Shortly after writing about one of my favorite video game soundtracks on that other blog I do, I got to thinking about Naoki Kodaka, one of my favorite composers, and how he was able to get some incredibly full, proggy, complex, rockin’ sounds out of a mere Gameboy with his Batman soundtracks (among others). Too bad nobody’s doing that nowadays…
Oh wait, they totally are, at least this guy is:
Eagle-eared viewers of this blog will remember that I very briefly mentioned Dan Behrens, a.k.a. Danimal Cannon, way back about 6 entries ago, when I talked about Armcannon. He is one of their guitarists, and upon seeing the band play at MAGfest 9, I found out he’s also one of the guitarists in Metroid Metal, an extraordinarily popular and well-realized band for being a specifically Metal band who plays music from just one game series.
Anyway, I eventually found out Dan does a lot of stuff, more than I am wont to explore. Seeing as how I had a brief sampling of his chiptune prowess on Armcannon 2, however, I took a particular interest when he announced he would be releasing a chiptune album, despite my misgivings about the whole genre.
But, but, you stammer, how could I be someone who has enough interest in music to write about it every single day, who still listens mostly to video game music, and yet not be interested at all in the combining of the two? I mean, it’s original music composed and played on 8-bit hardware, what could be better? To which I shrug and say, until Danimal Cannon, I just never heard much out of the genre that was all that interesting.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some great artists out there, and I even know some of them personally, but having gone to a few large-ish chip showcases here in town and abroad, it just all seemed a little too closely connected with standard techno and dance music, which is just one of those genres a cerebral non-dancer whitey like myself has a hard time appreciating. Most of the performers would just push their buttons and head-bang while the audience went wild and I just didn’t get it, man.
Thus, imagine my relief when someone even whiter and non-dancerier than myself put out basically the perfect album for my sensibilities. Plus, he actually plays a guitar during his live sets, so there’s that too!
Roots is basically progressive rock, with all the care and attention put into it that any Robert Fripp or David Gilmour would have put into their especially fussy work, only entirely made from Gameboy hardware. Of course, being that Dan is an accomplished instrumentalist in his own right, he saw it fit to accompany his compositions with real guitar, and even brought some really great musicians into the mix. We’ll get into that in a bit…
The album starts off with some awesome ambient buildup, like any great prog album would, except that we aren’t on as good of drugs now so it’s not really a Yes-level of anticipation building; the rock actually does start up very soon.
And what rock! Easily my favorite track on the album is the title track, “Roots“, which brings together all the things that I like both about fine instrumental rock music and video game music that tries to emulate fine instrumental rock music. It’s built on a really good melody, and it has this bass hit that comes at the end of the first few measures that I just love so much; it really shakes the ol’ headphones. Right after that, we get this crazy arpeggio that’s part rock-out section, part solo, and that gives way to an actual mosh section, and after hanging in a Metal breakdown for a while, there’s a darling little medieval-tinged melody that gives way to and almost entirely different song with some super-tasty sliding bass.
I don’t plan to explain every song in such detail, but let me at least tell you that every track in this album’s hefty tracklist (18 tracks if you’re buying online) has a similar amount of variety and musicality that makes the hour+ of the album’s total length just fly by.
It’s actually kind of crazy how much variety one can expect from this album. On top of no two songs really sounding alike, you’ve got huge dynamic shifts like the chilled-out Agrobacter and the thrashed-out The Big Crunch, which gives way to a jazz-funk arpeggio jam called Synergy which starts off being this great Tim Follin style ditty, but then gives way to a real-instrument jam that really has to be heard to be believed.
All of that, and the album still has one more surprise twist towards the end; a chiptune version of one of the most famous pieces of music of all time, “The Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven. Ok, you say, who cares? Everyone’s heard that song and I’m totally sick of amateur musicians showing me the 3 bits of it they know on whatever instrument. Ok, I answer, that’s a little harsh, but hear me out anyway.
Growing up, almost all the music I listened to was classical music, and Beethoven was definitely a favorite. Before I even had any idea about how music works, I had listened to The Moonlight Sonata at least a hundred times, and there are two things that are entirely inextricable from this song, without which it just doesn’t work. One is the tune, obviously. Without those melancholy minor chords and that weepy right-hand melody, it’s just not the same song. Remove a single note, and the whole thing explodes! I’ve seen it happen; it’s messy.
For two, the song is supposed to be played with this very obvious delay between chord changes; that is, it’s supposed to sound almost like the song hesitates to move on, well beyond the constraints of normal straight timing we’re used to with our terrible, terrible popular music. There were also specific instructions given by Beethoven about the level of sustain in the notes (called “pedal marks”), and any deviation from this results in an imperfect interpretation of this song. The point I’m trying to make, here, is that Danimal’s chiptune version of this song is perfect, and I can’t pretend to know how this Gameboy music programming works, but I am pretty sure that spacing out every single note to emulate the emotional performance required to make this song even recognizable has to be a level of work achieved only by the impossibly talented or at least mostly insane. I’m not sure which category Dan falls into (I’m leaning toward “talented” but I happen to know the dude loves his Wisdom Tree games), but let me tell you that this song really helped put the rest of the album into this kind of musical context that, without knowing any of the fancy methods or even terminology of music at this level of complexity, I totally get now.
Thus, if like me, you are someone who loves, or at least is not offended by, the sonic quality of 8-bit gaming hardware, and you’d really like a good place to start with understanding what this “chiptune” stuff is all about, or you just want to hear an extremely good set of songs in a format you may be unfamiliar with, I really see where you have much choice but to go download this thing like now.
Also, if you’re already a chiptune fan, then I don’t know why you’re even reading this far because you should already know Danimal Cannon, jeeze, what’s wrong with you!
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