Welcome back to ‘What’s on Tap?’ where we explore all sorts of pleasurable sensory experiences and pine over the last days of summer. This month I have the pleasure to review an artist whose work I really enjoy (Petriform) and a beer style that is in perfect season right now (Oktoberfest). Combining these two will be certain to please, and I hope you will seek out both the album and some of the beers listed at the end of the review.
Released in August, Petriform’s latest album ‘Don’t Worry, You’re Great!’ is an uplifting and cheerful collection of 13 tracks packed to the brim with catchy melodies. One of the things that makes this release unique in the realm of chip music is the artful combination of chip sounds from Famitracker with guitar and vocoder-laced vocal tracks. Not every song features the voice – and Petriform includes the instrumentals in the full album download – but those that do contain lyrics that tell interesting stories, and the voice blends among the chip synth in a beautiful tapestry of sound.
cover art by Petriform
This album opens with beautiful single channel echoes before the bass and drums enter with a huge amount of energy. I really enjoy the vocoder melody, and there are some great counterpoint lines in the square wave lead underneath the vocals. ‘Don’t Worry’ is very short, but it acts like an aural appetizer for the album we’re about to experience.
‘Super Dog Park’ is a variation on the opening of the previous track, with a very traditional texture for chip music: arps, driving bass and drums, and strong melodic sensibilities. The mixing on this entire album is fantastic, and really shines through in this track. Each instrument sits in its own space in the mix and all of the lines are clear. There are still a few months left in the year, but I’m going to be bold and call this the best lo-fi dog bark sample of 2016.
New textures abound in ‘Unit for Rent’, which is a nice aural change of pace. The vocals are again a lush, beautiful addition to the track, and the way the synth lines complement the vocoder is quite sublime. This track also has a great mixture of staccato and legato sections, which helps keep the listener engaged and does not overwhelm with the same texture for 4+ minutes.
Musical motifs are frequently re-used on this album, and ‘Dog Sullivan’ has an interesting variation on the rhythms from the previous track. This is akin to a pop punk song in chip form, with many guitar-like lines and even a ‘woah-oh’ in the high, warbly synth during what would be the chorus. The stripped down statement of the main melody near the end is great, and the false ending is very much in the rock/punk musical toolbox.
One of the unique aspects of this album is the introduction to each track, where they are all completely different. Petriform has also put a lot of work into the note velocities on this album, and these minute details really help bring the music to life. ‘World’s Best Waterslide’ gives us another new intro but largely remains in the same vein as the previous tracks. My favorite part of this tune is the new section at 1:49 with legato lines and a fast, sweeping accompaniment.
Like the previous track, ‘A+ Flutter’ begins with a frenetic introduction. However, this time the sounds continue instead of morphing into altogether different music. Faster harmonic rhythm – the rate that chords change – and that fluttering texture give this track a sense of urgency that is largely absent on the rest of the album. The thinned texture at 2:21 is effective at grabbing the listener’s attention again, followed by a neat pitch bend effect in the voice.
‘Medicine’ opens with excellent pulse width modulation in the introduction, gradually adding pitches to the texture over time. The lyrics are slightly melancholy, and this is reflected in the music with the subtle, beautiful dissonance of maj7 chords. The last chord is absolutely glorious and I wanted it to last a bit longer, but Petriform clearly intends the chord to lead immediately into the next track. To my ears, ‘Medicine’ seems to be the foundation or the central pillar of the album for reasons that become clear later in this review.
‘Scuttlebug Millionaire’ is a logical continuation of the previous track, and the transition is seamless when listening to them back to back. The chord progression is very similar, with slightly faster harmonic rhythm in this version, accompanied by the ska-like offbeats from ‘Dog Sullivan’. Subtle changes in texture and tempo manage to make this sound like a completely new track after the first 30 seconds (rather than an instrumental version of ‘Medicine’), and the entrance of a high-pitched lead in the last third of the track is a fine musical moment.
This track opens with a very retro sound in the introduction, and would not be out of place underscoring an opening NES montage. Drums and bass kick track into overdrive, while the vocals are a story of punk rebellion mixed with a tinge of nostalgia. Lyrically, ‘…Mauve Avenger’ reminds me of Kris Roe’s work with The Ataris, and are my favorite words that appear on the album. I also love the ‘Get real!’ vocal shouts, almost like the Prof. Sakamoto ‘NINJA or DIE’ samples from last month’s review.
‘Bwark?’ opens with a volume swell effect that we’ve heard a few times, and has a fantastic accompaniment that I can only describe as resembling pitched rototoms (as heard at 1:44). The legato melodic lines throughout this track are gorgeous, both in solo sections and accompanying the voice. Dropping out the drums from time to time helps keep this track’s texture fresh, and a slight tempo shift for the coda is a nice effect. If this change happened a little earlier, I think the song would not overstay its welcome with another 30-45 seconds of additional music.
‘I’m Gonna Fly (Pt. 1)’ turns the musical formula of this album on its head, with an immediate vocal entrance instead of after a lengthy synth introduction. Perhaps we as listeners have been conditioned by the road map of the previous tracks, but on my first listen, I spent the entire time expecting the vocoder to reappear. The soaring vocal lines are all too brief, serving as bookends for some very nice synth work. The melodies on this album are all quite good, but I think the strongest ones appear in this track.
Part 2 is a really interesting variation/new take on part 1’s music, while also bringing back the opening theme from ‘Don’t Worry’. The faster tempo and texture really brings out the V-bVI deceptive cadence figure from the first section, and I love that high arp line in the background around 1:00. My single favorite moment on the album is the creative texture at 1:08, with each line bouncing between high/middle/low registers. Trying to focus on an individual line is a dizzying experience in the best way possible. Perhaps the most unique feature of this track is the bluesy, heavy moment right after these lines. I almost expected the track to get even heavier, but Petriform wisely reigns in the energy so that the track flows well from beginning to end.
Petriform cleverly splits the album title into the first and last tracks; make sure to play them back to back to see how they are musically linked. Brief rests in the melody give the music room to breathe, in contrast to so much constant action throughout the album. ‘You’re Great!’ has a nasty bassline at 1:43 and a shredding solo afterward. The solo has some GREAT guitar-like lines – I want an album of dramatic music like this section An interesting shift in tone happens for the last third of the song immediately after the solo, recapping the happy/melancholy vocoder textures. I was expecting another shift to a faster tempo and/or the false ending that happens a few times on the album, but ‘You’re Great!’ ends in an entirely unexpected and ultimately satisfying way.
After finishing this review, it took me quite a while to fully process my feelings on this album, which was quite surprising given the straightforward happy thread that weaves throughout most of the tracks. I finally realized that I was making the association with the vocoder and the maj7 chords in ‘Medicine’ with Laurie Anderson’s seminal ‘O Superman’, which also prominently features both of those elements. Although I still feel some of the bittersweet and sadness that I associate with ‘O Superman’, I believe that ‘Medicine’ is key to the message of this album. Negative things may happen, but always be mindful that they will pass (i.e. take your medicine and think happy thoughts). In short, Petriform’s musical message to all of us – don’t worry, you’re great! – is about riding out the negative feelings because positive ones will soon emerge. This album was far deeper than it appeared on the surface, both musically and thematically, and I hope that you will take the time to work through the tracks because they are worth the effort.
Featured Beer Style Pairing: Oktoberfest/Märzen
History: Oktoberfest beers find their roots in the brewing tradition of Germany and Austria. Oktoberfest is the contemporary name for the Märzen (March) style of beer that is coppery to gold in color, with a mild hop profile and a toasted caramel sweetness from Munich malt. Before the invention of refrigeration, German brewers found that the hot summer months were not conducive to brewing beer. Historically, this style was brewed in the spring – March, hence the name – and kept in cold storage in caves during the summer. Despite the contemporary association with the Oktoberfest celebration, this style is intended to be enjoyed in late August through September and not actually in October.
Recommendations: Paste recently published a list of the 55 Best Oktoberfest/Märzen beers in a blind taste test, which is a great starting point for those inclined towards lists. This is a tricky style to get right, and I have found very few American craft breweries that manage to get the balance correct between the malt, hops, and sweetness of the authentic German beers. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am an employee of Great Lakes Brewing Company and these views are entirely my own. They should not be interpreted as an endorsement by GLBC.
Authentic German Brewers
Ayinger ‘Oktober Fest-Märzen’
Spaten ‘Oktoberfestbier Ur-Märzen’ (my favorite of these)
Bells Brewery ‘Octoberfest Beer’
Samuel Adams ‘Octoberfest’
Sierra Nevada ‘Oktoberfest’
Yuengling ‘Yuengling Oktoberfest’
Boulevard Brewing ‘Bob’s ’47 Oktoberfest’
Firestone Walker ‘Oaktoberfest’
Great Lakes Brewing Company ‘Oktoberfest’
Harpoon ‘Octoberfest Beer’
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!