at 1:37, separating this moment from the rest of the music and accentuating the importance of the bass. I really enjoy how well the gliding, gritty bass integrates into the rest of the texture after the percussion and accompaniment re-enter the mix. This gives the track a very cohesive, organic feel, even if that feeling is intended to be a scary and more than a little slimy to the touch.
‘The Mutual Promise’ is a small package of intense delight from chip wizard chibi-tech. There are a lot of good things packed into just under twelve minutes of music, combining some essential elements of chibi-tech’s style with a few dark surprises along the way. Although discovering unknown artists and making new musical connections are an essential part of the small chip music scene, it is always a treat when we get to hear new music from a very popular artist and this EP does not disappoint.
Featured Beer Style Pairing: Saison / Farmhouse Ale
History: Saison – from the French ‘season’ – is a beer style with a ton of history that originates in the farms and fields of Belgium. Brewed in the winter months, saisons were intended to be consumed by farm workers as the weather warmed into summer. Traditionally brewed with pilsner malt, saisons are extremely pale in color and have a cloudy, unfiltered appearance. Belgian yeast strains give the beer a fruity aroma and subtle spiced flavor, combined with a dry finish and high level of carbonation.
I paired the saison style with chibi-tech for three reasons. First, like the chip music scene, saison brewers pride themselves on local sourcing of ingredients. Brewers (and musicians) often collaborate with other small businesses on various ingredients in their saisons, and that definitely resonates with the chip scene. Second, the extremely high level of energy and brevity of Chibi-Tech’s music reminds me of the huge carbonation and tasting experience of a new saison. These beers are effervescent, opening up the sinuses with each sip and not lingering on the palate for too long – just like this EP. Finally, I like to describe a saison as the craft beer drinker’s gateway to enjoying sour beer. Some saisons can have a slight sour quality to them, and if you enjoy that aspect it’s only a short hop to the wonderful, expensive world of sour beers. Chibi-Tech is a bit of a gateway artist to the chip scene as well. This is not simple ‘NES music’ used as an afterthought or latching onto a trend. Chibi-Tech is an ambitious artist whose medium happens to be the Famicom sound chip, and if you like these tunes, there is a vast world of chip sounds waiting for you to explore.
Recommendations: This section is tough for the saison, as the style was very nearly extinct until being revitalized by the growing craft beer industry in the past 20 years. Most of these brews are bottle conditioned, meaning there will be yeast still fermenting in the bottle – tip it sideways as you pour and leave the last quarter inch in the bottle if you don’t want to enjoy the yeast sediment! These are local beers not necessarily intended for mass distribution and fast consumption like a fresh IPA. My suggestion is for you to explore your local small breweries and brewpubs, or find the best local craft beer bar and watch for a saison or anything listed as ‘farmhouse ale’ on their tap list. With that said, there are a few semi-widely available offerings that you can track down and take home:
Brasserie Dupont – Saison Dupont: the classic, and arguably still the best example of the style available in America
Brewery Ommegang – Hennepin: not too expensive and a good starter beer that you will probably find in a larger store
Boulevard – Saison Brett: excellent saison with a bit of an edge towards the lactic sour flavors
Boulevard – Tank 7: lots of recent focus on this brand from Boulevard, and it’s a solid brew
Dogfish Head – Noble Rot and Saison du BUFF: availability varies by season and these aren’t ‘classic’ saisons, but they are good brews
Goose Island – Sofie: depending on your location this might be a $30 22oz bottle, but it’s a good one and becoming easier to find on shelves
Whalez, brah! – Track these down on your next beercation if you can find them:
Crooked Stave (CO) – Surette Provision Saison, Vieille Artisanal Saison
Epic Brewing Co. (UT) – Utah Sage Saison
Foundation (ME) – Wanderlust
Funkwerks (CO) – Saison
Hill Farmstead (VT) – Arthur, Anna, Nordic Saison, Vera Mae, and the Artic Saison collaboration (under the Grassroots Brewing label)
Jester King (TX) – Das Wunderkind! Saison
Lost Abbey (CA) – Carnevale
Prairie Artisan Ales (OK) – Somewhere
Tired Hands (PA) – SaisonHands, and MANY others
Thank you again for joining me for ‘What’s On Tap?’ and I hope you enjoy both the music and the beer! Please remember two very important things – support musical artists and always drink responsibly. Cheers!