Last night at the Deitch Projects gallery was another Corey Arcangel related event. This time he was host to the Low Level All Stars, an evening of chiptune music assembled by Corey and the Radical Software Group.
Unfortunately I arrived a bit late and missed the opening, which included an explanation of the demo scene by Nullsleep, but I was just in time to see the start his brief set. In the crowd I bumped into Bit Shifter, who wasn’t there to play but to lend support to a fellow 8bit person and good friend. In addition to giving me the lowdown on what I had missed, we chatted a bit about the Japanese chiptune scene (naturally, YMCK was brought up), plus I found out the tour that he and Jeremiah are going on will start every soon (I’ll pass along dates as soon as I get them).
As for the set, Jeremiah played mostly his hits and standards. His instruments of choice are the NES, which is played via a keyboard that he wears on stage via a strap (and which he rocks with, sorta like how the old 80′s nerd rockers used to do with keyboard guitars, but this of course is the real thing), and a Brick Boy (old, old school Game Boy) that he controls directly. The last song was another brilliant chip-redux of an 80′s hit (not Depeche Mode as expected, but Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me ‘Round). There’s nothing better than being in a large crowd of people all grooving to a chip song and watching them realize that it’s something they all know. The “hey, wait a minute, is that…” expression right in the middle is the best part.
Next up was Treewave, a male and female duo from Texas that utilizes a combination of old technology, including a 2600, two Commodore 64s, and… I swear to God, you have not heard real electronic music till you’ve heard a song with the rhythm and the beats produced by a dot matrix printer.
When I tell most folks that I listen to chiptune music, they think I’m nuts, so I don’t expect them to take me seriously when I say that Treewave’s music was simply beautiful. Though of all the songs that evening, Treewave’s probably does the best job of fitting into people’s concept of music. Nullsleep for example relies on just one set of sounds produced by one instrument, which in his case is the NES. It’s easy to enjoy his complex and kinetic melodies, so long as one can doesn’t have a hang up with “listening to Nintendo sounds”, but to understand it all, one needs a true familiarity with those harsh beeps and buzzes. Whereas Treewave’s tunes mixes and layers of machine noises to create a unique, not so mechanical but actually organic sound, which in turn gives it a more traditional feel. But just because I couldn’t recognize the devices didn’t make any of the songs any less sweet. Plus Lauren Gray’s vocals were quite complimentary and not at all awkward, unlike most attempts to fuse live singing and chip music.
Along with the sounds were visuals produced by the 2600 directly via a special cart which contained unique videos for each song. One was a session of the classic game Combat going faster and faster, and more and more messed up. Another was just a deluge of angry multi-colored pixels, resembling the huge LED board in Close Encounters but on speed. But the true highlight of the evening was the duo’s main musician, Paul Slocum, playing a modified version of Dodge’Em, in which music was produced as he played. The song was racked with emotion; Paul had to play a perfect game without crashing to further the song, so as he went on, the game got faster (and harder), the music harder (and faster), and all of us were on the edge of our seats (even though everyone was standing; there were no actual seats anywhere). It was simply amazing, and the first instance, at least to my knowledge, of a superplay musical.
After Treewave’s set was a brief demonstration of game modding via the classic Wolfenstein 3D. Corey showed off a game editor and showed how to create levels and the ability to replace enemies with pics of Paris Hilton and a crudely drawn unicorn. And for the third and final act, what do you get when you mix chip music, Germany, and comedy? You get Bodenst?ndig 2000. It wasn’t chip tunes, it was chip metal.
First off, you have two Germans computer geeks that are simply hilarious, acting all wacky to the point that they’re damn nearly cuddly, but they also rocked liked crazy. So hard and heavy in fact, that at times the music made the mouse arrows on their computers move (and they were using laptops with trackpads). Their instruments were old workhorse sound programs that they called “soundtrackers”, like Music Mon, which are years and years old but are still popular in the German rave scene, and were coded by hackers with cheesy names like Dark Angel. The programs were running on laptops that emulated the Atari ST and old Yamaha sound chips, and both men were quite proud and enthusiastic when explaining the finer details of the technology (justifiably so IMHO… they made those ancient chips hum like no one else).
It was also fun just hearing about the stories behind the songs; most were autobiographical and told tales of young boys entranced by computers, and the trials and tribulations that would ensue. Drx always played the part of the youth and Bern assumed the role of some despicable record exec or something equally loathsome. The messages behind the songs varied, such as how all anyone wants to buy from the internet is bread, power, and porno, but you can only seem to find crappy wallpaper and ringtones for your mobile phone.
They also touched upon Jamster and called them Nazis for apparently ripping off one of their tunes to make into a ringtone. I wonder if anyone has told them most of America already hates their guys for their goddamn annoying singing bird ringtone? Both men are also scientist and explained that after studying countless phone sex ads produced via teletype machines, they concluded that it takes precisely 128 pixels to make a person horny.
Back to the music: for the most part it was loud and angry (well, that’s no surprise since they are afterall German), but it had a nice Euro techno feel… actually, a very Euro chip feel for those who are familiar…. plus a delicate softer side at times. One song had them just singing sans any computers, though Bern would add in a line spoken in MacTalk speak (and controlled via a PDA) here and there. Perhaps my fave song from them was Funghili that had Bern with his PDA saying “The unit has been destroyed”, the Music Mon blaring up front, and Drx playing along with a flute. But the song which Jeremiah had specially requested, one that they had never officially recorded called Sobistdu, was also fucking amazing. Man, I gotta ask that guy to share some of his bootleg chip music…
The only scary part of the night was when some big drunk guy start doing the Hitler hand sign, grabbed poor Bern by the arm, and started going on about the Fourth Reich in his face, but he handled himself well. Hey, no one said playing in New York (it was their first appearance here)! Otherwise it was an outstanding three hours of pure chip rock, and my first ever chiptune concert.
EDIT: I have two good pictures from last night, which you can see here.