[[Sound Off]] Nostalgia Chip: The Appeal of Chiptune

By Michael McKitterick michaelmckitt@gmail.com

Back in September 2016, Square Sounds Tokyo held its annual gathering for musicians from around the world to come and perform ‘chipmusic’ live. This genre, more commonly known as ‘chiptune’ (which is how I’ll be referring to it hereafter) or ‘8-bit’, refers to the creation of electronic music using sound chips commonly found in vintage computers, game consoles and arcade machines. If you need an example, think of the original ‘Super Mario Bros. Theme’. That’s chiptune before ‘chiptune’ even really existed as we know it today.

Chiptune setup
Chiptune tracks are often created on actual GameBoy hardware using special ‘tracker’ software

Upon watching a performance from Irish musician Chipzel (Niamh Houston) at Square Sounds, I began to wonder why so many people, including myself, enjoyed listening to music from this relatively niche genre. It seems odd, as a society, to have made so many technological advancements in music and sound quality over the past few decades and yet still occasionally rely on creating music through this method that existed purely due to technological limitations.

Let it be clear that this is not a ‘new’ genre. It has existed since the early 1980s, ever since equipment such as personal computers and video game consoles became outdated and hence more accessible to creative individuals who wished to use them for sound or art purposes. The reason I think many people see it as a new genre is because it sticks out like a sore thumb now more than ever because of, as I say, advancements in technology, as well as the simplistic nature of the sounds used in chiptune. Most people associate this genre with the soundtracks of video games in the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog etc. The fact it has made a comeback from the 2000s onwards is bound to confuse many who didn’t think there was a market for ‘video game music’. With the release of consumer software (such as LSDJ, a GameBoy cartridge created specifically for creating chiptune music on the console) from the late 2000s-early 2010s, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people utilising these old-school sounds, including popular mainstream artists.

For enthusiasts, it likely elicits a very strong sense of nostalgia. It takes them back to a time where they were playing video games as children. In this sense, they experience a sense of loss – a longing to return to this simpler, worry-free time, and the consumption of this music genre helps to bridge that gap. It sounds odd that a certain genre could achieve this. Nostalgia is usually specific – associated to a specific artist, song, phrase or lyric – but chiptune is such a distinct and recognisable genre that it can be linked to almost any video game from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Keiji Yamagishi, composer for Ninja Gaiden, chimes in on the appeal of chiptune, and states that “it’s difficult not having any limitations. I feel like I was being tested.” It’s an interesting concept – having technological limitations could actually make you feel less pressured to outdo other artists or create something incredible – it gives you a sense of focus. This familiarity would understandably benefit both composers and listeners.

But technological advancements in music and music production have not been lost on some chiptune artists. While some do create ‘pure’ chiptune tracks, using nothing but these old-school sounds for every instrument, including drums, bass, keys etc., the majority incorporate chiptune sounds into other styles of music. This creates many different subgenres of chiptune, including one that I found particularly interesting – Nintendocore. Yes, you read that right. Take a listen to ‘Four to Six‘ by Math the Band. They have found a way (and they are not, by any means, the only artist to do this) to combine punk rock and chiptune. Two genres that are very different from one another, but they somehow work. Other examples include EDM mixed with chiptune, courtesy of the aforementioned Chipzel (which, as a sidenote, works wonders live) and even orchestral rock (Curious Quail’s Rallying Cry). I’m not sure why any of these work, but they do. I’m the last person to be listening to punk rock, but throw some chiptune in there and I love it. It brings that sense of nostalgia and familiarity to any genre it’s paired with – it’s hard to explain

However, the (potential) problem with chiptune is that it generally doesn’t have lyrics. Much like the video game soundtracks it emulates, chiptune creates its melodies through instrumentation rather than vocal work. This makes it harder to break through into the mainstream, which is why many notable songs that feature chiptune (such as Ke$ha’s ‘Tik Tok’) simply sample it and use it sparingly as a background instrument rather than the main focus. A few artists, however, have created chiptune-centric tracks with vocals, such as the Somerset-based duo You Love Her Coz She’s Dead. These artists, however, very rarely see mainstream attention. Perhaps the most mainstream artist who can be considered ‘chiptune’ would be Crystal Castles, but even then, it seems to take a back seat to EDM in their songs.

Chipzel live
A shot of Chipzel performing live in 2015

This, ultimately, leads to it becoming a very niche genre, and seen by many as ‘hipster’ music because of the fact it is a fairly-recent trend that is outside of the mainstream. And the fact it is so niche is amplified whenever someone claims to have done this technique for the first time. This happened as recently as February 2016 when Killscreen ran a story about a musician who had used a Sega Genesis sound chip to create a remix of some music from Sonic the Hedgehog. He said he believed he was the “only producer within the contemporary music platform that’s using that sound chip.” Needless to say, this pissed people off – so much so that they had to change the article to account for the massive amount of chiptune artists who pointed out the obvious oversight in Killscreen’s reporting (and the man’s ability to perform a quick Google search).


Maybe it’s an acquired taste. I know plenty of people who describe chiptune as simply “noise” and don’t see the appeal, which is fine, I see where they’re coming from to a certain extent. But in the right hands, these simple sounds can be a very powerful tool. Take a listen to the Spotify playlist and see what you think. There’s a wide variety of different chiptune tracks there for you to make up your mind about this relatively unknown genre.

Whether you love it or hate it, just don’t try and claim you invented it.

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[[Sound Off]] ROCK IS A PUTRID, ROTTING CORPSE

Or: How the Tediously Hyperbolic Laments About the ‘Death’ of Rock Music from Reactionary Critics Have Poisoned General Discourse Surrounding the Genre

By Jake Kelsey @JakeKelsey94

When discussing genres, music critics love a good death metaphor – and it’s easy to see why – as a general theme around which to centre a review or think piece there’s so much room for witty, clever and entirely non-derivative turns of phrase that seek to illustrate to the reader the sombre truth that we, as a culture, have suffered a tragic loss. A music genre is no longer as popular as it used to be. A moment’s silence please.

A notable victim of music journalism’s psychopathic serial killer streak is Rock music, with scores upon scores of articles being written every year that mournfully state as an unequivocal fact that rock music, if not stone-cold dead, is barely hanging on to life – conjuring images in the reader’s head of a hospitalised middle-aged white man, R. Music, connected to machines by tubes and wires after being involved in a tragic (but totally rad) high-speed crash while thundering his Harley Davidson down Route 66. His leather jacket lies in tatters next to his tin pail of Jack Daniel’s and book of LaVeyan scripture.

The main problem with this ‘rock is dead’ narrative (aside from the obvious factual inaccuracy that we will get on to later) is that so many reviews of contemporary rock artists’ work is viewed through this lens, and not only is the rhetoric dull, tired and repetitive – but it places a severe amount of undue pressure on upcoming bands that presumably just want to play some music and not be tasked with the daunting challenge of striding purposefully into R. Music’s death bed, looking at his chart, and giving him the life-saving treatment he desperately needs in order to get back on his Harley and head out onto the open road.

Royal Blood albumTake, for example, this piece in NME[1] where The Nicest Man in Rock™, Dave Grohl, singles out Bristol-based duo Royal Blood as being a good band – not a particularly sensationalist statement – and there are certainly no insistences that we have finally found the fabled saviour of our resident over-extended metaphor R. Music. This then gets picked up by another website under the considerably more hyperbolic title of ‘Dave Grohl reckons Royal Blood will save rock ‘n’ roll’[2], an article that impressively even links to the original piece where the Foo Fighters frontman explicitly does not say that. Then of course when the album is reviewed – it is seen at least partially through this lens, whether they think the album is good[3] or bad [4]. There have been many bands that this claim has been levelled at over the years, such as The Strokes[5], The White Stripes[6], Gaslight Anthem[7] and many, many more[8] – so many bands, in fact, that one might begin to question whether rock is actually even dead at all!

To be fair to music critics, they are generally not the ones who have written the obituary – they seem to be just part of a climate where it’s essentially regarded as received wisdom that rock music is dead and as such, it’s convenient to proclaim that any fellas with a guitar and some good tracks will be the ones to save the genre. The people we truly have to blame for this questionable received wisdom are, bizarrely, rock musicians themselves.

Roger Daltry[9], Flea[10], Gene Simmons[11], Bob Dylan[12] and Joe Perry[13] have all recently been quoted in articles as saying that rock music has died. What’s particularly irksome about the incessant claims from these musicians, is that after they were all tearfully huddled around R. Music’s bedside during his final moments, they will have left (presumably on Harley Davidsons) to play sell-out stadium tours with their respective bands – disproving their own point and earning millions of dollars collectively by playing rock music.

So that point is obviously not entirely fair, all of the aforementioned musicians are already established (bewilderingly, in the case of Gene Simmons) as rock legends and, as they come from a time before the supposed tragic demise of rock music, they are still able to find huge audiences and rake in the cash. This is where the ambiguity of the term ‘dead’ comes into play – if we’re to assume that a ‘dead genre’ is one that is simply not currently the most popular in the world then sure – forget all the snarky bullshit I’ve spouted over the last seven hundred words; rock music is dead – I’ll do a reading at the funeral. However, if we’re to assume that a ‘dead genre’ is one that is creatively and artistically spent – that there is nobody doing anything interesting within the confines of the generic conventions of rock music then I am delighted to announce that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

The reason I think the distinction between the two different possible meanings of ‘dead’ is an important one is that the popularity of the genre should have no impact on and is of no relevance to the critical discussion surrounding the actual music within the genre, which is why it is infuriating to see articles that proclaim new bands to be the saviour of rock, or to hear old musicians claiming that the genre is dead.

Artistically, rock music has been doing just fine for decades – it may not be the biggest genre in the world any more but that doesn’t matter, there are still great bands doing great things and it’s okay that they’re doing them to moderately smaller audiences. So when a website runs an article with the headline ‘Gene Simmons: “Rock is Dead, It Was Murdered”’ it may as well read ‘BREAKING: Old White Man Thinks Things Have Changed Since His Day and Boy is He Angry About It’.

 

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[[Sound Off]] ‘Hipster Black Metal’: A Crisis of Authenticity

By Bradley Bulch @Mnspector_Iorse

When Deafheaven released their sophomore record Sunbather in 2013, not many would have predicted quite how much attention it received. Achieving a rating of 92 on critical aggregate site Metacritic, Sunbather finished the year as it’s most highly regarded album [1]. Which was pretty much unheard of, considering the ‘black metal’ label many critics threw at it.

Deafheaven - Sunbather
The ‘Sunbather’ artwork hardly screams black metal, does it?

Sunbather was unlike anything many outside of the black metal community had heard or seen before. Deafheaven sidestepped the corpse paint and morbid lyrics for a bright pink cover and songs filled with nostalgia, romance and despair. The blast beats and tremolo picked guitar leads still forged ahead, but they were sandwiched between pretty post-rock sections comparable to some of Explosions in the Sky’s most poignant moments.

The guitars blared, but they also twinkled at times. The album bypassed all the stereotypes that most music consumers would affiliate with black metal artists. Deafheaven weren’t Burzum, Varg Vikernes didn’t spearhead their line up with tracks about ethnic cleansing and an all too real history of church burning and murder [2]. They didn’t parade themselves around forests in music videos carrying medieval flame torches [3]. They wore shirts and derby shoes, sported Hitler Youth haircuts and played music that appealed to Pitchfork readers more associated with indie rock and synth pop than extreme metal.

Sunbather didn’t mark a shift in the black metal landscape, the musical amalgamation present within it had already been explored in 2005 with Alcest’s ‘Le Secret’ EP. However, Alcest have slipped past the waves criticism from the die-hard black metal community that has been levelled at Deafheaven and their fans. Alcest have for many years been producing records that combine shoegaze and black metal that is both ferocious and beautiful. The one element missing from their music was the widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. Unlike Sunbather, ‘Le Secret’ didn’t find it’s cover gracing the new Apple iPhone advertisements [4].

Deafheaven and Gorgorth
Deafheaven’s George Clarke and Kerry McCoy (Left), and Norwegian black metal band Gorgorth (Right).

Criticism has been just as fierce toward Liturgy, another band carrying with them the ‘black metal’ tag without acceptance from it’s respective community. Perhaps this is more to do with frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s boastful claims of composing ‘Transcendental Black Metal’, complimented by his outlandish manifesto that tries so hard, yet misses the mark by such a distance it’s almost embarrassing [5]. Liturgy’s new album The Ark Work contained many elements which in theory fit the black metal bill; layered tremolo picked guitars and intense blast beats shape the most consuming moments of the album.

Liturgy - The Ark Work
Were Liturgy ‘trolling’ us with ‘The Ark Work’?

Throughout The Ark Work however are some interesting stylistic shifts; droned, glitching vocals, extensive midi trumpet sections and bagpipes galore. Hendrix is incessant in his attempt to ‘reinvent’ black metal, as evident by the unusual, yet enticing union of ideas within The Ark Work. It remains no surprise critics were perplexed by the release, to the point that one accused Liturgy of ‘trolling’ their fans [6]. While another rightfully questioned whether it was even black metal [7].

Battles for authenticity between those that consider themselves the cultural elite, and less concerned fans have been waged time and time again. During the 90s when artists such as Green Day and The Offspring broke the mainstream, accusations were made of them ‘selling out’ [8]. This backlash from punk rock purists didn’t prevent the success of either band, and neither will they stop Deafheaven’s apparent march to success.

Ghostbath’s ‘Moonlover’
Ghostbath’s ‘Moonlover’ album cover.

This case however is different in that there is so little commercial appeal here that any accusations of Deafheaven lacking authenticity is laughable. While they may have found a market for a genre of metal that is emotional, beautiful and brutish. The screamed vocals and harsh sonic landscapes littered throughout their releases aren’t exactly accessible. This music is still extreme, whatever genre you call it.

Try telling that to Ghostbath, a North Dakota based band whose latest album Moonlover received minor attention for bearing a stark sonic resemblance to Sunbather. This led to some disappointed comments from Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy, as he accused Ghostbath of ripping them off [9].

A channel appropriately called Hipster Black Metal has been lurking in the depths of YouTube over the past few years [10]. The aim of this channel appears to be calling out bands for appropriating a genre of music they have no business operating within. It’s content is filled with lengthy videos criticising bands such as Deafheaven, Liturgy, Wolves in the Throne Room, Ghostbath and Panopticon. Bands all given the black metal label by critics, without being welcomed by the black metal community. The videos make audible comparisons between ‘real’ black metal bands and the aforementioned ‘hipster’ variations [11]. These comparisons are convincing in making their case for the mislabelling of certain bands, though one major flaw remains in their argument.

Comments such as this are commonplace in videos and articles associated with Deafheaven or Liturgy.

The use of homophobic and derogatory slurs such as ‘faggot’ and ‘retard’ is a staple throughout this channel and of many black metal elitists in comments sections regarding these bands throughout the internet. Behaviour like this makes black metal purists appear foolish in their attempts to assert authority, it’s akin to children having a temper tantrum, preventing their argument from holding weight in a serious discussion. Sure, such bands may suit the ‘screamo’ tag more, but this is irrelevant to those enjoying their music, who aren’t going to be turned onto ‘true’ black metal because someone on the internet called them a ‘poser’.

It is undeniable that ‘blackgaze’ bands such as Deafheaven, Alcest and Ghostbath are far removed from the early Norwegian black metal outfits such as Darkthrone, Mayhem and Gorgoroth. The latter artists, who propelled the genre forward in the late 80s to early 90s, featured more abrasive production and a sharper guitar sound, while bathing in an air of pure malevolency that is impossible to find in the former groups. These modern US iterations with their cleaner production appear more emotionally frail, and open to experimentation with less affiliated genres. They tap into auras of despair, romance and hope, often within the same song.

Instead of perpetuating division, black metal fans should be wearily accepting of ‘blackgaze’ bands entering the relative mainstream. It’s not about the genre these bands operate in, it’s about what they offer to the musical repertoire of those who listen to them. Bands such as Deafheaven offer an easily digestible glimpse of black metal that may entice fans to delve deeper into the genre; one that is thoroughly rewarding when explored in full depth.

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