Adam Young – Voyager 1

Voyager 1Throughout 2016, Owl City’s Adam Young embarked on a project to compose, record, and release a film-score-style album every month of the year, based on ideas and events that had inspired him. That’s quite an audacious plan, given that an actual film score could easily take a month just to write and arrange, let alone a finished product in the can. Young’s musical background lent itself to a rock/pop idiom for some of these album releases, but he didn’t limit himself to that sound. Other topics included Joe Kittinger’s dive from the edge of space (long before Felix Baumgartner did it), the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the sinking of the Titanic, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and more. Oh, and each album was released for free download.

The opening volley is titled “1977”, but it doesn’t sound that much like 1977 at all – it’s very much modern, and seems to be establishing an electronic, almost chiptune-esque theme for Voyager 1, as well a theme that is then picked up in turn by guitar and synths. “Earth” begins more sedately with a synth-orchestral pad of wonderment, occasionally overlaying that with an almost Art of Noise-style beat and samples of the Golden Record’s “hello from the children of planet Earth” phrase. “Asteroid Belt” is a gentle drift through the solar system’s undeveloped real estate, while “Jupiter” returns to a steady beat and an electric violin statement of Voyager’s theme. “Europa” maintains a staccato rhythm and is slightly more ethereal, leading into a slightly mysterious opening for “Saturn”, which quickly establishes its own beat and a somewhat mellowed-out version of Voyager’s theme. “Titan” is heavy on piano, and still has a beat underlying everything.

Following this is “Neptune”, an oddity in that it wasn’t visited by Voyager 1, but rather Voyager 2. It’s given a strange, fuzz-pedaled musical treatment, befitting a strange icy planet. “Pale Blue Dot” returns to the electronic sounds of “1977”, still with a steady beat, a sound which continues – in a more echoplexed, “distant” way – in the final track, “Interstellar Space”. This track also picks up the Voyager theme established at the beginning of the album, and again is slathered with a heavy beat at times.

2 out of 4It’s an ambitious thing trying to provide musical accompaniment for such a far-reaching historical event as the Voyager missions. It’d be ambitious for any composer to do, even Hollywood veterans. If there’s a failing with Young’s Voyager 1 album, it’s his tendency to fall back on a programmed beat so often. There’s something a little less than majestic about trip-hop beats over ethereal synth passages. At times I like that sort of thing; here, it’s done too much, and becomes the underpinning of everything rather than a sparingly used flavor. It’s nice enough music, but doesn’t really connect me to the subject matter.

Order this CD

  1. 1977 (4:46)
  2. Earth (4:40)
  3. Asteroid Belt (2:49)
  4. Jupiter (3:58)
  5. Europa (4:18)
  6. Saturn (4:55)
  7. Titan (4:04)
  8. Neptune (2:16)
  9. Pale Blue Dot (3:39)
  10. Interstellar Space (4:20)

Released by: ayoungscores.com
Release date: October 1, 2016
Total running time:

8 Bit Weapon – Class Apples

8 Bit Weapon - Class ApplesI remember the Apple II. By way of the Franklin ACE 1000 clone that was later sued off the market, I grew up with the Apple II as my first computer. I programmed it – or tried to – endlessly. Trying to get music and sound right with the native Apple II speaker was an especially bruising experience: endless data tables, pokes, and very seldom getting what I wanted out of the machine. A whole sub-industry was born to bolt better audio capability onto the Apple II via add-ons like the Mockingboard sound card. It was never as easy as just plugging a MIDI-capable keyboard into it and just playing what was in your head.

Except that now, it is. And that’s how we got Class Apples – a new MIDI controller interface, and a modern-day software hack allowing for samples to expand the sound of the Apple II, and 8 Bit Weapon doing what 8 Bit Weapon does. The entirety of Class Apples is performed on Apple II computers, with minor post-production tweaks providing the finishing touches that the Apple itself can’t (reverb, stereo tricks, a bit of flanging here and there). It’s still the same lo-fi machine that it always was, but the Apple II can do more musically thanks to persistent fans of the machine grafting new abilities onto it, inspired by technological developments that have taken place since the Apple II’s heyday.

The music here is all from the classical repertoire, and heavy on pieces with complex counterpoint. Everything has a beat to it, and there’s a strong Hooked On Classics vibe to the whole thing. It’s hard to nominate any one track as a standout – each of them have their own charms – though I’m always a sucker for “Ave Maria” and, well, just about any flavor of Bach.

4 out of 4Computer music may be nothing new, and classics filtered through computer music may be nothing new, but there is something new here – significant musical capabilities have been grafted onto a machine that was known for little more than the plaintive PR#6 “BEEP” that accompanied a startup or reset. Just as 8 Bit Weapon helped alert the public to the possibilities of the NES and Game Boy as musical instruments, the same can now be said of the not-especially-musically-inclined Apple II. It’s a musical tech demo that is, if you know anything about the Apple II’s native sound capabilities, surprisingly listenable. You had me at INIT HELLO,S6,D1.

Order this CD

  1. Sheep May Safely Graze (Bach – 2:55)
  2. Two Part Invention (Bach – 1:03)
  3. Prelude and Fugue 1 in C Major (Bach – 1:29)
  4. Für Elise (For Elise) (Beethoven – 2:14)
  5. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) (Mozart – 5:24)
  6. Invention 8 (Bach – 0:51)
  7. Prelude in C Minor (Bach – 1:35)
  8. Rondo Alla Turca (Mozart – 2:07)
  9. Invention 14 (Bach – 1:13)
  10. Air Tromb (Bach – 1:29)
  11. Ave Maria (Bach & Gounod – 2:52)
  12. Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven – 4:43)

Released by: 8 Bit Weapon
Release date: July 22, 2017
Total running time: 27:55

The Radiophonic Workshop: Burials In Several Earths

Burials In Several EarthsThe Radiophonic Workshop is back, minus the BBC. If the band’s retinue of veteran analog electronic music pioneers can keep turning out original material like this, it might result in a new generation of fans wondering why they were slumming it for the BBC for so long. The Radiophonic Workshop is made up of former members of the storied BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an experimental electronic music & effects department of the BBC founded in the late 1950s to provide unique music and sounds for the steadily growing output of the BBC’s radio and television channels. The work, in those days before samplers and digital synthesizers, was grueling; membership in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was always fairly limited because you had to love what you were doing, working with oscillators a beat and tone generators and analog reverb and tape loops. The Workshop remains, perhaps unjustly, best known for the original Doctor Who theme music dating back to 1963, but its body of work spread so much further than that…until the BBC closed the Workshop’s doors in the 1990s.

But its members, it turns out, weren’t averse to workshopping their unique sound without Auntie Beeb paying the bills. Having spent over a decade as a touring group recreating their sound the old-fashioned way for audiences who already knew their work and audiences only just discovering them, the Radiophonic Workshop has now gifted us with a new album with the unmistakable sound that gained them a following in the 1960s and ’70s. Is it abstract? At times, yes – about 13 minutes into the lead track, you’d swear they were trying to make a musical instrument out of the sound of the Liberator’s teleport from Blake’s 7. Everything from white noise to whalesong crops up. But what’s amazing is how tuneful it is at times. Echoing piano is a constant presence, along with actual guitar work (Paddy Kingsland, whose Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide scores in the early ’80s were ear-wormingly hummable, take a bow). There are a few places where a groove emerges from the soundscape and the Radiophonic Workshop proceeds to rock out.

Not a bad feat considering that some of these gentlemen are past what many touring musicians would consider retirement age.

4 out of 4The real fascination of Burials In Several Earths is that it’s electronic music created in a way that has almost been lost to time and the march of technology. That description doesn’t really do it justice though – that sounds more like the description of a tech demo. The Radiophonic Workshop is making actual music this way, delighting audiences on stage, and bolting new chapters onto a legacy of ridiculously hummable short tunes from a bygone age. At times ethereal, at times exciting, the one thing Burials isn’t is boring.

Order this CD

  1. Burials In Several Earths (18:58)
  2. Things Buried In Water (22:01)
  3. Some Hope Of Land (25:15)
  4. Not Come To Light (3:58)
  5. The Stranger’s House (11:23)

Released by: Room 13
Release date: May 19, 2016
Total running time: 1:21:35