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….

King Crimson – Lizard

Greetings, fellow persons!

Sorry about the delay in updates, but this whole week was spent doing some awesome stuff like “modding” my Mp3 player to do amazing things like play video game soundtracks and Bejeweled on top of its already awesome audiophilic capabilities (I’m totally a FLAC fiend now). Also I had to do holiday shopping, attend parties and, oh yeah, finally obtain some gainful employment, since this blog doesn’t pay for itself unfortunately.

Thus, it’s been a hectic, confusing, yet ultimately rewarding week for me, so I have decided to top it all off with an album that… well ok I selected this at random, but here you go, King Crimson’s Lizard:

Yeah keep telling me you miss the olden days of album covers. I'm listening.

While looking back at old entries of this here blog, I was surprised at first that I never wrote about this album, but then I remembered the very important reason why: I had no idea what to say about it.

All I could remember about my first listen to Lizard was NOTES and then NOOOOTES (Notes). I really don’t think any coherent thought entered my mind in the 42 1/2 minutes of the album’s run-time, which is odd because this blog might show you that I have a lot of thoughts about music usually.

Fast-forward a year or so, and something magical happened: a guy from a prog group called Porcupine Tree decided to work with Robert Fripp to painstakingly remaster, from the original master tapes, ALL of the King Crimson catalogue. Despite this being a very good idea, since master tape remasters are practically the only way to get these ancient albums to sound good on modern mp3/vgm/Bejeweled players, it was also kind of a predictable idea, since King Crimson had already issued 30th AND 35th Anniversary remasters of their old material. Still, from the master tapes, maaaaan.

Among the first albums to be remastered, quite mysteriously, was Lizard, so this is where I gave Lizard what I would consider my first true listen. Then again. Then again. Then again… to be honest, I’m not done listening to it, but at least I’ve finally formulated enough opinions to write a blog entry!

Fact is, I had so much trouble coming up with a single coherent thought about the album because there isn’t a single coherent thought IN the album. I have now listened to the album dozens, possibly hundreds of times, and I know every single note by heart, but I can’t begin to try and guess why any two of them are put together the way they are.

Of course, the 40th anniversary re-issue of the album comes with some  pretty interesting liner notes (penned by Fripp himself) which, when paired with the Internet, paints a rather interesting story about the album’s production.

Without going into too much detail about the band’s personnel problems in those early days between 1967 and 2009, I will say that King Crimson were basically like watching a typical teenage garage band go through the motions of getting together, going nowhere, and breaking up, except instead of that middle bit, you’ve got “becomes the biggest rock band in the world for a while”. Despite having the world in the palm of their hands through a combination of VERY quickly cultivating a uniquely complex sound the likes of which had never been heard, showcasing extraordinary musicianship with even more extraordinary focus on music rather than image, and as Fripp put it himself, being in the right place at the right time, King Crimson simply could NOT get started on that crawling thing before they were already running.

At the time that Lizard was being recorded, they had already lost vocalist/bassist/donut fiend Greg Lake to a little-known band whose name escapes me at the moment, and that was after losing everybody else as well. Basically, Fripp was a man without a band (but his non-musician lyricist remained, more on that later), so he decided to rebuild from scratch.

Apparently Fripp didn’t get the memo that you’re not supposed to include a jazz pianist and four woodwind/brass players in your hard rock band, so that’s exactly what he did. Still, if you were the only member of a garage band that left you and the only other musicians you know from school are in the marching band, are you going to say no?  Also joining the fray is, not kidding, his actual highschool bandmate/roommate Gordon Haskell on bass and vocals, and the only drummer he could find who would take part in this mess, a hero by any standard named Ian McCulloch.

With this motley crew of masterful musicians, Fripp finally had a force to be reckoned with; a band that would record an album that, maybe this time, would not sound quite so much like a repeat of In The Court.

Well, it sure wasn’t a repeat of In The Court, in sound or amount of success, but the fact that the album even happened is perhaps even more a miracle than the huge success that was the band’s first album. Basically, let’s just say that collecting such an assorted cast of kids did not lead to a lot of civilized agreement of ideas, and when your vocalist/bassist is only good at one of those things and doesn’t even like the music, well… let’s talk about the music!

It starts off with some synthy kind of harp strumming sounds, which is not bad, and then Haskell’s voice kind of staggers into the door spilling cough medicine (the type that they ban in most countries) all over the place, and your first thought might well be “Dude, do you need to lie down or turn on a humidifier or something?” And then he punches you and you can hear the wail of ambulance sirens as the paramedics revive you and, oh wait, that’s just Fripp’s guitar playing brash, diminished bits on his guitar as Gordon’s voice comes back in with all the clarity of a wet shoe.

Still, it’s hard to tell what’s more congested, Gordon’s voice or Peter Sinfield’s lyrics. The first track is called “Cirkus” (back before Mortal Kombat made it decidedly un-cool to replace c’s with k’s willy-nilly), and is full of rather obnoxious words strung together by pure pretense, which would seem like faulty songwriting if not for the fact that the same can be said about the music itself.

The material gets even more ridiculous afterward, in fact the song “Indoor Games” ends with a genuine burst of laughter from Haskell as he attempts to figure out how best to emotionally deliver the line “Hey ho”. An understandable bemusement, to tell the truth. Add to this some rather intriguing clean guitar riffs trading off with the saxophone, and you’ve got a song that is by no means bad, if bad songs are something you like.

The next song, “Happy Family“, doesn’t feature any corpsing, but does contain some thinly-veiled allegorical statements about The Beatles, a somewhat well-known rock band from whom Fripp apparently derived the idea to make an entire band around recreating the musical shock that was the ending to Sgt. Pepper. To be honest, the lyrics might be terrible in this piece as well, but Gordon’s voice is so well hidden behind a rather tasty synthesizer effect (plus his own natural store of phlegm and wintertime nuts) that, mercifully, not a word can be understood by humans.

After all that fun nonsense, we go into WHOAH WHERE DID THAT FLUTE COME FROM… I mean, “Lady of the Dancing Water”, a song that calms the storm of weirdness either to prepare the listener for what is to come, or to try and make up for the rather melody-free events that had previously transpired. It’s a very pretty song, but I wish anyone other than Gordon Haskell had sung it, because seriously somebody give him a shot of adrenaline; I think he’s had some kind of reaction.

Finally, the fifth and final track of the CD (or the entire B side to the record) is a 23 minute opus called “Lizard”, wherein Gordon Haskell was kindly shuffled off the roster to make room for a real singer, Yes’s own castrato sensation Jon Anderson. Funny enough, after several songs’ worth of passages go by, Gordon breaks back into the studio to sing for a bit before disappearing forever and ever, missing and presumed eaten by bears.

So I have written all of this to kind of give you a sense of the chaos that has unfolded in this album, but did you see that bit up there where I said I listened to it again and again? That’s because I completely love this album.

Seriously! Sure I may idolize strong melodies, and some of my very favorite songs can be played within a single octave on a piano, but something in my brain simply becomes obsessed when weirdness, the abstract, obtuse, endlessly and needlessly complex musical ideas come into play, and boy do they come in with this album.

Your average music listener, even one who otherwise enjoys King Crimson and their razor’s edge approach to pushing the envelope into the seat of their pants, will probably detest Lizard for any number of good reasons. It sounds out of tune, it hunkers down into rather long passages of go-nowhere note tinkling, hell, it sounds like Jazz in places, but the confusion and befuddlement is what keeps me coming back for more. The anticipation of another sequence of bewildering notes is a rush to me, and thanks to the amazing remastering job in the most recent re-release, the textures and tones really sing out in a good set of headphones. All 23 minutes of the album’s ending track keeps me thoroughly entertained, which turned out to be really good training for becoming an actual Yes fan, turns out.

I truly can’t knock this album for what it is, because it really shouldn’t have been, and I am so glad it was anyway. Apart from being musically one of the most interesting things I’ve heard, it’s also a rather clear window into a band that was falling apart before it even came together, and sure enough, only 1 member of the band remained to help Fripp through the next album, and it was the damn flute player.

Also, in true garage band fashion, when drummer Ian McCulloch left the group, he was immediately replaced with his ex-roommate, who could also play the drums. God bless King Crimson.

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