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

Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone In The Universe

Alone In The Universe15 years after his last album that took 15 years to arrive, Jeff Lynne is back, once again operating under the ELO banner, with an album that straddles his own tendencies toward classic rock and the trademark sound that his fans all but demand anytime he surfaces.

It’s not as if he’s been completely dormant during this time: an album of re-recorded-all-by-himself ELO covers, some of them fairly close to the sound of the originals, as well as an album of rock covers of classic hits and standards, done in Lynne’s trademark style. Armchair Theatre, his 1990 solo album, was reissued with bonus tracks. He’s also been producing albums for the likes of Joe Walsh and Bryan Adams, so it’s not as if he and his sound have gone completely underground.

But what has been missing is Jeff Lynne, writing new songs and performing and producing them himself. Long Wave and Mr. Blue Sky, nice as they were, were covers albums. Alone In The Universe is what Lynne/ELO fans have really been waiting for: new music from that familiar, laid-back voice. “When I Was A Boy” opens the album with languid nostalgia, perhaps as autobiographical a song as we’re ever likely to hear from Lynne, chronicling his childhood love of music that led to a life of writing and performing. There are hints of strings, all synthesized/sampled, though they’re kept far enough in the background that it doesn’t break the song.

“Love And Rain” picks up the tempo with a guitar groove reminiscent of “Showdown”‘s clavinet, while “Dirty To The Bone” bestows a cheerful sound upon some surprisingly biting (and occasionally silly) lyrics. What follows next is a one-two punch of two of the album’s best numbers, the mesmerizing “When The Night Comes” and the strangely relaxing and uplifting “The Sun Will Shine”. “When The Night Comes” takes some tried-and-true elements, such as a chorus that owes more than a little bit to the chorus of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Not Alone Any More”, and sets them to a beat that’s as close to reggae as Lynne’s ever likely to stray. “The Sun Will Shine” is a gently uplifting song with some of Lynne’s best lyrics in ages, with a soothing synth-and-guitar wash in the background. (In the electronic press kit interview for the album, Lynne says he wrote it to help a friend who was depressed; I can tell you that it does work in cheering up someone in dire straits.) “Ain’t It A Drag” is a delightfully cheery song about karma catching up with someone who’s done you wrong, while “All My Life” is a more plaintive, idealized love song, but a very pretty one.

“I’m Leaving You” sees Lynne going for the full Orbison, which is a gutsy thing to do because, as Bruce Springsteen himself once said, no one can sing like Roy Orbison. Still, this is a better approximation than most could manage. “One Step At A Time”, added at a late stage out of concern that the album didn’t have enough upbeat tracks, is a curious mix of a driving rhythm that wouldn’t have been out of place on Discovery, slathered with languid slide guitar that is simultaneously at odds with that rhythm and yet fits over it nicely. (And, for the first time in many years, it’s an ELO song with more cowbell!)

“Alone In The Universe” brings the album to a close in its intended configuration, Lynne’s ode to – of all things – space probe Voyager 1, outbound from the edge of the solar system, and it turns out to be the most ELO-ish song of the entire album, in both subject matter and presentation. Where Zoom might’ve left some fans thinking that it was an ELO album in name only, this album’s title track demonstrates that ELO is back in more than name only, even if it’s just Jeff Lynne in his studio. The sound of ELO is back as well.

Various deluxe versions of the album somewhat jarringly add anywhere from two to three extra songs after that perfect closure, from the country-rock of “Fault Line” (probably inspired by Lynne’s proximity to San Andreas), “Blue” (an addictively Wilbury-ish number), and the very ’80s-ish “On My Mind” (whose production touches include helicopters flying overhead for some reason).

4 out of 4Assembled as a musical package, Alone In The Universe is almost everything I’ve missed about ELO, tied up with a bow – this is why I still get excited to hear about Jeff Lynne heading into a studio, and why I hope he doesn’t keep taking off 15 years between albums.

Order this CD

  1. When I Was A Boy (3:12)
  2. Love And Rain (3:30)
  3. Dirty To The Bone (3:06)
  4. When The Night Comes (3:22)
  5. The Sun Will Shine On You (3:30)
  6. Ain’t It A Drag (2:36)
  7. All My Life (2:51)
  8. I’m Leaving You (3:08)
  9. One Step At A Time (3:21)
  10. Alone In The Universe (3:55)

    Bonus Tracks

  11. Fault Line (2:07)
  12. Blue (2:36)
  13. On My Mind (3:09)

Released by: Columbia
Release date: November 13, 2015
Total running time: 32:23 (standard edition/LP), 37:06 (deluxe CD/download), 40:23 (Japanese Blu-Spec CD)

8-Bit Weapon – Disassembly Language: Ambient Music for Deprogramming, Vol. 1

Disassembly Language Vol. 1An interesting new experiment for 8 Bit Weapon, Disassembly Language returns the chiptune duo to its Commodore 64-centric SID-sound-chip roots, but trades in the usual punchy three-minute originals for epic-length new-age chiptune instrumentals. The effect is nothing short of hypnotic.

“Phase I: Lexical Analysis” opens with mesmerizingly looping sequences over a gentle, slow pad; by the end of the track, the pad has gradually taken over as the dominant sound. “Phase II: Debugger” sticks with the hypnotic repeating figure idea, again to great effect, while “Phase III: Refactoring” and “Phase IV: Release” concentrate on slowly changing harmonies. The first two tracks have enough variation to relax you while still leaving you awake; the last two tracks are not listen-in-the-car material.

Is it great going-to-sleep material? Yes – it’s been sending me off to the sandman for a week now, and it even sent my oldest, also a chiptune fan, off to sleep. Can you ask for better depreogramming than that?

4 out of 4Fans of such hypnotically mesmerizing synth music as Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, Tangerine Dream at its dreamy best, and the trance-inducing repeating musical ideas in Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds For Baby trilogy will find a lot to love here. And perhaps the most promising thing is that, like Scott’s Soothing Sounds, this album promises to be just the first volume.

Order

  1. Phase I: Lexical Analysis (13:37)
  2. Phase II: Debugger (13:08)
  3. Phase III: Refactoring (20:16)
  4. Phase IV: Release (22:44)

Released by: 8-Bit Weapon
Release date: February 9, 2016
Total running time: 1:00:45

Jeff Lynne – Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light OrchestraClaiming in multiple press releases that he had “never been satisfied” by the quality of the original (career-making) recordings, ex-ELO frontman Jeff Lynne set about re-recording many of the band’s most iconic hits in his home studio, playing and singing everything himself. The result is, at the very least, interesting: it’s fascinating to hear what Lynne thought the essential elements of the original recordings were that needed to be reproduced, and what was non-essential enough to jettison. It’s tempting, going in, to think that everything will be stripped back to almost-acoustic bare bones with drier (i.e. less reverb-drenched) – the Traveling Wilburys Orchestra, in short. But it’s not always that obvious.

The opening volley, “Mr. Blue Sky” itself, is arguably Lynne’s best-known song, and he takes a respectable swipe at replicating it. Jeff Lynne can still sing, and he’s still the master of singing his own backup – nobody does it better. The worst indignity foisted upon “Mr. Blue Sky” is the total omission of the song’s epic extended coda. On one hand, changes in the prevailing winds of radio may make this a good idea for the lead single, and the coda was always a callback to “Big Wheels” (an earlier song in the four-song “Concerto For A Rainy Day” cycle from 1977’s Out Of The Blue, for which “Mr. Blue Sky” was originally written) anyway. But even without knowing about the refrain from “Big Wheels”, it’s come to be an integral part of the song. It’s always been part of the experience to have it there. (And it’s the coda of “Mr. Blue Sky” that was artfully worked into the score of the Doctor Who episode Love & Monsters.) It feels like the song’s been gutted.

“Evil Woman” is nearly indistinguishable from the “stripped down” mix that appeared on the Face The Music remaster (which mixed most of the strings out of the original master recording); the strings here are obviously synthesized. “Strange Magic” is reproduced with almost eerie accuracy, down to the flanged vocals going into each chorus. “Don’t Bring Me Down” sports more significant changes, but they’re not intrusive, and they turn the song from a disco-era looping experiment into a chugging rocker. “Turn To Stone” also rolls with some changes in style that have occurred in the 35 years since its original recording became a hit, and I actually liked some of Lynne’s minor changes to the vocal melody, even if the recording itself isn’t as densely-packed as the original (and the tightly-harmonized a capella bridge toward the end of the song isn’t what it used to be).

“Showdown” is an excellent recreation of ELO’s earliest bona fide hit, and despite the “Jeff Lynne DIY” approach, it’s actually a bit more lush here than it was in 1973, when it was part of the group’s early configuration (grungy overdubbed cellos without session players making the whole thing sound properly posh). But there’s a lyrical misstep that might’ve been averted if Jeff had simply Googled his own lyrics: the original recording’s “’cause I’m really suffering” in the second verse inexplicably becomes nonsensical in the re-recording: “I’m a real submarine.” Part of me thinks it may be a little hint of Lynne’s tongue-in-cheek British humor.

“Telephone Line” isn’t quite as successful in the recreating-the-original department, but it’s pleasant enough as a “cover band” exercise. The synth strings aren’t quite capable of pulling off the violin solo that’s central to “Livin’ Thing”, making it one of the least successful covers. “Do Ya” straddles the fence between the original Move recording and the prettied-up ELO version. The strings are less important to “Do Ya” in the end; Lynne deftly replicates – and subtly improves on – the straight-ahead-rocker guitar work of the original. “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” nicely recreates the sound of the original, except for the lead vocal line, which is so relaxed that it seems strangely unenthusiastic.

A new version of “10538 Overture” brings the reminiscence to a fitting end, and like “Showdown”, it’s quite a bit more modern than its original incarnation, and relatively stripped down. The original “10538” was the genesis of ELO’s original wall-of-cellos sound, and included such tricks as running some of the vocals through the Leslie speaker normally used on a Hammond organ. But the sound can never be the same: digital recording means you have infinite tracks for the cellos, they’re always going to sound cleaner because less “track bouncing” had to be done, and applying that effect to the vocals is a matter of point-and-click these days. The original recording earned an A+ for solid engineering effort even if you didn’t dig the tune itself. Still, it’s nice to hear it clean and crisp like this.

Closing the album out is “Point Of No Return” – a brand new song done by Lynne in a style borrowing from quite a few eras of ELO past. Musically, it’s very nice, though the lyrics seem a bit uninspired – but in the end, this is what I’m actually wanting from the novel and exciting idea of Jeff Lynne being back in the studio.

Over a decade ago, the now defunct (and sorely-missed) Not Lame label gathered some of non-mainstream power pop’s brightest rising stars to record their own homages to Lynne’s entire career; everything was fair game, from Idle Race to The Move to Armchair Theatre, and if you didn’t like the result, it was okay because the next song was by someone else. Some of the reinterpretations were radical (Evil Woman edged into hip-hop R&B territory and survived the transition), and that was okay. Truth be told, I 3 out of 4think I had more of a stomach for new artists reinventing these beloved songs than I do for Jeff Lynne himself to redo them as the sole performer of record. A couple of the new recordings of old favorites simply inspire me to turn them off halfway through and go back to listen to the originals with renewed appreciation.

Order this CD

  1. Mr. Blue Sky (3:44)
  2. Evil Woman (4:30)
  3. Strange Magic (3:53)
  4. Don’t Bring Me Down (4:01)
  5. Turn To Stone (3:45)
  6. Showdown (4:15)
  7. Telephone Line (4:29)
  8. Livin’ Thing (3:42)
  9. Do Ya (3:56)
  10. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (4:34)
  11. 10538 Overture 40th Anniversary Edition (4:43)
  12. The Point Of No Return (3:14)

Released by: Frontiers Records
Release date: October 9, 2012
Total running time:

8 Bit Weapon – Bits With Byte

Bits With ByteLogging in with the first full-album-length effort since the remixed Confidential 2.0, chiptune duo 8 Bit Weapon proves why it’s still practically the dictionary definition of this genre of music (i.e. “Chiptune music – you know, like 8 Bit Weapon”). It’s not enough to just slam the sounds (or samples) of old game machines together; there’s got to be a memorable tune under it. The earliest era of video game music turned out several hummable earworms despite the limitations of the day, and 8 Bit Weapon “gets” that. There’s always a tune behind the tech, and one often suspects the songs are strong enough to survive being transferred to more “traditional” instrumentation. (Now there’s an idea for a tribute album.)

The sound is so old-school that, halfway through Bits With Bytes’ 18 tracks, one can imagine a “side one/side two” break (for those of you old enough to remember turning over the record or tape). The first nine songs are brand-new numbers, all instrumentals, with “The Art Of Video Games Anthem” (accompanying an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian), “We Fight For The Users”, “Escape From Xenon” and “Galactic Invasion” emerging as highlights. The title track is no slouch either (check out the official video below the jump at the bottom of the review). I got a kick out of the actual recording of a typically noisy, disk-drive-rattling Apple II boot-up (oh, the memories…) at the beginning of “Apple Core II”. There are enough melodic hooks here – or, at the very least, interestingly unconventional musical ideas – to keep you going for a while.

Starting with the tenth track, some of 8 Bit Weapon’s older material is revisited, with a positively hyperkinetic remix of “Closer” from the Electric High EP. Appropriately titled “Closer 2.0”, it’s definitely an upgrade. A revised “Micro Boogie” (one of my all-time favorites by this group) follows, though the differences may take a couple of listens to spot. The 8 Bit Bandit remix of “Closer” and the Sanxion7 remix of “Chip On Your Shoulder” (another revised Electric High number) substantially rearrange the DNA of the originals to make completely unique versions of each – again, this version of “Chip” may be superior to the original.

Demo versions of “Bits With Byte”, “The Art Of Video Games Anthem” and “Galactic Invasion” round things off; some artists demos show a striking difference in sound and production quality, but these instead offer a snapshot of the arrangements of each song in flux, not quite having landed on their final versions. Another new tune, “Vic XX”, closes things out nicely.

4 out of 4I’m normally the first person to call shenanigans when almost half of a purportedly new album consists of older material, but here at least the material has been polished to an even higher shine than the originals – sort of like they’re in HD now. All of it’s worth a listen, especially if you don’t partake of 8 Bit Weapon’s shorter EPs (note: if you’re actually doing that, you’re depriving yourself of even more good stuff).

Order

  1. Bits with Byte (3:01)
  2. Galactic Invasion (3:03)
  3. Apple Core II (1:57)
  4. The Art of Video Games Anthem (3:12)
  5. Miami Dub Bounce (2:39)
  6. We Fight for the Users (3:05)
  7. Drive Grinder (3:11)
  8. Escape from Xenon (3:08)
  9. Goodbye Cochise (1:36)
  10. Closer 2.0 (2:45)
  11. Micro Boogie 2.0 (3:45)
  12. Chip On Your Shoulder (Electric High Mix) (3:20)
  13. Closer (8 Bit Bandit Remix) (6:02)
  14. Chip On Your Shoulder (Sanxion7 Remix) (3:30)
  15. Bits with Byte Demo (2:54)
  16. The Art Of Video Games Anthem Demo (3:16)
  17. Galactic Invasion Demo (2:54)
  18. Vic XX (3:18)

Released by: 8 Bit Weapon
Release date: 2012
Total running time: 56:36

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E.S. Posthumus – Makara

With custom-made movie trailer music gaining wider acceptance as listening material away from the big screen, E.S. Posthumus is among a handful of trailer music producers who find that their music is suitable for general audiences, and is actually in demand. Their third album, Makara, highlights the big, boisterous orchestral sound that seems to be de rigeur for previews of upcoming attractions. The problem is that Makara doesn’t deviate from that style much from track to track, so it can be an exhausting album to listen to from top to tail.

Where the previous album was skewed heavily toward gentler, less action-oriented music, Makara swings the pendulum hard in the other direction. Highlights include “Kalki”, “Ushas”, “Arise” and “Krosah”, but generally speaking, the action trailer music on Makara isn’t up to the level of similar material on Unearthed; it’s hard to put a finger on, but just as the gentle-and-sentimental material on Cartographer varied between listenable and just plain maudlin, Makara veers between enjoyably bombastic and “just too much” with a handful of quieter tracks (including a strangely flat-but-trying-so-hard-to-be-epic take on “Moonlight Sonata”).
2 out of 4
Still, if you’re a fan of trailer music, you know what you’re getting into, and if what you want to get into sounds like the musical accompaniment to a preview that’s thick with gunfire and explosions, Makara won’t let you down.

Order this CD

  1. Kalki (3:05)
  2. Varuna (4:17)
  3. Unstoppable (3:04)
  4. Durga (3:41)
  5. Manju (4:18)
  6. Kuvera (4:05)
  7. Ushas (3:55)
  8. Lavanya (3:57)
  9. Vishnu (3:38)
  10. Indra (4:18)
  11. Arise (4:12)
  12. Saint Matthew Passion (3:38)
  13. Discuss it!Krosah (4:50)
  14. Anumati (3:19)
  15. Moonlight Sonata (5:30)

Released by: Wigshop Records
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 59:47

8 Bit Weapon – Tron Tribute

8 Bit Weapon - Tron TributeChiptune champs 8 Bit Weapon pay tribute to one of electronic music’s true pioneers, Wendy Carlos, by way of reinterpreting Carlos’ music from the 1982 movie Tron. With Tron slowly bubbling back into the public consciousness by way of Disney’s attempt to revive the franchise on the big screen later in 2010, Tron Tribute is an inspired project with good timing.

Available as a free download, Tron Tribute basically cycles through variations on two different pieces of music from Tron, namely “Tron Scherzo” and the movie’s end credit suite (or at least about the first 1/3 of it). 8 Bit Weapon deploys its usual arsenal of classic Commodore 64 and Game Boy sounds for the occasion, and adds an Apple II-based synth for good measure. (The custom-made Apple II synth program is also available on their website.)

The variations aren’t wildly different – it’s more a case of subtly swapping out “instruments” – but the result is still quite an enjoyable new take on the music from Tron . (It’s also worth noting that 8 Bit Weapon isn’t the first act to take on such a reinterpretation – there was also a track of Tron music, appropriately arranged for the sound hardware of the Intellivision, whose maker had the license for home 4 out of 4video games based on Tron, on the Intellivision In Hi-Fi album.)

8 Bit Weapon’s take on Tron nicely splits the difference between Wendy Carlos’ complex harmonies and the unique harmonics of the machines used to play the music – and you sure can’t beat the price.

Download it!

  1. Tron Scherzo (Sark’s Revenge Mix) (2:00)
  2. Tron Theme & Ending (Flynn’s Farewell Mix) (1:10)
  3. Tron Scherzo (Solar Sailer Mix) (2:00)
  4. Tron Theme & Ending (Yori’s Game Boy Mix) (1:10)
  5. Discuss it in our forumTron Scherzo (Clu’s Game Boy Mix) (2:01)

Released by: 8 Bit Weapon
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 8:21