Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: Trash80 - Icarus EP

There was a magic moment for millions of people our age, somewhere between '85 and '93, where we held a video game controller in our hands and made a little dude move across the screen into dangers unknown. This was the moment something in our brain realized implicitly what 'virtual reality' meant. A world powered by computer technology. This is a powerful moment, one that has fueled millions and millions of dollars of pop culture. And this magic moment for each of us was usually choreographed to little, peppy, beepy, catchy tunes. We can all still hum super mario one, world one. What we didn't realize as little munchins glued to this new form of tube, was that the people making that music were weird new pioneers. People making music with computers, to be played only by computers, often even without the use of a intermediary device of like a MIDI keyboard. This was computer-only music. Music coded into binary. This was a new thing, and eventually, long after new storage and compression technologies made this form of music generally obsolete, it was known as Chiptune music.

I know, I know. Everyone else who is already hip is like "GAWD I KNOW WTF CHIPTUNES ARE." Point being, not a lot of people neither know nor care about the fact that there is a chiptune scene. Never mind that these people were making rave music like back in 85. Never mind that the entire current electro scene owes a huge debt to the resurgence in interest in retro gaming in recent years. Never mind that Crystal Castles, god bless 'em, wants us to think they have a modified Atari chip in their keyboards and their record company wants us to think this whole idea is brand new. NEVER MIND. Nobody but weirdo video game nerds give a shit about chiptune music. You know why? Because all in all, it's just a rare chiptune that can really hold it's own against a 'real' track. One not recorded strictly off the output of a lone set of microchip. Sound chips were never really designed for commercial music, so often they lack the depth more conventional synthesizers do. And often, chiptunes are programmed by people not typically musicians, so they have a quirky sense of structure. But these people, with their Commodores, and their Gameboys, and their NESes, these people have been known to occaisionally work wonders. And if you look hard, you can find a few Chiptunes that really rock out your headphones just as well as any vinyl 7" remix of the latest such-and-such track.

So in case you didn't see this coming, I have been winding up to telling you about just such a set of tunes.

I discovered Trash80's new EP "Icarus" on the site, which actually is host to a freaking PLETHORA of amazing Chiptunes and other lo-bit art. But of all the bleepy tracks I sampled on there, this EP was just miles away and above everything else. It's really fantastic to hear something so simple, so slick, and so clearly a work of personal passion after just trolling through clip after clip of mediocre pseudo-professional electro DJ work done on vinyl on YouTube. Imagine that, in some coffee shop in Stanford, Simian Mobile Disco and Freezepop's keyboards met, fell in love, moved into a one-bedroom, and recorded an dance album without their finicky, fleshy human counterparts. This is that intense, saccharine, and ubersynth album. Yeah, like that. Because you totally know EXACTLY what I'm talking about, I'm sure.

There is just so much joy and enthusiasm burning through these super-simple synth loops. Of course, it's much more in the 1-2-3-4 electro vein of Ladytron and Freezepop, not the funky breakbeat style of Justice or Digitalism. The quick, organic cut and repeat style of those artists relies heavily on turntables, whereas this plays to the the drum-machine strengths of the chips. In fact, like a lot of good chiptunes, some of the EP is so lit up with scales and simple progressive structure that it gets a little trance-y at times, but Trash80 knows how to keep it just unpredictable enough so that the love shines through without glowsticks and bad E. As for the sound itself, the site notes that a NES engine is used for the album, but I definitely hear some C64 as well. Either way, both have been so well-worked into the core of the sound that it seems to become something even simpler: pure synth. Of course, there has been a lot of post production done, it is only semi-chiptune music, but that work really fills in the bass and smoothes out the sound as a whole without ruining the simplistic beauty of the music. It sounds like the beeps and boops of chiptunes, just harder, better, stronger chiptunes.

The track that really shines is "Missing You," a bittersweet dance pumper that can stand up to the best of the likes of any nurave or dance-punk the vast inter-web has to throw at it right now. But past that, the whole EP is stellar. There are no skippable tracks, and that's not something that can be said about many EPs. I was just discussing with someone the best Electro dance release this year, and we mentioned Crystal Castles, but honestly, this is an equally impressive work, and it comes straight out of deep-blue left field. Which is to say, go listen to "Icarus" right now. Cuz check this, hold up, wait for it, you can download all this shit for free. These 8-bit folks are future-ready, and love their Creative Commons License.

So stop stalling. Go Forth. Rock it like a robot.

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