What’s On Tap – Roboctopus

- Posted June 5th, 2017 by

Hello and welcome to the first sun-filled summer edition of What’s on Tap. This month I am pleased to be able to review the brand spankin’ new album ‘Your Heart is a Pie Chart’ by the one and only Roboctopus, released on the Cheapbeats netlabel. Not only do I get to talk about new music from one of my favorite artists, but we get to publish the review on the exact album release date of June 5th! Normally these reviews publish a few weeks to a month after a release, and this is an exciting opportunity for me to give a guided tour through an album that most everyone will not have heard yet. Grab a cold beverage and load up your Bluetooth speaker on the deck – we’re kicking off summer right… now!

Part man, part machine, and all mollusk, Alabama-based musician Michael Allen has been releasing high quality chiptunes under the Roboctopus moniker since 2011. His previous two albums – ‘Disco.txt’ and ‘Jelly’ – are filled with danceable jams that display his mastery of Little Sound DJ running on the original Nintendo Game Boy. Catchy hooks, rhythmic energy, and an insatiable love for pitch bends are all hallmarks of a Roboctopus tune, and his new album does not disappoint in this regard. It has been nearly three years since we have been graced with a full-length Roboctopus release, so let’s dig in to the new stuff post haste.

The title track ‘Your Heart is a Pie Chart’ opens with a short melodic idea that repeats throughout the track. This motif is kept fresh in our ears by subtle changes in the harmony and the types of accompaniment that occur around the figure. There are some exceptional subtle tweaks to the standard pulse channel patches here, such as adding high vibrato to the offbeat figures that almost simulates a warm and fuzzy analog synth tone. Notice, too, that there is a lot of activity between the notes in the repeating musical theme. Pitch bends connect individual notes together and trail off at the end of lines, blurring the texture in a very pleasant way. My favorite moment is the transition that happens at 1:50, taking advantage of some quirks in LSDJ to create some fantastic glitchy noises. This active texture continues under the repeating melodic idea, neatly tying up the main idea with a breakdown/transition figure.

Slow Motion Sunset’ opens with a spacey, ethereal texture with a wide stereo field. Roboctopus flexes a bit of LSDJ muscle by exploiting left/right panning, which helps create the illusion of busy musical activity while keeping channels to a minimum. The music in this track has a melancholy, almost bittersweet quality to it, which is one of many emotions that might be evoked when watching a sunset. While the ska-like offbeats and rhythmic drive remain, this introspective slower tempo also helps set the track apart from the rest of the energetic music on the album. There is a great warbly wave channel lead featured here, and unlike the opening track’s repetitive motive, the lead line develops quite a bit over time. There are also a few moments of freer melodic design in the vein of a synth solo, which again bring a bit of freshness to the texture.

Warm analog tones return in ‘Goodnight Nobody,’ with quick volume swells that create a subtle pulsing effect in the texture. The introduction gradually introduces dissonance before shifting to music that was quite unexpected given what we have heard so far, and I love it! Some noise channel wizardry in the second breakdown creates a noise almost like a balloon pop or ping pong ball bounce – very Depeche Mode! Combining some of the elements of the first two tracks, ‘Goodnight Nobody’ develops repeating motives a bit farther and explores a few unexpected musical spaces before ending abruptly. It would have been easy to copy and paste the basic chains a few more times, but sometimes brevity is more effective than trying to stretch out music simply for the sake of filling time. I think this track lasts exactly as long as it needs to without overstaying its welcome.

Strong, driving rhythms bring a high energy to ‘Knife Rider,’ which channels the best and cheesiest of 80’s TV theme intros. This track’s construction is the rhythmic equivalent of the Shepard tone: eternal builds and risers that never quite seem to end. Each time the phrase is nearly at its peak, the energy dissipates into another gradual rise. While this may certainly be an intentional compositional choice, this is essentially the audio equivalent of having to sneeze and never quite getting it out. Several neat resonant filter sweeps accompany these accumulations of energy, and a payoff is finally reached at 2:45 with a return to the main melodic idea with a hint of new accompaniment. While I certainly enjoy the rhythmic energy and the musical ideas in ‘Knife Rider,’ the concept of eternal crescendo is incredibly difficult to convey effectively and I applaud Roboctopus for what he does with the limited musical resources of the DMG-01.

‘Waste LAN’ opens with a very brief introduction that leads to a texture full of pauses and staccato notes, something we have not heard a lot of on this album so far. These tiny spaces in the music are like a breath of fresh air, and the track immediately stands out among the others when listening in album order. This is also perhaps the most accessible, danceable track on the album despite the slightly slower tempo. There is a lot of variety between the sections with just enough repetition to not sound disjunct or rambling. Subtle pitch bends make their return throughout, and take notice of the beautiful texture that happens around 1:41. My favorite moment of the entire album occurs at 2:35; where the previous track was a constant charging of energy, it seems to nearly all have been saved up for the arrival points in ‘Waste LAN.’ I would suggest listening to these two tracks back to back for the optimal listening experience – it really does create a sense of ‘Ah ha, NOW I understand where Roboctopus was heading…’ when hearing these two in album order.

Roboctopus closes ‘Your Heart is a Pie Chart’ with a 6-minute number that turns the idea of the operatic overture on its head, appearing at the end rather than the beginning of the show. Many of the important musical textures and development ideas from the previous five tracks are used in ‘Give My Regards to the Tigers,’ which also features a return to the repeated motif from the first track. Roboctopus skillfully blends driving dance rhythms, introspective slower music, and slightly dissonant glitchy transitions into a collage that somehow feels much shorter than its running time. I love the sparse nature of the section at 3:16; the contrast between this section and the intense musical activity that surrounds it is very effective. Although some of the music seems familiar, this track is certainly not a haphazard copy and paste of patterns from other LSDJ save files. Rather, it functions more as an alternative history to some of the important elements of the album, answering the question ‘What happens if X accompaniment played under Y melody’ and so forth. I also like the slightly understated ending that doesn’t reach for a big Broadway finish, but dies away in a very organic fashion.

Returning to the collective consciousness of the chip realm just in time for summer, Roboctopus brings his unique brand of LSDJ mastery in his latest release ‘Your Heart is a Pie Chart.’ Danceable numbers coexist with a bit of quirkyness and some weighty introspectiveness on the slower tracks, combining into a very coherent release. Roboctopus touts his trademark pitch bends, crazy beautiful LSDJ patches, and rhythmic energy throughout this album, sure to please any fan of his previous work. ‘Your Heart is a Pie Chart’ releases via netlabel Cheapbeats this June – make sure to grab your copy and a cold beverage to enjoy on the deck this summer!

Featured Beer Style Pairing: Radler / Shandy

History: Radlers are a mixture of beer and (usually) carbonated beverage. The exact origins of the style are murky, but these drinks have a long history in German-speaking countries. German radlers are a blend – usually 50/50 – of light pilsner beer and sparkling lemonade, creating a refreshing drink that can be consumed in mass quantities on a hot day. The British take on this style is the shandy, which uses lemon soda blended with a light beer style. Like many other moments in our history, the American version of this style is the result of a slight misunderstanding; we use lemonade instead of lemon soda in our shandies. Radlers/shandies tend to be very low in alcohol content given the original use of lighter beer styles and the fact that around half of the drink is non-alcoholic. ABV typically ranges from 2.5% to 4% for most of the beverages on the market, with only a scarce few pushing into the 6%-7% range.

Recommendations: As a craft beer nerd I will be honest and say that a shandy is probably one of the last things I would order at a bar if given the choice of anything else. However, the huge variety of flavor combinations and brewers’ willingness to experiment has led me to several of these brews that I really enjoy. Many of the American shandies have lemon as their blended flavor, but brewers are expanding to ginger ale, grapefruit, and even other flavors like orange or cream soda. Like the new Roboctopus album, a radler is perfectly light, refreshing, and a little bit of bubbly for a hot summer day.

Wide Distribution:
Boulevard – Ginger Lemon Radler (and Cranberry Orange Radler); love what Boulevard is doing with their line of radlers
Harpoon – UFO Big Squeeze Shandy
Leinenkugels – Grapefruit Shandy; liquid fruity pebbles
Sam Adams – Porch Rocker
Shiner – Ruby Redbird
Sprecher – Orange Radler
Stieglbrauerei – Stiegl Radler Grapefruit
Traveler – Curious Traveler (and many others in their line of radlers)

Regional Distribution:
Erie Brewing (PA) – Soleil Shandy
Great Divide (CO) – Roadie Grapefruit Radler
Hoppin’ Frog (OH) – Turbo Shandy; one of the few high ABV shandies, clocking in at a beastly 7%!
Hopworks (OR) – Totally Radler
Parallel 49 (CAN) – Tricycle Radler
Victory (PA) – Cage Radler

Whalez, brah! – Track these down on your next beercation if you can find them:
Like last month’s hefeweizen style, radlers and shandies are not exactly bucket list beers. One that I would definitely add to this list is Owl’s Brew out of New York. They are actually a tea company that specializes in brewing mixers for cocktails while also creating radlers with their blends. The unique mouthfeel of tea combined with carbonated light lagers and wheat beers is quite unique. The next time you find yourself on the east coast, I would highly recommend ‘That’s My Jam’ which is their amber ale blended with darjeeling tea.

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!

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