“OMG, Chinese ROM Hack X 2 FTW”: Blip Fest 2008

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

For three years now, a select assortment of the world’s premier practitioners of making people dance and sweat to the sounds produced by Game Boys, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, and other like “instruments” have gathered in New York City for the four night chiptunes party that is known as the Blip Festival.

Unfortunately, unlike last year, in which I was on-hand to soak in every single beep and boop (looking back, I’d have to say the definite highlight was the after-party, how afterwards I volunteered to escort three European performers back to the Nullsleep’s apartment where they were crashing since I live right around the corner, and culminating in a very crowed cab ride in which each one of the guys tried to impress our driver with their Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions), this time around I was only able to catch just one night. But thankfully, my good friend and occasional fort90.com contributor Dave Mauro, along with the equally awesome man behind the greatest shump site that no longer exists (click-stick.com, RIP), Brian Liloia, were both able to soak up what I missed. So the following is a combination of their reports, along with my two cents from the one night I was there. Enjoy!

It?s hard to imagine the New York chiptune scene without Blip Festival. There are plenty of amazing artists here in New York, but when Josh Davis, Jeremiah Johnson and Mike Rosenthal teamed up in 2006 to create the first Blip Festival, it turned the city into a destination for chiptune performers around the world. Around the same time, Peter Swimm teamed up with the Tank to create the Pulsewave series of monthly shows which now regularly draws performers from across the nation and even internationally.

So after two years of being treated to visits from some of the most famous and adored chiptune performers, the 2008 Blip Festival aimed to introduce more ?new? acts, such as Sulimi (China), Cow?p (Japan), Ikuma (Singapore), and IAYD (USA). But of course the festival wouldn?t be complete without several headlining ?bona fide rock stars.? Probably the biggest treat on the list was Role Model. Although less famous for his music than for the fact that he created the software indirectly responsible for most of the music in the festival, LSDJ, when the phrase ?Role Model owns your face? was projected onto the screen during his performance, we all understood.

The festival kicked off (last) Thursday evening with a performance from noteNdo that I missed (I?ll have to catch his show at the Annex on the 21st for sure now), but luckily I caught the Graffiti Monsters? set, which was fantastic. Mark DeNardo is only getting better, and with two drummers and Louis on Game Boy, things sounded really great. This was the set everyone was talking about the next evening. And unfortunately for me, it was one of the only sets I saw because I had to leave shortly after IAYD?s set.

IAYD?s performance was a lot of fun because the Thursday night crowd was about as small as it got all weekend, and the kids that were there all seemed to be there for IAYD. Even before he got on stage, the crowd was cheering frantically as is normally reserved for the Saturday night crowd when one of the more established artists performs. IAYD did not let his fans down; he cranked out some some very fast and fun songs with LSDJ and Famitracker and kept everyone bouncing for forty minutes.

Friday night I was forced into punctuality because for the last several months I?ve been enjoying Animal Style?s 8bitpeoples.com release ?Open Air? and I was not about to miss his set. It was the perfect start to Friday night: some relatively gentle tunes with enough rocking on the guitar to get the crowd moving. Though most of the Blip Festival acts share a similar aesthetic of heavy, rapid beats, Animal Style?s name is misleading as he was one of the more melodic acts in this year?s lineup. Anyone who enjoyed Alex Mauer?s opening set last year probably would have liked Animal Style.

Friday was a packed house, filled with ranks of chiptune fans across the spectrum. (I always love to scan the crowd and take witness to the pretty fair diversity of folks that show up to these things. Well, ok, white male 20-somethings are probably the majority, but there’s a pretty good mix otherwise.) Anyway.

I must confess to know nothing about music. I know I like chiptunes, but my musical vocabulary is quite limited. I can’t say that X Artist sounds a lot like a bit of Y genre crossed with Z and know exactly what I’m talking about. But what’s the difference? I appreciate good sounds and I’ll try to convey what I experienced in my own sort of lingo.

Anyhow, after Animal Style was Low-Gain, one of many names I’ll confess to never knowing previous. He was a welcome surprise with energetic beats that helped to warm up the crowd for the next several hours. At this point (Monday morning) as I write this, all of the music kinda blends together in my head and I lose the essence of individual artists, but I do remember that Low-Gain was a crowd-pleaser. Also notable was his homemade “GTFO Crystal Castles” t-shirt.

Cheap Dinosaurs took the stage next. The feeling I got was him was positive-pop-melodic and almost-soundtracky. Strong music, but not much of a stage performance, even with that huge head of fluffy hair, which I wondered how he kept out of his eyes to see anything. Entter backed him up with some pretty wild eye candy, which he controlled via some kind of remote controller.

Up afterwards was the legendary Role Model, creator of the infamous LSDJ. Swedish. Mustached. Flamboyant. Until this night, Role Model had always been in the chiptune-distance for me, for some reason. I remember downloading one of his songs many years ago in college, it being one of the few chiptunes sitting on my hard drive for years before I finally delved deeper into this “Game Boy music” business. But even when I did start listening avidly, I never actually bothered to research him further, so I was curious this night to see him take the stage and hear what he could do.

He began with a deceptive slow and simple bit, but his set progressed into deeper and more complex beats, some that I can’t describe as anything other than, well, sexy. The man was fun to watch, too, what with his brightly colored button down and suit jacket and hat. He personified his grooves. His set ended with a swift kick to his laptop, leaving it face down on the ground, and a prompt exit from the stage.

Role Model set the stage for future riot, which Glomag brilliantly followed up. I gotta say. Glomag just gets finer with age. I like him more each time I see him. He set my hopes really high with a killer set at last year’s Blip Fest, and this one was no slouch. At some point, Glomag has transformed into a thrill delivering, beat crushing, Game Boy wielding, disco dance machine. His songs were fast and hard and kept the crowd busy bobbing away. His disco song was a personal highlight. At some point he had a special guest vocalist (this was the year of the special guest, apparently) that was quite refreshing, too.

After the somewhat calm Role Model set, the festival struck hard with a double whammy of Glomag and Bit Shifter: two New York stalwarts that help keep the chiptune music scene thriving by continually generating gigantic crowds. There?s not much I can say because if you?ve seen these two before, you know what they?re capable of. Although I do have to mention that C-Men?s visuals for Bit Shifter?s set were fantastic. He had a portrait of him with a big grin and kept bouncing it around on the screen to great comedic effect. It?s a shame Bit Shifter didn?t turn around to catch it because I?m sure he would have gotten a kick out of it.

An early Saturday engagement meant missing out on Minusbaby, who also did all of the fantastic promotional artwork for Blip Festival, as well as an amazing Starscream shirt that was on sale at the festival. He?s a very talented visual artist, and his music is just as good, so I was pretty sad to miss this set.

Saturday night was my one and sad to say only taste of Blip Fest ver. 2008. Since no one has mentioned it thus far, how about I address the venue; whereas the first two festivals took place in Manhattan, this time we were in Brooklyn, the “up and coming” Gowanus part of the borough to be exact. When I first heard the move to Brooklyn, Willamsburg was mentioned, and all I could do was cringe; virtually every show I’ve caught there has been ruined on one level or another thanks to the army of “trustifarians” that reside in the neighborhood. So needless to say, when the party was moved yet again, I was happy. And the venue this time around, The Bell House, was simply outstanding. The sound has never been better, nor the visuals; sadly the pixel walls that helped to accentuate the action from the past two years were absent, though they were hardly missed thanks the triple A grade video projector that was on-hand (sorry, but my many years spent as an A/V geek in college has led to a fondness for really excellent projectors, and The Bell House’s was simply superb). There were also plenty of other little things, like the extra meaty merch table, the food truck outdoors, the full-fledged bar, all of which were sorely missing in previous years that were definitely welcome, though perhaps none more so than the security employed by the venue, though I’ll get to that later.

Moving onto the music, and as noted by Dave, this year had plenty of names that I didn’t recognize, making the event all the more inviting. Jellica from the UK got the party started, and was pretty decent when all was said and done; I must confess, after being immersed in the world of chiptunes for years now, the qualities that interest me the most have somewhat changed over time. Nowadays, when going to see an artist, I’m not so much concerned with the music itself as I am with his or her actual performance. Given that much of the music is prepared beforehand, I’m frankly bored by those that simply stand there on stage, hitting the right buttons at the right time. Whereas others will mix things up by playing around with the original compositions, sometimes giving it the right amount of extra flavor that whatever crowd at the time necessitates. The more improvisational, or at least the sensation of it, the better is my point.

And I guess Jellica sorta falls into what I just described as not liking too much, but at least his music was fun to dance to, plus his own moves, in which it appeared as if he were conducting some invisible orchestra, was also enjoyable to watch. I also appreciated the facts that he really digs cats: in addition to having no real bio pic other than a picture of his cat on the official Blip Fest site, I could have sworn that I saw him wear two different cat shirts that evening, plus his comment about American beers sucking was hilarious, despite the fact that it got zero reaction from the crowd (actually, I think that’s what made it so funny).

Afterwards was Mr. Spastic, who turned out to be the quite the pleasant surprise. This dude was simply awesome, with infectious, funky grooves that felt very Capcom-y in structure and sound. Which I suppose is why his stuff reminded me of Virt, whom I’m a super huge fan of. My favorite tune was the one that was very reminiscent of my favorite piece from the TMNT arcade game… perhaps its was a tribute of some kind. I guess I need to investigate that one.

Next was Bubblyfish, whom I’ve seen many, many times before, but due to the highly improvisational nature of her work, each performance feels totally different, yet always satisfying. Her sets generally follow the same pattern: the first rounds of sounds are often playful and melodic, somewhat on the safe side, as if she’s exploring the space and the people around her at the moment, and by the end, you’re in the midst of an intensely driven and determined dance party. The highlight this time around was her legion of love-struck fans; in addition to one fellow coming up on-stage to present flowers, I noticed another guy frantically trying to grab her attention, with him constantly scribbling and throwing crumpled up notes to her while she played.

Fourth up was Sulumi, who was the one performer I was most interested in that night due to his nation of origin alone; the festival has had its fair share of Japanese chiptuners, but never one from China, and his Game Boy driven sounds did not disappoint. Though what really made his performance extra special was the visuals, as provided by Entter, who appropriately chose various Chinese bootleg NES games to help add spice to the music, including Street Fighter 2, again for the NES, and some Punch Out clone featuring “Mie Tyson.” Good stuff. Though I have to wonder: are there any chiptuners in Korea?

Unfortunately, this is also when trouble began to brew. Last year I had a few not so nice things to say about the crowd, specifically an isolated few that acted a bit unruly and somewhat ruining it for those around them, such as myself. And some actually took offense at those comments, for focusing on the negatives, because as they saw it, those people were only there to have a good time and meant no ill will. And since I felt the need to bitch and moan, the end result was me looking like an old stick in the mud. Well, all I can say is any bad taste from last year’s crowd was quickly dissolved by this year’s. And it’s not just me, Dave and our pal Jon, along with a bunch of people, became flat-out incensed by some of the antics in the crowd. I suppose all one needs to say is “lol, NYU kids” and leave it at that, but it went a bit deeper; whereas last year’s crowd indeed meant no ill will, some folks this time around were seriously looking to start problems.

It was during Sulum’s set that myself and others began to get needlessly knocked around by various aggressive types, which we all tried to ignore, but once Cow’p hit the stage, the situation grew worse ten fold. Can’t say too much about Cow’p unfortunately, who also hailed from Asia, Japan to be exact, since I couldn’t concentrate on his music all that much. Though I do recall that, instead of sounding like other acts from Nippon, who are generally all about hard hitting beats, his approach was quite the opposite… it was peaceful and serene, to the point that his sounds practically approached being meditative, dare I say transcendental? Which made the mosh pit that formed during his set all the more perplexing. It was quite the contrast; the calm and soothing atmosphere Cow’p was trying to build versus the negative vibes, the mean-spirited yet also quite gleeful pushing and shoving and elbowing that was taking place right in front of my eyes. The tipping point was when I saw about ten people all fall down right in front of me; this big dude (wearing a really stupid hat) whose antics was slowly getting worse had finally exploded, and one guy simply had enough, so a flat-out brawl immediately ensued (apparently the big guy put the little guy in a headlock, but I totally missed that part). I normally don’t do this, but I simply had to go and alert security… again, thank God for the security… who quickly ejected the trouble maker, followed by his douchebag buddies, since they had no one to play with.

Nullsleep followed Cow?p and at this point the venue was packed. Saturday night always draws a large group, and this year the event sold out again, so Nullsleep was playing to a huge crowd of fans and being anywhere near front and center stage meant being pushed from behind by fans trying to get closer to the source of the noise. Nullsleep recently released a new album on 8bitpeoples.com that seems to be a bit of a farewell to what might be considered his former style of Game Boy tunes. The music he played at the festival this year was much less melodic and more focused on driving the crowed insane with ultra-fast and surprising rhythms. At one point he started to play one of his old songs, which then became corrupted and turned into Dirty ROM Dance Mix as he screamed ?nah, fuck this.?

It would have been a flawless set if not for a drunken audience member who managed to slip past the normally vigilant security and got onto stage. At first he was harmlessly dancing behind Nullsleep, but then he decided to toy with the mixer and tried to turn his sound off. Security dragged him away along with another fan that was trying to rush the stage at the same time. One drunken asshole wasn?t enough to spoil his set though and Nullsleep continued strong until ending his set by dangling his Game Boy by the audio cable and letting it fall to the floor.

Historically, Sunday is usually the more mellow of the four nights, with a smaller crowd and an earlier start time. Well, it started off fairly small, but the crowd expanded through the hours, and by the end of the night, mellow was nowhere to be found, instead replaced by utter chaotic, crowd-shaking musical savagery.

Starscream opened with a pretty long, sweeping set. I wished the drums were up a level or two, because I thought that they got a bit lost in the frantic Game Boy blasting. The highlight was the duo’s Magic Antennae thing, which made varying squeals and hums based on the proximitiy of the musician’s hand, which was really quite neat to see (and hear). Yet another one of those really neat how’d-they-do-that Blip moments.

Funky and proud Floridian Lissajou took up the stage with just a single Game Boy next, decked out in a sharp blazer and shiny shoes. Lissajou gave a fairly long and strange intro, and got into his “Lip Service”, which turned out to be a single rave bit continuing straight for a good 15 or 20 minutes, all off of a single Game Boy, a real technical acheivement. He was an interesting sight, with his funny little dance moves and spastic arm pumps, and constant glasses adjustments. Charming fellow.

Syphus was next with some epic, sweeping, vaguely jazzy tunes that sounded very appropriate for something like a game soundtrack. Very listenable, but not the most danceable to my own ears. This didn’t stop others, though.

Then came nordloef, and without so much as a word, he cranked out a nonstop set on hyperspeed that had me aurally exhausted by the end. It was like running a marathon in audio form. It was good stuff, but it really set my fatigue in…

Ikuma from Singapore was up next. I was slightly familiar with him as a fellow poster on the 2A03 forums, but his music was mostly new to me. He made great use of Famitracker and LSDJ, but the hit that really got the crowd excited was his cover of Madonna?s ?Like a Prayer.? Take a dance party staple, remix it in chiptune form, add some karaoke style vocals and you?ve got yourself a Blip Festival hit.

Anamanaguchi?s set got started a little late due to technical difficulties, but it only helped to build tension for the big pay-off when they did their rock ensemble stage entrance to video clips from Space Jam. Their appearance on stage mimicked some sort of unholy combination of rock concert and high school pep rally. They played a couple old hits before playing the entirety of their upcoming album ?Dawn Metropolis? with custom videos for each song playing on the screen behind them. Sometimes it?s difficult to get three guitars, drums, and a NES to come out sounding harmonious in a live set, but they sounded superb this year.

USK was to be the last performance of the festival that I caught. I needed to be at work Monday morning, but I didn?t want to miss this destroyer-of-Game-Boys wreak havoc upon the audience. VBlank provided the visual backdrop as USK let loose his creations on the surprisingly dense crowd. It was almost 12am, many were drunk, many more probably had work in the morning, but everyone had heard the word: stay for USK.

His frenetic beats spurred chants of ?YOU ESS KAY? from the crowd, and for his final song he announced he had some very special guests: Anamanaguchi came back on stage to play a really great song together. It had the rhythm of a USK song, but the richness only a few guitars can add to the music. They did a great job keeping up with a rogue Game Boy when USK was hoisted onto the shoulders of some fellow performers that charged the stage and apparently caused him to drop his Game Boy leaving the song stuck repeating the same few lines a little longer than it should have.

The bar was set pretty high by the time Trash80 took the stage, but he delivered… and then some. I gotta say, his 8bp “Icarus” release is one of my favorites in recent memory, and to hear it live was a real rush. His set was undeniably grooving and firestarting, and the crowd was massively into it. By the end of the set, some 20 or 30 Blip folks got on stage to dance alongside Trash80.

The security guard kept others off the stage with a truly menacing staredown.

I imagine we can expect another Blip Festival next year. They can?t stop now; Friday and Saturday nights sell out regardless of how large the venue is, they?re bringing more and more new artists to New York and doing a great cultural service to the city, and besides, I?m curious to see what kind of a logo they come up with for next year?s festival.

Yesterday I was on the train back home when I spotted Nullsleep in the same car, sitting down, and half dead. He explained to me that he hadn’t slept since last Thursday; as already noted, he’s one of the primary forces behind Blip every year, but Jeremiah also recent went back to school full-time, to pursue a graduate degree. So once the show was finally done and over with, there was still not time for rest since finals are in effect.

While asking him about this thoughts on the fest, I enquired how the after-party went, which no one I knew personally attended, and so it turned out, neither did Jeremiah, due to a paper that was due the very next day. But he mentioned how Saskrotch (whom I was lucky enough to run into on Saturday night) and a few others tore the place up, or so he had heard. But Jeremiah also mentioned how it supposed gotten kinda ?weird?… at one point, a bunch of folks began tearing their clothes off. Apparently, many pictures were taken, but one should not expect to see them on Flickr anytime soon, though there is some very funny pic of a Japanese chiptuner looking and pointing at some random penis that I believe the world needs to see.

But yeah, hooray for chiptunes yet again!

  • http://assembler.org Vesicular

    No info on Stu? He’s the only one I most would have wanted to see had I went. More and more I wonder what these festivals would be like if Gameboys were banned. Not because I don’t like them, but because they have a disproportionate representation in the world of chiptunes.

  • http://www.dmauro.com dmauro

    Sorry, I think we all left right before Stu went on because at that point the place was just too crazy (he was on right after Nullsleep Saturday night).

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