Minibosses – Brass 2: Mouth

Yeah I know, I KNOW I’ve been writing too much about video game music stuff, I mean between this new blog I started and the last entry I posted, it’s like VGM is all I listen to nowadays, right? Well, that’s kind of the truth! I’d say about 70% of the music I’ve been listening to is 8-bit and 16-bit era tunes straight from the source files (thanks to the RockBox firmware I installed on my Sansa Fuze), and the other 30% is listening to bands covering said video game music.

Today we’re going to talk about that 30% with what is possibly my favorite video game album ever (with all due respect to all the other albums I’ve been calling favorites lately), the Minibosses’ newest: Brass 2: Mouth: 

Testimonial:

Before I get into the details of this album, and believe me I am going to, I want to go into a bit of history here. If you didn’t know, the Minibosses are pretty much the most well-known band that does instrumental covers of video game music. While this may seem like kind of a dull statement to make, believe me when I say that, if you decide to, oh I dunno, start your own video game cover band, the reality of the Minibosses’ popularity will soon become an everyday concern. Being the most popular, of course, also means people’s opinions are going to be the most polarized, and certainly the Minibosses are no exception.

In playing with a moderately successful video game group, I’ve heard the band praised and criticized. Naturally, I used to side myself with people who criticized the Minibosses for whatever reason (survival instinct on my part, I guess), and since I had really not seen the band or heard any of their material other than the oldest stuff you can find on Youtube, I felt that disliking the band would be justified.

The2 things happened; One, I saw them play, and two, I heard the album I’m writing about today.

I believe something happened with the band between recording their previous album, Brass (which is available as a free download from their website or as a pay-what-you-want download from Bandcamp) and Brass 2. Perhaps something to do with personnel changes, maybe they got a better producer, maybe both, who knows? All I can say is that I was somehow surprised to find out that this band, at least in its current iteration, deserves every bit of their overwhelming popularity.

As far as playing live goes, I saw them at MAGfest 9, which was my first experience with a truly “huge” event that entirely had to do with video game music. Despite my previous misgivings about the group, I was anxious to see them play because I wanted to know what they were all about, why they were so popular. It couldn’t have been simply because they’ve been around a long time, because every video I’d seen of them showed them playing for masses of adoring fans.

Once they kicked on, briefly acknowledged the audience, and then set about playing their first song, I quickly realized the piece of the puzzle that was missing from my analysis. When the Minibosses take the stage and bust out these somewhat slowed-down yet really accurate versions of the best-of-the-best-known video game songs, it takes you right back to the livingroom or bedroom of your youth, hanging out with your friends and taking turns playing through Super Mario Bros. 3 or Contra or Mega Man 2, having the time of your life and not caring about all that crappy stuff you’re saddled with as an adult. Every calculated, almost pensive note of the dual guitars, in its purest, simplest form, entirely stripped of all pretense and genre coloring or embellishment, is something an old gamer like me totally recognizes, and thus an unshakable connection is made.

In short: the Minibosses  freaking get it. They play huge 8 minute medleys because that’s what they should do. They play slower than the original game speed because it’s easier to discern the melody that way. They are every part rock and every part video game, and they do it while looking and acting like they’ve never been on a stage before, and then they claim total ownership by playing the main theme toExcitebike about 9 times throughout the night just to mess with the audience. I love it.

The crowd loves it, too; I actually snapped a little piece of their Castlevania performance from the middle of the crowd just to show other people how completely stoked their crowds are. Whether through genius or just unintentional luck or somewhere in between the two, this band is extremely effective at what it does.

So what does this have to do with the album I am talking about today? Quite a lot, because knowing what the group is all about is the factor that helped me appreciate what all goes on in Brass 2.

Brass 2: Mouth

Upon streaming that first track or playing it from your own player (or spinning that record if you happen to purchase the vinyl print), you get to hear an interesting multi-game medley called “sports!!!” which begins with the intro to R.C. Pro Am (one of my childhood favorites) and then goes on to Blades of Steel and Rad Racer, which makes for a good line-up of peppy rock-out tunes to start things with. The next track keeps this going with a cover of one of the greatest 8-bit sports songs ever: the intro song to Tecmo Bowl.

From the sports-themed beginning, we’re brought to what I am fairly certain is my favorite Minibosses track to date; a  8-minute medley from Batman on the NES titled “vantam” for whatever reason. The song starts with a slow-tempo crawl leading up to the crunchy bass-line that starts off the Stage 1 theme (among the best video game songs ever, in my opinion), which really comes out sounding like a dark, action-packed surf guitar song, which is exactly what one should think of when one thinks of Batman. The song doesn’t stop there, however, and goes into the Underground (Stage 3) theme, the Stage 4 theme (which features a very head-explodey bass part for which I really have to give props), and some other great sounds from the game.

By the time “vantam” ends with a hilariously badass voice mail message from none other than Shawn Phase of Temp Sound Solutions, you almost feel like the album could end there and you would have gotten your money’s worth, but then things get interesting.

As I mentioned before, part of what I loved about seeing the band play live was watching them basically “troll” the audience with many repetitions, often at different tempos, of the love-to-hate-it Excitebike theme. Well, if you love Excitebike, and who doesn’t, this is your album. The band sets up a theme in track 4 by playing a slowed down version of the main theme, and then moves things along to a treatment of The Legend of Zelda (with Zelda 2 mixed in) that I really love for many reasons, but among those is that they don’t play the main theme. How do you even get away with dedicating over 5 minutes of album time to a game without playing the one theme everyone recognizes? Well, I guess that’s just what they’d expect you to do, right? The Minibosses are cooler than that, clearly.

Then, a lone piano bass note pounds away at a slow rhythm, and a curious track called “The Legend of Hallowbike” kicks in. It starts with a somewhat spooky rendition of the “dungeon” theme from Zelda, and then something amazing happens. Listen for the second guitar to come in all quite and reverby, why yes, it’s playing the Excitebike theme in the middle of a Zelda song! It’s at this point that you realize we’re dealing with an album that, on top of being really well put together, is actually built on a theme, and that theme ties the whole thing together so wonderfully that you don’t even notice that some of the songs are a mere 1-2 minutes long (such as their spirited Ghosts N Goblins cover), and some of them are 8 minutes long or more, you just know that you can expect to hear that sneaky Excitebike theme at any moment, and that’s completely brilliant, if you ask me.

The centerpiece for this album (both in spirit and in track placement) seems to be the band’s entirely grandiose presentation of the music from Kid Icarus, one of the truly underrated and best soundtracks of Nintendo’s early days (composed by Metroid composer “Hip” Tanaka, if you must know, and I say you must). The track weighs in at just over 12 minutes, and covers most, if not all, of the major themes in the game, and if that wasn’t enough, they interrupt a drawn-out interlude of the “annoying” “Mad Reaper Theme” with… well, I’ll let you guess.

Really though, I could keep going on about the rest of the songs on this album, but the main point is that you need to purchase this album and listen to it over and over. The Minibosses have created an album of video game music that is not only filled with recognizable, expertly played music, but the whole thing sounds like it was build with  cohesion in mind. It needs to be heard all the way through to be truly appreciated, as it shifts between short, single songs and the “feature length” medleys, all without fatiguing the listener with too much stuff going on. At the end of the day, even if it’s not your favorite album about video game music ever, at least you’ll come away with a new appreciation for Excitebike, which I think we all need.

So yes, at one point, in building a band that exclusively covers video game music,  I thought the best philosophy would be “How do I avoid sounding like the Minibosses?”, but now I realize, upon hearing this album, that I instead find myself thinking “How can I be as good as the Minibosses?!”, which is probably why every band that does this crazy material has taken something from these dudes, and everyone that either plays video game music or simply appreciates those who play video game music owe a LOT to the Minibosses, and would be foolish to think otherwise. I have seen the light, and am now a huge fan of the band, and I can’t WAIT for the next album, even though I’m sure it’s a ways off yet.

Temp Sound Solutions – Now You’re Playing With Powar X: Endgame

Ah, another day another blog update…

Oh wait, more like 3 months eh?

I guess that Bieber album was worse than I thought. Well, it’s time to pick things back up with one of my favorite video game tribute bands in their latest album!

I don't even know how to find alt attributes anymore. Does that require Opera or some crazy stuff?

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet connectetuer velit pretium euismod ipsum enin, and all that.

To put it simply, Temp Sound Solutions is a video game cover/tribute/whatever band based in Baltimore, Maryland, and have been in the “scene” for way longer than there ever was one. Led by the world’s busiest drummer*, Shawn Phase, and filled the rest of the way out by some amazing string-guys, Kirby Pufocia and Alex “housethegrate” Liss, with Spookmeister C on the rad 5 string metal bass, TSS  are one of the truly unique video game acts out there; which may not be saying much considering there are only about 30ish bands even doing this stuff. Still, hear me out!

When listening to Powar X , which I suggest you do, you may find the presentation somewhat unique. For one, it is definitely not intended for your typical 80’s retro-enthusiast, as maybe only 3 or 4 of the songs are from A-list games or even games people have heard of. Even an embarrassingly obsessed VGM junkie like myself had to look up over half the tracks (and even had to ask the band themselves what a couple of them were). For two, despite its somewhat lo-fi sound, eagle-eared listeners will detect that there are some seriously amazing performances going on here.

As I just mentioned, the material itself is so obscure at times that you may well wonder what exactly is going on here. Well, to the best of my knowledge, based on his writing on some of the “niche within a niche” corners of the internet (including my personal favorite, Lost Levels) Shawn Phase simply (or perhaps complicatedly) loves the crap out of old games. When I asked him once “Why Garfield on the Genesis?”, his answer was simply that he loves Garfield and wanted to cover that song.

Though I have only had a few conversations with the other members of the group, I can definitely attest to the same attitude of damn-the-Man retro love being present across the board. Temp Sound Solutions is like this impossible mix of excellent musicianship and true passion for those old gray cartridges (and sometimes compact discs), and to look at them performing on stage you can just tell that they genuinely love what they’re doing, so much so that sometimes they take of their shirts halfway through so be ready for that.

Anyway, having said that, let’s look at the actual album!

We start with a chilled out track that comes from the title screen of a Sega Genesis game called Ecco Jr., which according to Wikipedia, was apparently composed by a Hungarian football player… Yeah I think we’re going to not use Wikipedia as a source today…

Whether you’re familiar with the “for the kids” chapter in the popular dolphin-based game series or not, at least most gamers should recognize the second track as the “Air Man” stage theme from the perennial favorite in a long series of games called Mega Man 2. “Air Man” is something of a favorite of mine, not just because the original song is among my favorite pieces of video game music ever, but because Kirby and House, who play the song’s featured solo in unison, both play it perfectly, and that is no easy task. The best part is that the song goes on for 4 loops, so you get to hear this super tight impossible guitar solo 4 times, each time with a little something extra added to the crazy drumming parts so as not to simply sound like the same song being looped.

Despite the expertise displayed in “Air Man” (or is it “Airman”?), that’s nothing compared to the crazy displays of phalangeal dexterity contained in the fast-flying kind of funk/metal hybrid cover of music from Gauntlet. I’ve seen the band play this in person and I still don’t believe it!

Extreme difficulty of Gauntlet and others aside, it was the tracks that I am more personally familiar with that really hit home (as is often the case with these kinds of songs). The high point for nostalgia was almost certainly the band’s treatment of the original NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. Being that it was the first game I owned besides the original Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge, I was immediately rushed back to age 7, where I spent a large portion of time every day slowly working my way towards victory over an impossible Technodrome and a surprisingly easy Shredder (surprising considering the game is BALLS HARD). The band covers the first two songs you’re likely to hear in the game, and then curiously follows it up with the Technodrome music from the second game (the “proper” arcade conversion rather than the original game that was released on the system first). Still, in the words of a great ship captain/internet meme, “You know what you doing.”

Speaking of the internet, I think Temp Sound Solutions pulled one of the greatest moves in VGM band history by covering a song from a game so obscure, it was never even known to actually exist until a couple of years ago! Yes, Bio Force Ape, one of the most sought-after and prized of the “only rumored to exist” prototype games of the “old school” era, was famously discovered and dumped into delicious, buttery ROM form, and a generation who never thought they’d live to see the day are now able to play the prototype in all its unfinished glory.

Naturally, Shawn Phase and the boys saw it fit to celebrate by covering one of the songs contained in the prototype’s data, making Temp Sound Solutions perhaps the first band to cover music from games that were never released!

If pulling a unique move like that wasn’t enough for you, TSS also cover the “Commando Man” stage from Mega Man 10, (not to be confused with Mega Man X), which is an NES game that came out in, oh let’s see, last year.  Still, the song is every bit as good as any Mega Man game that came out back when they were current, so trust me, no complaints here.

Honestly, I don’t want to give away too much about the album**, as I think you should hear the entire thing, and if something comes up that you don’t recognize, by all means go and look it up! I learned several new things about gaming in general that I didn’t even know about simply by researching the music on this album, and if that doesn’t make Powar X a great tribute to gaming history, then at least it’s a freaking cool album full of kick-ass tunes.

Seriously, I think they’ve still got discs available. Hop to it! And if you’re on the East Coast or thereabouts, catch one of their upcoming shows and like them on Facebook and all that jazz!

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*I mean that in two ways; Shawn has involved himself in more projects than I can even bother to research, and his actual playing style requires hitting each drum about 4 times more than your average drummer. Easily my favorite style of drumming if you take note of my drum compliments (drumpliments?)

**Except to say that the ambiguously-veiled ending song is among my oldest and dearest memories of early gameplay! FAAAAAXANA….