This one's a classic. Before Covox went half-EDM, he made straight-up GameBoy music with a loud-garage mastering aesthetic. The "Infiltrator EP" was put out at the tail end of 2007, and includes some pretty heavy, melodic bangers. Closing anthem "Switchblade Squadron" is probably the most accessible and recognizable, but the atmospheric table-setter "Psychic Youth" is worth checking out too. "Jet Alone" is a personal favorite of mine, with great build-up and a sweet bass-melody interplay. While not flawless (the repetitive "Kickflip" comes to mind), the EP has some of Covox's best work to date--which is pretty good for a six-year-old release.
Not many artists can claim to have such a moody, atmospheric debut as Harrison Lemke's "Space Hymns." In 2009, the native Texan put out a lo-fi and low-key collection of space-themed chip music under the name Brother Android. Along with the "Scientific Satellite EP" released the following year, the community found themselves with a new, distinctive voice that stood shyly away from the legions of fist-pumping LSDJ ravers.
After more successful EPs and a new LP, Harrison decided to go back and expand the Space Hymnal into a full-fledged space opera. The result--a 2013 "Space Theodicy Edition"--is out now in digital formats on BandCamp, with a limited run of physical CDs and actual floppy discs underway as well. In late October, I interviewed this thoughtful Android about old memories, performing live, and folk music. Here's what he had to say:
TCB: Space Hymns, your first album, came out in 2009. What made you want to go back and expand the tunes for a re-release?
BA: It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. After making the Scientific Satellite EP, I had the idea of making several similar releases that would each take a couple of songs from Space Hymns and recontextualize them to build a vague sort of narrative. I never really got around to it, though, in part because I didn't have that many old tracks lying around. A major element of Space Hymns for me is that it consists mostly of old tracks that weren't made to go together but that maybe start to cohere and become more than the sum of their parts when sequenced and titled a certain way. A lot of time has passed and my old website has disappeared, so I now have the material and the impetus to put my old idea into action. Also, I've always wanted to do a release that has an absurdly large number of tracks on it, and maybe this won't be quite absurd but it's a lot of tracks.
TCB: How do you feel about the original album today? Does it bring back a lot of memories?
BA: Yeah, it brings back a lot of memories. Of being simultaneously befuddled by and in love with the tracker interface, for one thing. And of tinkering with Game Maker projects, because some of those songs were written as soundtracks to games I or other people made when I was in high school. As for how it holds up, I really wonder how the compositions sound to other people because I feel like they must seem almost childish, maybe a bit awkward. But there's a naivety to the album that I like; I hadn't composed enough to fall into using formulas. And I tried to make the sounds other tracker musicians made but I couldn't figure out how, so it kind of has its own thing going there.
TCB: Your last LP, "In Death a Dream of Color," is one of my favorites, although I didn't like it very much at first. It was also an interesting development of your style, with elements of progressive music and spirituality... do these tunes change how you look at your older work today?
BA: Well, once again, on the one hand I feel like my older material is more naive and lacks craftsmanship, but on the other hand maybe it's more exciting because it's less formulaic and it doesn't try as hard. As for the themes... having a theme really helps me compose and organize material. The themes can be very important and meaningful to me, but it doesn't have to be that way, and just because I've done a very serious release or two, doesn't mean I've reevaluated my releases that are about spaceships or math or whatever. Right now I don't feel like writing a dense concept album about death anxiety; I'd like to do something fun instead. (Though that could easily change by the time I get around to planning another release.)
TCB: Switching gears a little: you played your first live show last September, in Austin. What was that like? I remember you saying it was a learning experience...
BA: It didn't really go like I intended it to, but the audience was great and I felt encouraged even though it didn't go well by my standards. I'd like to do another chip music show sometime, but I want to prepare something more interesting and better suited to the setting.
TCB: Lastly, where do you take Brother Android from here? I enjoyed the new folk album you put out recently. How's the chip scene treating you these days? Any favorite recent albums from other artists?
BA: I'm glad you like the folk music, though I consider that its own thing (and in my head, Brother Android is actually the side-project). In light of that, there's definitely more folk stuff in the works right now. I've also been working on some NES material recently for a soundtrack, and I really love that sound chip and am finding it inspiring to work with, so I'd like to do some stuff that uses that. With Black Gate I kind of got to the point where it doesn't resemble chip music at all any more, and I'd like to simplify now - not because the genre labels are important but because I have a much easier time working under restrictions, and because I love the sounds of the simple waveforms of course. As for releases by other chip musicians... honestly I don't stay on top of what's coming out very well. But I have enjoyed this year's releases from chalkboards, Jay Tholen, an0va, and National Broadcast Network.
Hot off the success of the Super Hexagon soundtrack, the intense Irish lass known as Chipzel is back with "Spectra," a new album with definite highs and lows. I'm a huge fan of her 2010 release "Disconnected," which was a pretty fantastic explosion of emotional GameBoy tunes. Like "Disconnected," the new album has ten tracks; but unlike her previous effort, "Spectra" is a bit of a mixed bag.
Chipzel wastes no time with the opening songs--the title track and "Tokyo Skies" bang along with sweet bass and harmony work. "Forged in the Stars" keeps things moving until the nicely atmospheric interlude, "Formed in the Clouds," takes over. Track number five "Only Human" is probably one of the best things Chipzel has ever written, chock-full of hard-hitting emotional melodies and tight song structure.
Unfortunately, the second half of the record isn't quite as inspired. The five-minute-plus "Evolution" doesn't really do much to justify its running time, and the repetitive "Veteran" is a bit of a missed opportunity. Chipzel also decided to mix and master the entire album herself this time, and although it's not terrible, the slightly-off mix could use some fine-tuning.
I have one more gripe: the ridiculously good bonus track "Sunday" isn't part of the main tracklisting. If you only listen to one song from this artist, make sure it's that first bonus track. Light and well-composed, "Sunday" is a definite high point in Chipzel's career.
Overall, "Spectra" is a pretty solid album with some of this girl's best work to date; but a few missed opportunities hold it back from earning all the hype it received.
Swedish demoscene legend Zabutom is back with new material. The aptly-named "New Beginnings" is a pretty nice EP full of unique GameBoy-based tunes. The title track is especially sweet, with a nice sense of melody and progression. Longtime fans might notice a departure from the classic Zabutom style, but you might also recognize "Trisynaptic Loop" from the old 8 Bit Collective days. Fellow demoscener Dubmood also steps in with a massive remix of the third song, "GBminimal."
This one's been a long time coming. Philly-based GameBoy math-rocker An0va has finally released his latest work: "Ego Depletion." Boasting six tunes, it's a solid and thoughtful effort, with a couple of standout tracks. I remember the happy, energetic "Flow" from years ago, and thankfully, it's included here in a newly-mastered form. The title track, which closes off the record, is a nice enough melody to wrap things up with, but it's unfortunately drenched in a huge amount of reverb. Regardless, An0va has done a pretty good job overall with what he calls "8-bit for your soul."
As the one-man J. Arthur Keenes Band, Dan McLay has been a consistently unique voice in the chip music scene for a pretty good while now. He has a knack for writing extremely polished and thoughtful bedroom-pop, and the production quality is up there with the best. With ten tracks, "Mighty Social Lion" could be called his first proper LP, and it's certainly his longest release to date. Loyal fans shouldn't hold their breath either--his latest album is another solid effort.
All tongue-in-cheek Bieber comparisons aside, the swoon-worthy McLay is a master of multi-instrument GameBoy pop. Electric guitar and real drums are worked nicely into the mix. Pretty much any of these songs could fit comfortably on the soundtrack of an indie film. Opener "Plea Bargain" does come across as a bit of a shaky start with its glitched-out, hard-to-decipher vocal gimmick, but the music itself isn't bad. One of my biggest gripes with this record is the mixing on certain songs, which occasionally heads for overkill. Dan really likes to fill out both speakers, but sometimes there's just way too much busy panning going on. The first two tracks are especially full.
Regardless, the soaring melodic perfection of "Congratulations" still comes through very well. Dan puts his vocal talent to good use, even if he doesn't quite reach the sweet pacing and songwriting of his last two releases. Quirky, vague lyrics also make a welcome return. The calm "Worth Keeping" has nicely melodic guitar work, while "Under Construction" is a fun tune that even throws in some ooh-and-aah backup for good measure.
Six-minute closer "The Doors" wraps things up without being excessive, as Dan sings, "If I waste my life, can I have yours? / I'll sweep the deck and mend the sores / When the lights go out, I'll lock the doors on my own". Keenes may be a one-man band, but his quirky brand of alt-pop is definitely worth checking out.