Danimal Cannon – Roots

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!

Man Factory – Street Fight!! Round Two (with Interview!)

One of my favorite parts of being in a video game band, as I’ve said before, is getting to see the other bands that perform video game music. However, before all that started happening, I got the chance to see a band who do something even rarer: they write original music about video games.

And I’m not talking about the Protomen here (a rather popular group who wrote 80’s ballad songs about Mega Man), I’m talking about something even better. Let’s check out Man Factory and the first two parts of their planned trilogy of music based around the game Street Fighter 2. This is Round One and Round Two of Street Fight!!

At one of the first few gigs I had with my video game cover band, we were part of an all-day festival of bands during South-By-Southwest time (basically the worst time of the year to live in Austin), at a coffee shop far away from the chaos downtown called Genuine Joe (I highly recommend the place if you’re ever in the area). Anyway, on the bill just before us was a group called “Man Factory”, which to me sounded interesting but it wasn’t until one of the employees mentioned “Oh yeah they wrote songs about Street Fighter 2” that I really took notice.

Ah ha! I thought, this will be interesting!

Sure enough, 5 skinny 20-something dudes set up their guitars, bass, drums, and keyboard, and proceed to play their songs, and I was simply blown away by the performance!

Now, it wasn’t the fact that they were really good songs about Street Fighter, it was the fact that they were simply really, really good songs. I had to double-check the soundtrack to the actual game to make sure that the riffs these guys were throwing down, at exactly the right times in the songs, were not actually from the game’s soundtrack, and nope! Totally original.

Since that time, I’ve tried to get my band to play with Man Factory as often as we can, mostly because I just had to hear them again, because holy crap I love this band. They have two albums of Street Fighter music out right now, and a third one on the way, and after obtaining these albums and listening to them dozens of times (twice each today, in preparation for this article and just because I really wanted to hear them), and I will try to describe them briefly…

Review:

Round One  (most of which can still be heard here) starts off with the only song that isn’t directly about a character from the game, rather, it’s called “A Night At The Arcade” and is this kind of menacing, slightly spooky song about breaking into an arcade because “All you wanna do is street fight”. Here it is established that this band does not mess around when it comes to melodies. Despite the production sounding very home-made (no Thriller-level budget, I’m sure), the actual core of the songs are so strong, you will absolutely know these songs by the end.

The best part is, this being a “rock opera” (an entity I usually dislike in music), the band revisits themes, and each time they do it’s amazing. The first of these themes is in the second song, “Chun Li, Outside”. The little riff on the keyboard that opens this song comes back at least 3 more times across BOTH albums, so while starting at Round Two isn’t a bad idea, Round One does establish a lot of themes and ideas and stories that Round Two refer to and embellish.

Sometimes, the references are so subtle that I didn’t even catch them the first 30 times I heard them. For instance, there is a slowed-down part half-way through “Good Grief, Zangief”, about the ginormous and mostly nude Russian pro-wrestler character, and his love for Chun Li, the game’s only female character (who apparently really gets around because everyone seems to be in love with her). The part of the song sounds almost like a lullaby, and if you really pay attention, you notice that the main melody of this part of the song is the same melody from “Chun Li, Outside”, only slowed down to half-speed, and the words are sang with the exact same meter and everything, only the key has been changed to major from minor, so it’s almost hidden in the transposition. I FREAKING LOVE THAT.

Round One ends with an incredible kind of R&B/hip-hop jam sung from the perspective of Balrog, a character fashioned so closely to Mike Tyson that they had to change his original Japanese name, “M. Bison” to be the name of a different character in order to avoid getting sued. True story! The band made a video for the song, and I encourage you to view it now and just try not to love it with all your heart:

The song, by the way, is Balrog talking about the person he’ll be fighting, which is Sagat, the huge bald guy who, in the game at least, has a beef with Ryu, the game series’ “main character” (as he was the star of the very first Street Fighter game). I mention this because Round Two‘s opening song is called “Sagat 7’3″” and is basically Sagat’s answer to Balrog’s various “disses”, and man I am hard pressed to try and figure out which song I like better. The song has at least 3 different stages, all of them excellent, and finally ends with a re-written version of that familiar theme from the first album, the “Chun Li, Outside” riff.

Still, Round Two contains some of its own hooks that I simply can’t get enough of. One of the best ones underlines the chorus to the song “Ken’s Wipeout”, which sets up the bitter rivalry between Ken and his best friend Ryu (who is deliciously absent from both albums except for “Where is Ryu?” where people are wondering… well… where he is), by turning Ken’s marriage into a bitter love triangle. Despite the humorous, or at least really clever, lyrical wordplay in both albums, these lads prove they are more than capable of writing truly poetic passages in the follow-up to “Ken’s Wipeout”, titled “Heart Attack III”, which has some wonderful lines, including the following:

pray to poseidon 
not to take my boat 
says i need to lighten 
lighten up my load 
so i jettison my wedding ring 
yea you can have my gold 
watch it sink into the green 
deep down below 
down where it’s cold 

Are you kidding? Rhyming “poseidon” and “to lighten” and fitting them perfectly into context? Who the hell are these guys? This is perfect songwriting. The best part is that they go immediately into a song making fun of Dhalsim, the Stretch Armstrong-esque Indian yoga fighter, while not even partially dropping the quality level of the melodies, themes, or lyrics, all three of which are so strong that I have no idea how these guys avoided being much, much bigger than they are.

So yeah, needles to say I am a huge fan of Man Factory. I could go on and on for paragraphs about each and every song, and what I love about all of them, because there really is that much to love. Simply put, it boggles my mind how anyone could write songs this good, or craft this awesome of a story out of songs written about a video game that really has barely any story to begin with. You really must go listen to both albums and purchase them if you can, definitely if you like video games, but especially if you like really good music.

Intereview:

I was able to chit-chat with various members of the band a little on the ol’ Facebook, and here is that “interview” now:

Album Du JourFirst off, I want to thank you kind gentlemen for sitting down with me here at your computer and/or ipod telephone to talk with me about Street Fight! Round One. First off, I know my readers are both begging to know: Where did the name “Man Factory” come from?

Austin Sevener (guitarist, vocalist): whoa, that was way back in the heady days of the mid-aughts. there’s no telling what mayhem surrounded it, but i do know those two words were first strung together by our friend comedian chris tellez. comedian is his christian name.

ADJ: Nice! And according to your Wikipedia page, that would be the original MF bassist…

AS: that’s true! but man, i just looked and a lot of the other stuff on that wikipedia is flat-out wrong. we should start messing with it and then when people read this they’ll go and look at all the crazy bs we put on our own wikipedia page and think about how we were doing that DURING this interview and then time will collapse on itself and their heads will implode.

ADJ: Ha ha, well the best part is that, once the interview goes up, Wikipedia will see that as an official fact to cite, so you can say whatever you want, and as long as it goes up on my blog, it’ll technically be true!

AS: i feel like neo from the matrix right now. –whoa

ADJHaving just put out two out of three planned albums of Street Fighter 2 music, do you have any plans on returning to more traditional songwriting, or is there another video game/series you have in mind?

Andrew Ehmann (drummer): We do have a back catalog of approx. 30 or so non street fighter songs, all in demo form, all written before the idea of the opera. After Round III is released, we may go back and pick our favorite non street fighter tracks, doll em up, and put them out on some format. As for another video game themed opera, I would say probably not. We don’t need Konami on our asses too

ADJ: Were Capcom on your asses?

AE: No not really. We did send them an email at some point early on asking if what we were doing was ok. I think their response was something like “nah”. But since we’re not selling out wembley stadium they were probably like “man what? factory who?”

ADJWhat are your favorite characters to use when playing Street Fighter 2?

Lane Rackets (keyboardist): I like Vega. At one point I was decent at stinging some moves together and stuff and really kicking a bunch of ass. Apparently it’s not like riding a bike though. A while back we were at a party and our friend, John, just destroyed me again and again. It was bad.

Andrew Ehmann: I was there, it was really bad

Austin Sevener: i like to spread it all around, except for vega and dhalsim. i choose them when i need to balance out my many rapid-jab wins with the loss of respect those wins net you in the end.

Tyler White (also guitarist, vocalist): I choose Chun Li most of the time. But when I need to take down Austin’s mighty E. Honda, I have to go with Blanka. I dont know why Blanka’s his weakness….. oh wait I know, because he’s a damn animal and probably shouldn’t be in the game fighting humans in the first place.

ADJWhat is the story behind the “Balrog 24/7” video? 

TW: Kevin and Kelly Luu, local film directors (although they just moved to California) contacted Man Factory about wanting to make a Round One video. They had the idea of Balrog 24/7 being acted out as a children’s theater production, which we absolutely loved. They held auditions for a bunch of actors and then I think took care of the shooting and editing in one day. Apparently the Luu brothers need sleep or food to survive.

LR: Man, those kids were great. They were there for about 12 hours I’m pretty sure. Even still, no child labour laws were violated because everyone did it for free. Except me, I was paid a sum of $20,000 for my head bobbing. That’s pretty much my specialty.

ADJWhat is each band member’s favorite album of musics?

Tyler White: I guess of all-time I would have to say Weezer’s Pinkerton or Beck’s Odelay. The last really great album I’ve listened to was Beachhouse’s Teen Dream

Andrew Ehmann: I’m with Tyler on Pinkerton. For such a horrible band they made an incredible bold sweet and dark record that I can listen to over and over again. Currently enjoying Mister Heavenly’s “out of love”

Dave King (bassist): It’s so hard to narrow it down, but I’d definitely say Pinkerton is on my top 10. I was really taken for a couple years by Refused – Shape of Punk to Come. What’s strange is, Andrew I think you said something like this the other day, when I first heard that album, I didn’t like it much, but seeing that I spend $12 or whatever on the CD, I forced myself to listen to it and it grew into one of my favorites. Also Clash’s Combat Rock is another one I could listen to several times in a week.

Austin Sevener: 1997 =w= will live on in my heart as well. in recent memory, ELO’s “time” and someone still loves you, boris yeltsin’s “broom” have been constantly in rotation and neither of them have a boring song.

Lane Rackets: Sorry in advance for such a long answer, but music has always been huge for me.
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream, Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary, Pixes – Doolittle, and Pavement – Slanted & Enchanted were all in constant rotation in my youth. Newer than those, but still old sentimental favorites would be Hot Snakes – Automatic Midnight, Modest Mouse – Lomesome Crowded West, Spoon – Soft Effects and Nada Surf’s – The Weight Is A Gift.
I went through a phase in the mid 2000 where I’d listen to the James Gang’s – Funk 49 nonstop. Those were odd times. I love the part, about 3/4 of the way through, where it sounds like it totally falls apart and then that riff comes back and everything takes off again. I guess that’s a single and not an album though. Whoops.
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Best Coast & P.S. I Love You.
Not to be overly contrarian, but I think The Blue Album is perfection and Pinkerton is a close 2nd.

ADJPlease describe working with David Liebe Hart

LR: It was pretty surreal.

AS: yeah i don’t think any of us can really make heads or tails of it. here’s a quote from his set (that a friend posted on my wall afterward):

David Liebe Hart: “This is another punk song that my band wants to play. I don’t really like it, but I guess we’re going to do the punk song now.”

Guitarist: “Stay positive David.”
—-
before the show he gave us the name of his cousin, said he lived in plano and that maybe we could find him and get him to come out the show.

ADJWhat is next for Man Factory? Shows, Round 3, world domination, other?

AS: we actually just played our last scheduled show for a while. round 3 is next on the chopping block. then we’ll release the man factory SNES game. it’ll be as shitty and pointless as the jurassic park SNES game.

AE: Yes, round 3 is written and ready to be recorded. It will be longer than the first two rounds, as it is the finale, and we hope that fans of the opera really dig it. It’s my personal favorite 🙂

End of Interview

I really want to thank Man Factory for coming out with some incredible albums, and for talking to me on the internet about themselves. I really can not wait until Round III comes along, as I’m certain we’ll finally get to the bottom of this Ryu thing. Until then, make sure to check these guys out on Facebook and go buy their album already!