November 29, 2013

Interview - Brother Android Returns to the Stars

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.

You can check out Brother Android's work here:

November 9, 2013

Review - "Spectra" (Chipzel)

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.

SCORE: 7.5 out of 10 - "Good"

October 23, 2013

Zabutom - "New Beginnings"

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."

October 8, 2013

An0va - "Ego Depletion"

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."

August 10, 2013

Review - "Mighty Social Lion" (J. Arthur Keenes)

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.

SCORE: 7.6 out of 10 - "Good"

July 22, 2013

Chip + Charity 3 Bundle, with Free Codes

Starting today, Groupees is hosting a brand new Chip + Charity bundle. For a little money going to a big cause, you'll get access to some great tunes from the likes of Chipzel and An0va, and you'll also be treated to the brand new album from Xyce (Xylo and Cerror). But wait--there's more.

Surprise: I've been given ten download codes to give out to whoever would like one! If you want a code, just send me an email using the address at the top of the blog, and put "Chip + Charity" in the subject line. It's first come, first served, so be sure to act fast. Last but not least, here's a big shout-out and thank-you to everyone at Groupees!

July 2, 2013

Brother Android - Black Gate EP

The talented Brother Android has returned with a brand new EP. "Black Gate" is an 11-minute continuous mix of moody, atmospheric chip music. While the melodies and songwriting aren't quite as excellent as last year's "In Death a Dream of Color", this short burst of creative energy is still worth checking out. Brother Android is one of all-time favorite chip artists, and his wintry 2010 album "October November December" was an impressive display of a thoughtful tone and mood. The new EP sounds kind of like a B-side from "In Death", and the bass-heavy middle song is a particular high point.

You can grab a free copy of "Black Gate" from BA's SoundCloud, and those who'd like to pay a little something for a higher bitrate should head on over to his BandCamp page.

June 9, 2013

Xyce - Papillons

The very successful co-op between Cerror and Xylo, otherwise known as Roel Heerspink and Tom Offringa, continues with their latest album "Papillons". Besides boasting 16 tunes with the kind of happy, well-crafted pop that the duo is known for, the record also features two collaborations with Radix and Malmen. And if that wasn't enough, it's also available as a physical CD. I especially enjoyed the lovely first track, which, titled in French, translates to "Garden Fence". You can check out the album at the link below.

May 14, 2013

EP Spotlight - Natural High by Baifan

I thought I'd introduce a new feature to the blog: EP spotlights. I'll be talking about some of my favorite chiptune EPs (extended plays), why they're great, and the talented artists who wrote them.

Let's begin with "Natural High" by Baifan. I've been enjoying this one for a while, and it still delivers afters years of listening. Baifan is a talented GameBoy musician hailing from Beijing, China, and his tunes are just excellent. The amount of effort that went into composing and mixing these songs comes shining through in his six-track debut. "Hello Everybody" is incredibly happy and poppy, with a fantastic melody in the middle. The cooing, beautifully simple female vocals are a nice touch as well. Fellow artist Aonami makes a lovely guest appearance with the shimmering, well-structured "70s Literary Youth". You might expect a song with a title like "The Fear Inside My Heart" to be pretty melancholy, but Baifan proves the listener wrong with this cheery dance track.

Throughout the 25-minute EP, Baifan shows himself to be a master of melody, song structure, and quality control. He might just be one of the best GameBoy musicians I've ever heard.

You can grab the digital version of "Natural High" from BandCamp or Amazon, and there's also physical CDs available from CD Baby. Check out the links below.

May 1, 2013

Preview - "The End of It All" (4mat)

The endlessly productive and uniquely talented 4mat (Matthew Simmonds) has just announced a brand new album called "The End of It All". With this follow-up to 2012's excellent "Sans Titre", Matt has promised that the new tunes will be "a bit different". The teaser track, showcased in a new trailer, does indeed sound pretty different, even when compared to the varied output that began with his first album "Decades". It'll be interesting to see where Simmonds goes from here.

April 16, 2013

Feryl - "Crossing"

My new EP is out. Pay what you want (no minimum). Stream/download over at BandCamp:

1 Static Feelings
2 Back and Forth / Moving On
3 She Never Wrote Me Back
4 I Doubted Myself
5 Crossing

February 9, 2013

Danimal Cannon and Zef - "Parallel Processing"

GameBoy rockers Danimal Cannon and Zef have teamed up to produce an epic, driving album called "Parallel Processing". Filled with 8 lengthy and thoughtful tunes, many of which use two DMGs, it's definitely worth your time. Following Danimal Cannon's impressive debut "Roots" from 2011 and Zef's "Blackout" from 2012, I'd say this new record pushes them both forward in a good way. "Rhapsody" is a nicely progressive, melodic highlight. The collaboration between these guys ends up working very well, with plenty of hard-hitting composition to keep you moving. You can snatch it up over at BandCamp.