8 Bit Weapon & ComputeHer – It’s A Chiptune Holiday!

It's A Chiptune Holiday!A fun little EP released just in time for the holiday season, It’s A Chiptune Holiday! is a selection of traditional Christmas music, done in old-school video game style with 8 Bit Weapon’s usual arsenal of custom-programmed classic console sound chips.

“Deck The Halls” kicks things off with harmonized vocoder vocals – it’s like a cheerful choir of Christmas-caroling robots. “Jingle Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” also have robotic vocals, though the latter has a kind of strange diction that makes me wonder if it really is a voice synthesizer as opposed to a human singer’s processed vocals.

The instrumentals are a treat too; “O Christmas Tree” is given a polyphonic arrangement that makes it sound like a “win” tune from Pole Position; “Ave Maria” actually comes closest to what I was expecting to hear from an EP of 8-bit Christmas tunes.

4 out of 4The only problem with It’s A Chiptune Holiday! is that it’s just too short! I instantly thought of about a dozen other Christmas tunes that would sound great with the 8 Bit Weapon treatment; I realize that it’d mean venturing into non-public-domain territory, but I can just about hear a chiptune version of “Christmastime Is Here” from Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas special soundtrack in my head.

The good news is, I hear they’ve already scheduled Christmas for next year – you’ve got 12 months to get on the case, 8 Bit Weapon!

Order this CD

  1. Deck The Halls (Nos Galan) (1:52)
  2. Hanukkah (Festival Of Lights) (1:01)
  3. O Christmas Tree (O Chanukah) (1:31)
  4. Jingle Bells (One Horse Open Sleigh) (1:14)
  5. Joy To The World (2:09)
  6. Greensleeves (What Child Is This) (1:51)
  7. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (2:13)
  8. Ave Maria (The Well-Tempered Clavier) (3:25)

Released by: 8 Bit Weapon
Release date: 2009
Total running time: 15:16

8 Bit Weapon – Electric High

8 Bit Weapon - Electric HighAnother group that I file under “doesn’t release new material as often as I’d like,” veteran chiptune pioneers 8 Bit Weapon are back, now pared down to a duo, with some incredibly catchy new tunes. The opening volley, “Closer (Bitpop Mix)”, is an infectiously catchy song with the welcome return of a female vocal. While still heavily processed (a la vocoder epics like “One Last Mission” and “Micro Boogie”), it’s an interesting sound and one that, surprisingly, is a stand-alone here; it’s not as if 8 Bit Weapon’s instrumentals are suddenly chopped liver, but I wish they’d sing some more. When I look back at the group’s post-Confidential output, the songs that stick out as my favorites are the ones with vocals. 8 Bit Weapon has a gift for catchy tunes and their instrumentation gives them a unique sound by default; their vocal offerings, more often than not, have clever lyrics and just a little extra something that turns a good instrumental into a great, addictive, fleshed-out song. With only six songs on the Electric High EP, it would’ve been nice to have two, even three songs with vocals. I’d love for 8 Bit Weapon to bring the vocal-to-instrumental ratio to parity.

Not that the instrumentals are anything to complain about here; “Kiss My Bits (ComputeHer Mashup Mix)” and “Macro Disko (Minimal Mix)” are early favorites. “Chiptune Attack 2600 A.D.” features a rare foray into the nearly-atonal sounds generated by an Atari 2600, and yet still manages to be a catchy – if quirky – tune. All of the tracks on Electric High are worth a listen, and at only six tracks, there’s no filler material – the EP makes a strong statement and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

8 Bit Weapon has a unique, fun sound – so much so that Sony’s production music department singled them out to build an effects and instrument library so that anyone with Nuendo, Cubase or other sequencing software can start cranking out chiptunes. (That, in and of itself, could be a great thing, or it could lead to a flood of dreck – part of the compelling appeal of chiptunes artists is that they are, in fact, using this old computer and game hardware to make these sounds. Sequencing and sampling one’s way to a new chiptune opus 4 out of 4almost seems like cheating. Of course, there’s probably some string quartet out there staring me down for all those string samples I mess around with in Cubase, so it’s all down to your point of view.) They’re still on top of their game (literally!) with Electric High – I just wish they’d belt out some words more often. (Seriously, guys, if you need help with lyrics, if that’d get some more songs with vocals out there, just call me.)

Order this CD

  1. Closer (Bitpop Mix) (2:52)
  2. Kiss My Bits (Computeher Mashup Mix) (2:05)
  3. Chip On Your Shoulder (3:24)
  4. FUNDanalogue (2:22)
  5. Chiptune Attack 2600 AD (3:16)
  6. Macro Disko (Minimal Mix) (3:38)

Released by: 8 Bit Weapon
Release date: 2009
Total running time: 17:37

Reset Generation – music by 8-Bit Weapon

Reset Generation - music by 8-Bit WeaponA collection of short, punchy instrumental pieces composed for Nokia’s Reset Generation game – which itself pays tribute to numerous games of yesteryear – 8-Bit Weapon’s soundtrack has a lot in common with the old video games that I like: the tunes are addictive, make me want to come back for more, and don’t hang around long enough to get old. Not a bad combination, really.

One thing that may throw listeners off, however, is the brevity I’m talking about above: many of the tracks barely clock in at over one minute, and many of them begin and end very abruptly. The latter is no accident: the tracks are meant to “loop” repeatedly during specific scenes and levels of Reset Generation itself. Fortunately, the tracks are timed out in such a way that one tune’s end leads directly into the next track almost seamlessly. Any one track by itself might seem to be an abrupt listening experience, but the entire soundtrack is a fun listen.

Highlights include “Power Up Pumpin'”, “Micro Anthem 2a03” (named after the NES’ sound chip), “64 Rocker”, “Rock Music Entry 6581” and the Leviathan mix of the Reset Generation theme – to name just a few. Those are just my favorites, but to an extent, all of the Reset Generation tracks are earworms that will prove difficult to dislodge from your head after you’ve heard them.

Included as a bonus track is “2D Died”, a riff on Don McLean’s “American Pie” (as in “the day 2D [gaming] died”) which does a great job of updating the original song into a chiptune extravaganza with vocoder-ized vocals. My one issue with “2D Died” is the same issue I have with “American Pie” itself (or, for that matter, “Sweet Home Alabama”: the first three minutes or so are okay, and after that I start looking at track time remaining because the same melody/chord structure is just repeating. I don’t know if that’s even 4 out of 4something to dock points for: 8-Bit Weapon is only paying homage to the 7+ minute original. And in any case, I like it better than Madonna’s update of the same song, but it’s just not something I feel compelled to listen to repeatedly, though its lyrics are pretty clever. But the rest of the album – which, by the way, can be downloaded free via the link below – is 8-Bit Weapon gold: repeat listening is compulsory (and with the loop-ready nature of the tracks, it’s even repeat-button-friendly!).

Order this CD

  1. Reset Generation Anthem (3:42)
  2. Aphex Tweek (1:26)
  3. Dungeon Derivative (0:54)
  4. Blip Bwop (1:16)
  5. Little Lost Lazer Boy (1:01)
  6. Lethargic Menace (1:16)
  7. Bubble Twin Bonanza (1:04)
  8. Where Fools Tread (1:01)
  9. Chiptune Chump (1:19)
  10. Commodore Base (1:20)
  11. Micro Anthem 2a03 (1:35)
  12. 64 Rocker (1:12)
  13. Krafty Noob (1:16)
  14. Tricky Game (1:04)
  15. Reset Generation Anthem – Leviathan Mix (1:22)
  16. Nin10do Raver (0:59)
  17. Breakin’ Bits (1:20)
  18. Macro Boogie (0:57)
  19. Power Up Pumpin’ (1:20)
  20. BootySoft Inc. (0:57)
  21. Corrupt Conscript Festival (1:25)
  22. SID Vicious (1:55)
  23. Rock Music Entry 6581 (1:04)
  24. Reset Generation Anthem – Sinister Mix (1:13)
  25. 2D Died (7:43)

Released by: 8-Bit Weapon / Nokia
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 39:41

E.S. Posthumus – Unearthed

You’ve seen the movie, now hear the music – well, not quite. In this case, you’ve seen the movie trailer, now hear the music. E.S. Posthumus’ Unearthed is an unorthodox release by a group of producers and musicians whose “day job”, if you will, is to create music for movie trailers. The music is as epic and sweeping as anything you could probably find on the movies’ individual soundtracks, but this music is born in and lives in entirely commercial airspace. And frankly, the idea of marketing movie trailer music on its own is sheer genius. Three million people might see a movie on its opening night, but in the weeks and months leading up to that, between trailers attached to other movies, TV spots, and web exposure, you can bet that six million people have seen the trailer. Even if they don’t bother with the movie, they’ve been exposed to the imagery and the music. You’ve probably heard as much at least as much E.S. Posthumus in the past two or three years as you’ve heard John Williams – you just didn’t realize it.

Things start strong with the mellow-but-epic “Antissa”, while “Tikal” resides a little bit closer to Matrix territory musically. “Ebla” is another winner, with a rhythmic chanting anchoring the entire piece. “Nineveh” and “Pompeii” almost sound like background music from a video game, while “Menouthis” starts out apocalyptic and, again, moves into The Matrix‘s neighborhood.

For me, the crowning glory of Unearthed is “Estremoz”, a mournful choral piece set to a gentle breakbeat. I don’t recall having heard this on a trailer for anything, but perhaps there’s a reason for that – it’d have to be one hell of a depressing movie. The music itself is very relaxing and serene, however, if just a little bit of a downer. “Isfahan” closes out the album on a similar wistful note.

Now, of course, the real question is: will you like it? That’s a good question. If you’re predisposed toward soundtrack music, you’ll find something to like here, but keep in mind that many of these pieces are expanded versions of musical compositions that originally only needed to be 30 or 60 seconds; even with running times in the 4-5 minute range, things get a bit repetitive with some of these tracks. And enjoyable as they are, their original function also doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety – the full-blast epic pieces throw a massive choir and orchestra at you, and the quieter pieces fall back on every other musical cliche you can imagine, from Irish drums to uilleann pipe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those instruments or the styles usually associated with them; it’s just that when they show up on this album, the tunes go exactly where you’d expect them to go. It’s almost a “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” phenomenon – a song you could swear you’ve heard before.

3 out of 4

Order this CD

  1. Antissa (5:11)
  2. Tikal (3:46)
  3. Harappa (4:36)
  4. Ulaid (5:09)
  5. Ebla (6:09)
  6. Nara (4:51)
  7. Cuzco (4:02)
  8. Nineveh (3:42)
  9. Lepcis Magna (3:27)
  10. Menouthis (3:55)
  11. Estremoz (5:06)
  12. Pompeii (3:40)
  13. Isfahan (4:34)

Released by: 33rd Street
Release date: 2005
Total running time: 58:08

8 Bit Weapon – Mean Time

8 Bit Weapon - Mean TimeBilled as a selection of tracks left out in the cold from one project or another, 8 Bit Weapon’s latest CD – lovingly packaged, as always, in an authentic floppy disk sleeve – is a mix of material from different “eras” of their history. Released at Classic Gaming Expo 2007, Mean Time is perhaps an indication of how busy 8 Bit Weapon has been with commissions for original material from Disney, among others.

The laid-back ’80s-style instrumental “Times Changing” kicks things off, while “Chronomancer” is much more in line with 8 Bit Weapon’s first album of game music remixes, as is “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (no doubt an ode to those with noodly appendages everywhere). The newest material, as well as the highlight of Mean Time by miles, is “Micro Boogie”, with its vocoder-ized lyrics making it an insanely catchy follow-up to Vaporware Soundtracks‘ “One Last Mission”. Seriously, just try to get this song out of your head. It ain’t easy.

“64 Gigabit Mario Epic” is a curiously titled instrumental with orchestral samples aplenty; I’ve got a hunch that this may be more Seth solo than 8 Bit Weapon, because it just doesn’t sound like it sprang from a SID chip. (But hey, I could be dead wrong there.) “Die Kintergrunde”, a collaboration with Thomas Margolf (also known as the German micromusic act FirestARTer), combines both the retro and modern approaches interestingly, and is a strong runner-up for the catchiest track on the whole CD.

Following that is a couple of tracks that I remember from Seth’s solo project, Unfortunate Brain Chemistry. It’s just possible that the CD that those tracks come from has faded into relative obscurity for casual 8BW fans, so it’s interesting to hear them here. Though one track is labeled as a “SID Mix”, I really couldn’t detect that much of a difference from the Unfortunate Brain Chemistry version.

3 out of 4“Future Paths” closes things off with a track that once again sounds a little bit more like Seth solo than 8 Bit Weapon, but that’s not a bad thing. Mean Time may not be the most cohesive album in the world (I say album, but running-time-wise it’s more of an EP), but with a spread of material over more than five years, it makes up for it with the Weapon’s uncanny sense of a good, catchy song – and it’ll do the trick nicely in tiding us over for the next CD of all-new material.

Order this CD

  1. Changing Times (3:34)
  2. Chronomancer (1:50)
  3. Flying Spaghetti Monster (1:50)
  4. Micro Boogie (3:47)
  5. 64 Gigabit Mario Epic (3:14)
  6. Die Kintergrunde featuring FirestARTer (4:12)
  7. Robot Kindergarten (2:28)
  8. Femme Machine (SID Mix) (5:10)
  9. Future Paths (2:55)

Released by: 8 Bit Weapon
Release date: 2007
Total running time: 29:00

Electric Light Orchestra – Balance Of Power (remaster)

ELO - Balance Of PowerReleased in tandem with the 30th anniversary edition of Out Of The Blue is, oddly, the last album released by anything resembling ELO’s original lineup as a band. In the years after Secret Messages, bassist Kelly Groucutt vanished from the lineup, leaving a three-piece outfit of Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy and Jeff Lynne, looking in this album’s photography like three guys angling for a chance to be extras in the background of a Miami Vice scene. With Lynne tired of touring, and Bevan tiring of Lynne’s increasingly elaborate studio sessions, this was the end of the road for ELO as a group. There’s a certain weariness to the songs that, while it doesn’t prevent them from being decent music, lets one read between the lines a bit. It was all over.

For this remastered edition of the now 21-year-old album, we’re treated to more honest-to-God outtakes recorded at the same time as the rest of the album’s tracks than any other ELO remaster since the group’s 1972 album. A strikingly different version of “Heaven Only Knows” is presented here, having become the stuff of legend, played only at pre-concert fan club gatherings and other such functions, as well as vintage 1986 B-sides “Destination Unknown”, “A Matter Of Fact” and “Caught In A Trap”. Some of these have been heard before, on the 1990 box set Afterglow (proof that, even in “retirement,” ELO wasn’t out of circulation for long). The real gem of this CD’s bonus tracks is “In For The Kill” – it’s essentially “Caught In A Trap” in a slightly different form, with almost identical music with completely different and (for Jeff Lynne) atypically almost-political lyrics, but the best part is Lynne’s exploration of almost Crosby, Stills & Nash-inspired harmonies. It’s a crying shame this got left off the original album (especially an album that arrived just a year before the movie Wall Street) because in retrospect, it would’ve been the best, most energetic follow-up single to “Calling America”. This song alone is just about worth the price of the album.

There were still other rarities from this era that could’ve filled out the CD to its full capacity – there also exists a lyric variation for “Matter Of Fact” – but alas, that opportunity was missed and the CD only runs to about an hour.

The album itself is still quite good, better than most critics would have you believe, with tunes like “Calling America” and “Is It Alright” living up to ELO’s best standards, although produced with much more modern technology. In a way, though, the 80s instrumentation and style is probably what hurts Balance Of Power the most – the album is robbed of the relative timelessness of, say, A New World Record, and some songs just become casualties of the 80s. With some of ELO’s best (and better known) material, when Lynne was able to overcome his fixation on a four-to-the-flour disco beat and Chic-style guitar riffs, the songs withstand the test of time better; one listen can pretty much nail this album down to the late ’80s. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Rating: 4 out of 4The only truly sad part about it is that this represents the end of the remastered ELO albums, and possibly the mining of that band’s vaults as well. The liner notes booklet talks about Lynne’s revival of ELO for 2001’s Zoom in the past tense, as if that marks the end of the band’s legacy. One wonders if we aren’t being sent a bit of a secret message there.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Heaven Only Knows (2:56)
  2. So Serious (2:43)
  3. Getting To The Point (4:30)
  4. Secret Lives (3:32)
  5. Is It Alright (3:27)
  6. Sorrow About To Fall (4:04)
  7. Without Someone (3:51)
  8. Calling America (3:30)
  9. Endless Lies (3:00)
  10. Send It (3:10)
  11. Opening (0:24)
  12. Heaven Only Knows (alternate version) (2:34)
  13. In For The Kill (3:16)
  14. Secret Lives (alternate take) (3:26)
  15. Sorrow About To Fall (alternate mix) (3:50)
  16. Caught In A Trap (3:47)
  17. Destination Unknown (4:10)

Released by: Epic / Legacy
Release date: 2007 (originally released in 1986)
Total running time: 56:10

Electric Light Orchesta – Out Of The Blue (remaster)

ELO - Out Of The BlueOut Of The Blue is, quite simply, one of the most iconic albums of the ’70s, hands-down. It seems that, despite its intricate arrangements and impeccable musicianship, this album will simply never have the rock critic cachet of, say, Dark Side Of The Moon. And yet these days, one hears more young artists coming out of the woodwork trying to achieve the sound of Jeff Lynne and company than one hears Pink Floyd sound-alikes. You can do the math there if you like.

This remastered edition adds only a handful of bonus material, largely because the original double LP takes up most of a single CD. (I would’ve been happy to go to two CDs, a la the remasters of ELO’s first two albums, but there’s not much indication that there was really enough material to go that route.) The one full bonus track that isn’t a demo or other form of outtake is the lovely “Latitude 88 North,” a song which, according to the notes, was partially written at the same time as the other Out Of The Blue tracks but just didn’t make the cut. Of the various bonus tracks that have come along since the Flashback box set ushered in this new era of “remastered with a few freshly recorded bonus tracks” activity, “Latitude 88 North” is the best one to come along since “Love Changes All” and “Helpless” (or, for that matter, Zoom). Even if it’s clearly a recent recording (at best, the song itself may be 30 years old, but the track itself is much more recent), it’s a great song that hearkens back to ELO’s glory days, and it at least sounds closer to that classic style than “Surrender” (from the remastered A New World Record) does. Bringing up the rear are an excerpt from a demo of “Wild West Hero” (which demonstrates great harmony, but lousy lyrics that were replaced in the final version) and the rousing instrumental “The Quick And The Daft”, which most certainly is a 1977 original – good material for serious fans and students of ELO’s work to chew on, but nothing that will really excite casual listeners.

Fortunately for casual listeners, one of the most iconic albums of the ’70s is still here, perfectly intact and remastered, and it’s never sounded better. The remastering isn’t so radical as to have me reassesing my favorite songs, but it’s nice to hear them cleaned up and sounding sharper than ever before. The booklet-style case is also a treat, with an extensive set of notes about the making of Out Of The Blue. There’s a standard version of this CD with a slightly pared-down version of that booklet, but the deluxe edition – bound like a little book, featuring the full liner notes and even a miniature replica of the original LP’s punch-out cardstock spaceship – is a real treat for fans of the band’s work. I’ll admit I just haven’t had the heart to punch out the spaceship and build it, though; I did that with the one that came with the LP, years and years and years ago, and lost track of that one; I think I’ll leave this one intact, and maybe when my own child is around the same age I was when I first heard this album, it’ll be punched out and put together.

Rating: 4 out of 4Not a bad package at all, celebrating an album that means a lot to quite a few people, even those who would never in a million years profess to be ELO fans. Though I’d wager that the original release of Out Of The Blue created plenty of those as well.

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  1. Turn To Stone (3:49)
  2. It’s Over (4:08)
  3. Sweet Talkin’ Woman (3:49)
  4. Across The Border (3:53)
  5. Night In The City (4:03)
  6. Starlight (4:31)
  7. Jungle (3:53)
  8. Believe Me Now (1:21)
  9. Steppin’ Out (4:40)
  10. Standin’ In The Rain (3:59)
  11. Big Wheels (5:32)
  12. Summer And Lightning (4:15)
  13. Mr. Blue Sky (5:03)
  14. Sweet Is The Night (3:27)
  15. The Whale (5:07)
  16. Birmingham Blues (4:23)
  17. Wild West Hero (4:45)
  18. Wild West Hero (alternate bridge – home demo) (0:26)
  19. The Quick And The Daft (1:50)
  20. Latitude 88 North (3:24)

Released by: Epic / Legacy
Release date: 2007 (originally released in 1977)
Total running time: 76:18