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….

Armcannon – Armcannon 2: Return Of The Attack Of The Legend Of Pizzor + Interview!

Today, one of the truly awesome bands in the Video Game Music “scene” released a super cool video of their newest song, a mash-up of music from the game Gears of War and the Tears For Fears song “Mad World”, (specifically the REM version) which the company that published Gears of War famously used in their TV advertisement:

Watching this video (which I suggest you do!) tells you almost everything you need to know about Armcannon; they’re clever, adept at their instruments, metaltastic, funny, and they do music from video games.

They are easily one of my favorite groups to have run across at various points in my own doings.

Let’s talk about their almost-second-newest album, Armcannon 2: Return of the Attack of the Legend of Pizzor!

Get equipped with: Mega Pizza Boots!

It’s almost unfair to call the band a “VGM band” (in fact, I am not even sure the band calls itself that), because while this album is MOSTLY about video games, it’s bookended by two covers of ultra-famous themes from anyone’s 80’s childhood.

The first is the theme to the original “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” (titled “Morty Miphon” in one of MANY spoonerisms used by the band when making titles). I guess it COULD be argued that it COULD be a cover of the theme from the Super Nintendo game based on the TV show, but let’s be realistic here.

On top of being sped up and metal’d up to be the kind of kickin’ rock anthem that makes the perfect beginning to an album/show/birthday party, it features something you don’t often hear with “Video Game” themed albums: mighty vocal work! Guitarist Mike Willard does an awesome job impersonating the show’s antagonist, Rita Repulsa, while simultaneously holding down those sweet guitar riffs and those timeless lyrics.

After everyone’s favorite TV theme, the video game tunes start, interestingly enough, with one of the creepier tunes to ever come out of Nintendo’s flagship composer, Koji Kondo: the “fortress” theme from Super Mario World, titled “X-1234” here.

This track is an excellent reproduction of one of my favorite moments in 16 bit gaming*, and really showcases keyboardist Chris Dlugosz, as it should.

Keeping the Mario going is a lovely medley of one of my favorite video game soundtracks, Super Mario Bros. 2 (“Two Excellent Italian Brothers“), which shows the band’s affinity not just for metal, but other styles as well. This song also draws attention to something else Armcannon does a little differently from other bands in their area of music: original solos and breakdowns. The solos are quite good and avoid deftly the trap of being too laborious (unless you just don’t like solos at all, in which case, shame on you).

Half-way through the album, the band pays tribute to the unquestionably American (and questionably awesome) songwriting of Rick Derringer with the Hulk Hogan theme “Real American”, which then gives way to Shawn Michaels’ theme song “Sexy Boy”. I don’t know much about wrestling (though I know enough about Hulk Hogan’s songwriter), but one only needs to love INSPIRATION to enjoy this song.

Now for my favorite part of the album! After the wrestling montage (I always picture a montage with that song) comes the band’s tribute to one of my favorite video games, Rygar on the NES (titled here simply “Rygar Medley“) which includes one of my favorite VGM songs ever, the Sagila’s Cave theme, and DOESN’T include one of the worst VGM songs ever, “Palace of Dorago” (seriously try keeping that melody from turning into the “Meow Mix” song in your head).

The band also uses this part of the album to cover music from Contra, Mega Man 2 (A really funky version of the Crash Man theme, and the first Dr. Wily stage theme, which is like the “Brick House” of video game bands), Castlevania 3, and perhaps best of all, Kid Icarus, the very best video game in which you can turn into an eggplant because of magic (and was originally composed by my hero, “Hip” Tanaka).

The band finishes out with a very spirited version of one of the best movie themes ever, Huey Lewis I MEAN Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”, which let me tell you, really brings down the house, whether in an actual house or just nice headphones like what I’m wearing.

After the band stuff and cover stuff is over and done with, the 12th track on this excellent album is an original chiptune composition by guitarist and VGM-jack-of-all-trades Dan Behrens, who moonlights as “Danimal Cannon” in the VGM inverse universe of “Chiptune**”.

As for Armcannon, their second album is about the most fun you can have with a video game band, and the best part is that they branch out of that and into all kinds of areas of artistic and rocking, and even have plans on evolving their abilities into something entirely original, which has this blogger all kinds of excited. You would be a fool not to buy this album immediately and tell all your friends, so I will leave you to that…

…but not before showing you an interview I conducted with Armcannon’s co-founder and keyboardist, Chris Dlugosz!

Chris Taylor: Firstly, thanks to Chris Dlugosz from Armcannon for answering these questions that burn in the hearts of music lovers everywhere. My first question is: How did Armcannon come about, and how will it all end?

Chris Dlugosz: There was a particular lounge room in college with couches and a TV in which dozens of people regularly hung out between classes. Many were so regular that they all just became well acquainted friends over time. this included myself and Danimal [who had hair back then haha]. During a typical day of lunch-hour-esque chatter, he and I discovered that we both held a particular love in our hearts for the Kraid theme from Metroid ever since childhood. Naturally, that sparked all kinds of hyperactive discussion of the playing of videogame music. This was around the time where only the minibosses existed. Another friend in this lounge was our guitarist Mike, who had pretty much zero interest in videogame music, but infinite interest in anything to do with playing guitar, as he is indeed virtuosic and still laboring hard at all of the disciplines to this day. Soon enough, the three of us found ourselves in my dad’s house, and we hammered out a sketch rendition of Kraid, the official first Armcannon song. We felt the energy of potential, so we nabbed the closest bassist and drummer at hand, and practiced in a freezing cold dirty apartment attic for months. Armcannon will not end, but the trend of videogame music might be past its prime. I can see us keeping our name but morphing into an original prog music band.

CT: In my own opinion, you guys are made up of some of the most individually talented musicians in the VGM community, and the recordings definitely showcase that. Was it a conscious decision from the start to include things like original solos and breakdowns within the structure of the original material?

CD: It was 2005 when we formed, and during that time, the word “remix” was huge in the budding world of video game music. We kept calling our songs remixes, and intentionally stayed away from “covers.” Naturally, the word remix demands insertion of new content, and not just crappy techno beats over midi files. Our goal was to wrangle down our flood of original content into something that appropriately amplifies and celebrates the covered melody. We are not even fully successful at that, as I consider some of our original content too superfluous. Thankfully, part of our mission is to make the music enjoyable to non-VGM listeners as well.

CT: Something that kind of sets Armcannon apart from other VGM groups, as far as I can tell, is a very obvious sense of fun when it comes to the material, such as the vocal parts added to the music of “Tecmo Super Bowl” and Crashman’s Theme. Is there any kind of planning behind this, or is it a spontaneous thing?

CD: Much of the time at practice, we all act like idiots, intentionally make glaring errors in the middle of a song for the distinct purpose of making the rest of the band crack up at the absurdity. There are times when entire songs are played intentionally wrong by every member of the band and we are just cracking up endlessly. It’s only hilarious because of its mis-behavior, similar to a 5th grader writing the number 5318008 on a calculator and turning it upside down. Naturally, scraps of this behavior have survived into the final cut of some songs. Some stupid gimmick ends up being hilarious every single time, but gradually gets less hilarious, and eventually becomes literally as normal as the rest of the song, but at that point, removing it would be like re-writing the song.

CT: Another thing that sets Armcannon apart is the emphasis on puzzles and intellectual references. The secret track on Leg Vacuum has to do with note sequence algorithms and most of the tracks on both albums are titled with spoonerisms and anagrams. My question is: who is the professor of the group responsible for this chicanery and why?

CD: That would be me. My instinct was to fill the entire album, both in audio and art, with easter eggs, or secrets to be discovered. That goes hand in hand with the spirit of old NES games. Invisible mushroom blocks in mario or bomb-able cave entrances in Zelda. Meanwhile, I have been literally addicted to spoonerisms over this last decade, and the addiction has spilled forth to the rest of the band, to the point that it’s almost our signature mannerism, as we constantly interrupt conversations to insert a half amusing, half belabored, spoonerism of something that was just said. We take our music very seriously, but we never once cared what the titles to our tracks are, so the only things guiding me on what to call them was our tomfoolery and addiction to word play.

CT: I want to give some big props to whoever decided to cover Rygar and Kid Icarus on Armcannon 2. What, if any, is the criteria for VGM material selection?

CD: Rygar came from our guitarist Mike (Willard) who never actually played the game, but watched someone else play through it enough that the music permated him as a child, and he brought it to the table at band practice. Criteria for song selection is [1] based on if myself, Danimal, and Mike happen to all know the music already, and [2] a process of one person knowing the piece, and selling it to the rest of the band, usually in the form of plugging in a laptop or smartphone into the amps and just playing the source material. There have been many times where we just sit there for an hour and a half listening to song after song of source material from one entire game, cherry picking what we would love to play, and mashing it together into a medley. That is precisely how we did Tecmo Super Bowl, Rygar, and Ninja Gaiden, among others. It’s extremely helpful that I have every NES and SNES audio rom file on my droid.

CT: Being that this is an album blog, what is your favorite album?

CD: Particular favorites changes constantly. but I can tell you that the only thing we all listen to together is pretentious over-composed brain-bending prog-metal and jazz-fusion. Musician’s music.

CT: Being that you guys are mostly a video game group, what is your favorite game?

CD: Mine was always Super Metroid for a myriad of the usual reasons. Mindblowing at the time. Perfect establishment of amazing moods. Music that will never be matched. One of the pinnacles of sidescrolling action.

CT: Separate from favorite game, what is everyone’s favorite VGM soundtrack and/or composer?

CD: Danimal and I are complete suckers for every single note written by Tim Follin. Our bassist Ian, who is much younger than us, treasures SNES the way we treasure NES. He loves every bit of the music to A Link to the Past, and I cannot say I disagree with him there. Also, I consider Koji Kondo’s arrangement of the castle music in Super Mario World to be one of his most delicious and audacious works, probably because it is decidedly dastardly in mood compared to the rest of his work.

CT: How do you feel about the recent news that Nobuo Uematsu is going to be rocking out at MAGfest, a festival normally reserved for VGM bands that DIDN’T write all their own material?

CD: I consider his attendance utterly appropriate, and impressive that the Magfest staff, all of whom I know personally, managed to swing this. However, I fear that his presence might suck up too much focus of the convention. It’s like God coming to a Jesus camp. I would not be surprised if the guy gets overwhelmed with rabid fans and does not want to return. Also, get ready for every band there to bust out every Final Fantasy track they got, because obviously Mr. Uematsu will be watching every band perform, right?

CT: Any plans for Armcannon 3?

CD: MANY! The core of the band is myself, Danimal, and Mike. We spent the last few years wrestling with securing a bassist and then a new drummer. They are finally in place and practiced up, and we are back to the writing phase. We all feel that if we do not kick out a new album, one that blows our other work out of the water, then we are just wasting our time. Armcannon 3 is mandatory and is already happening.

Thanks again to Armcannon for their awesome albums and to Chris Dlugosz for giving this interview. Go buy their stuff!

Hey all, Chris Taylor here. Liked this article? Why not “Like” Album Du Jour on Facebook! Also, should you be interested, I have a Video Game Music project of my own, also on Facebook.  


*The realization that, holy crap, the Super Nintendo can do 3D-looking transparent effects when you punch the doors on the inexplicably-placed fence.

**If you don’t know what “chiptune” is, it’s basically a song written and played entirely on 8-bit soundcards, so it’s kind of like Gameboy meets modern song, and Dan actually just released an entire album of this awesome stuff on the Ubiktune label (check it out here!)

Daniel Tidwell – Versus Video Games 2

My afore-mentioned travels with a band that exclusively plays music from video games has granted me two things: A. a new-found appreciation for video game music in all its forms and B. a rather healthy knowledge of most of the other musical acts out there doing something similar. Really early on, one of the first acts I became aware of was the internet sensation Daniel Tidwell and his really solid Metal covers of video game tunes, seen here in all its green screen glory:

Now, my first reaction was “So… much… cheese…”, and rightfully so, but as I got to watching more and more, I could tell this guy has a real sense of fun that you don’t often get from Metal performers, plus the covers were quite good and getting better all the time.

I eventually met Daniel at an event called MAGfest and it turns out that he is the nicest man (and yes, completely aware of how cheesy his videos come off, in fact he relishes in such things, as we all should).  We traded CD’s and that’s where I got to hear his fantastic debut album, Versus Video Games, which I will talk about another day. Today, I want to fast forward a year and talk about his brand new album, Versus Video Games 2, and at the end, you can check out a conversation I had with “The Daniel Tidwell”! For now, let’s get cracking:

Seriously, does it get any better than this?

Now, the first thing to know about this release, and indeed all Tidwell releases up to this point (2 full length albums and 1 EP, we’ll get to that in a bit), is that “The DT” works alone. The drums are all programmed and the instruments all passed through the mighty hands of this metal maestro. While one may indeed miss the dynamic of a “full band” in this release, it is more than made up for by the two things I think make for a fantastic VGM (Video Game Music, for you “nubes” out there) cover album: Superior arrangements, and song selection.

As far as the arrangements go, VVG2 is both solid and varied, which is so rare for a metal album and even rarer for a “genre” VGM album.  The opening track, “The Vengeful Frog“, which is a reworking of the infamous “Frog’s Theme” from the Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger, starts with a quiet acoustic rendition of the normally brassy ballad, then lets in a sort of mock-up of the game’s original synthesized sound, which is quickly blasted apart by the Metal version, which rings out for just enough “loops” to give you a good sense of the song without lingering long enough to trigger your ADD and click “next” in a huff.

While the Tidwell COULD have kept that solid enough arrangement theme going throughout the album’s 20 tracks, you won’t hear another acoustic intro until track 8, which is his loving tribute to that masterpiece of a horrible game, “Wizards & Warriors“.

Some other interesting arrangement choices actually see the album taking a much needed (depending on your preferences) break from the Metal. In fact, the Legend of Zelda-based “Ordon Village” theme features not only an entirely acoustic backing, but a guest Ocarina player, which is a first (as far as I know) for the Tidwell.

The biggest and perhaps best change of pace in this album is the rather climactic “The Planet’s Dyin'”, a medley of songs from the wildly popular Final Fantasy VII that is simultaneously rockin’ and epic to the core, which is a good thing because the song pushes 8 minutes like nobody’s business. Still, if ever there was a good choice for an ending song, that would be it.

Speaking of song choice, the thing that struck me with this album is that it varies rather nicely between eras, platforms, and genres of video games (and, naturally, of music), which is actually a lot rarer than you might think among the groups/artists that cover VGM. While the games I mentioned so far are all songs derived from adventure/RPG games made in the 80’s and 90’s, Tidwell brings in obscurities like Beetlejuice on the NES, Werewolf (a fantastic game where you not only play as a Werewolf, but a Werewolf with prosthetic blades for hands), and even the almost unheard-of classic Legacy of the Wizard (which features a soundtrack composed by one of my favorites, Yuzo Koshiro, but this isn’t about me).

Despite being a Metal album, all kinds of music is represented, and then promptly filtered through Metal. I already mentioned the almost madrigal-sounding Frog’s Theme, but there are also some jazzy numbers from platform favorites Super Mario World and Sonic The Hedgehog. Perhaps most surprisingly, one of the peppiest songs to come out of the NES, the theme to Tecmo Bowl, is represented, though the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV track “Sewer Surfin’” certainly provides a worthy challenge in the pep department. It almost seems that the more un-metal the original song was, the better Daniel Tidwell can make them sound through his use of power chords and crazy lead scales. I say ALMOST, because I haven’t even touched on one of the best parts of the album: the actual Metal songs.

Starting with the very second track, a very spirited tribute to the grandaddy of perverted, crass, and completely awesome one-line-spewing gun-happy anti-heroes, Duke Nukem, Tidwell really shows his roots with his re-interpretations, and he even included voice clips from the game to give it a nice level of authenticity, which makes for a very satisfactory tribute. He also tears the roof off the Iku Mizutani co-penned classic “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” game on the Super Nintendo (I have always loved that song), and the incredible afore-linked-to cover of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest’s Boss Battle Theme.

All in all, Versus Video Games 2 is a must-have for VGM enthusiasts, Metal enthusiasts, or just music fans with a curiosity for these kinds of things. The album is thorough, cohesive, and most of all, a lot of fun. It’s to be hoped that Tidwell will continue cranking out those cheesy green-screen videos, and in fact he just started a regular video chat channel (he’s just so cute), so make sure you check out both his channels on the ol’ Youtube.

Oh, also make sure to buy his album(s), you fool! 

And now, live via Facebook messaging, an exclusive (?) interview with The Man Himself and your own Chris “ADJ” Taylor!

Chris Taylor: Daniel Tidwell, internet metal god legend, thank you for joining this humble blogger for an interview. My first question: As anyone just getting into your music will no doubt notice, you operate as essentially a one-man band, how has the experience of being a one-man force been so far? Any plans to pursue a Daniel Tidwell Band?

Daniel Tidwell: The pleasure is mine man, it’s cool to be a part of your blog! I’ve also seen what you’re capable of doing to a bass guitar and you’re far from a slouch in that department, my humble friend. The one man band thing sort of just happened after getting sick of having to rely on and deal with others to get anything done. If you are lucky enough to get a group of people together that get along and work well together then it’s undoubtedly a great thing. While I do enjoy having complete control on projects it’s sometimes hard to get perspective when you’re responsible for every aspect of what’s going on. The DT live band concept is definitely not far-fetched and I’ve been considering making it happen for awhile now. Also I am working with a live band now on an entirely separate original metal project.

CT: From what I can tell, both of your “Versus Video Games” albums feature a very broad range of different games from different eras represented. Is there a set criteria for the music you choose to cover?

DT: Not at all. The only criteria is basically it has to inspire me, of course. But I don’t exclude songs from games that I may have never played or even heard of before. There’s a greater nostalgia attached to games I grew up with but many of the songs are thanks to requests in which I heard and fell in love with the tunes on their own.

CT: Your Youtube channel, which boasts over 40,000 subscribers and a total of over 10,000,000 views, seems to be a hub not only for your unique “green screen” music videos, but also videos specifically made to interact with your fans, which you do on a regular basis. How has the experience with Youtube been?

DT: I don’t think it would be hyperbole in the least to say that YouTube changed my life. About 5 and a half years ago now I posted a video of me playing my version of the battle theme from Final Fantasy VII. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, just randomly felt like doing it on a whim. I didn’t even realize it was something that people did or people would care about. Well – long story short that video is what made me realize that I’m far from the only one dorky enough to think that this could be a really cool thing to explore. And exploring the concept has been a huge part of my life ever since. I definitely love the impact websites like YouTube are having on the music industry.

CT: I just mentioned the “green screen” videos, I wanted to ask how that idea came about?

DT: Basically just wanted to make the videos more entertaining and be able to do funky things with backgrounds or relate it to the songs. At the same time, I think there is a certain charm to being able to see my bedroom in the background, hahah. I prefer not reminding the audience that’s where I am though – I’d rather be on the goddamn moon or some shit like that! I’m definitely not much good when it comes to the video editing side but I guess it’s mostly about being able to transport myself and the audience to somewhere other than my bedroom!

CT: Your newest album is “Versus Video Games 2”, the sequel to your debut album, and it features 19 tracks of single songs from various video games and one big ol’ medley of Final Fantasy VII music. Was there a reason (besides it just being awesome) behind going for a full-on medley with FF7, and can we hope that such a thing will happen again?

DT: The main reason behind that track is that, at the risk of seeming like a cliché fan boy, it’s probably my favorite game of all time. And definitely one of my favorite soundtracks from a game as well. Beyond that – a big portion of the people who enjoy my stuff are big fans of the game as well and first found me via the battle theme video. So while I wasn’t pandering that’s also a bonus to know that much of your audience will have a similar connection to it.

CT: Being that you’re a Metal guitarist with a penchant for covering video game tunes, I have to ask, which came first: the Metal or the Video Games?

DT: For me? The video games. I never realized how goddamn metal some of the tunes were until later on after I got into the metal! When I was younger I liked the game tunes but didn’t give them much thought.. After I had played guitar for awhile and started to hear those old game tunes again I heard them in a totally new glorious light.

CT: Going back a bit, you also released a very cool EP of classical tunes turned up to 11 with “Echoes of the Elders”. How did that come about, and are there any plans to expand further on the classical covers?

DT: Kind of just one of those things that I had an idea to do and ran with. I love classical music so it just felt natural to pay tribute to some of the greats in my own way. There are a lot of folks out there who whine about recreations of classics. Y’know the rolling in their grave stuff yada yada. Seems silly because the original composition is still there – nobody is trying to replace it. It’s also worth noting for some people that there are no “original” recordings from Beethoven or Mozart or Pachelbel. There are people playing and recording their compositions the way they were (most likely) intended. And of course I can’t speak for them but even if someone was to “butcher” something I composed in an attempt to recreate it in a new way I would still be happy they thought enough of my work to do so. End rant. Yes I will continue to do classical stuff! Hahah.

CT: What are your favorite video games?

DT: Oh man… I hate the favorite questions but since I love you so I shall rattle some off: Final Fantasy VII, IX, Chrono Trigger. Of course classics like the old NES Mario games, Sonic games from the Genesis, Donkey Kong stuff on the SNES. I loved the old TMNT games too! I know I’m leaving out so many favorites. I hate to even start listing! Oh well – let’s end it with etc. Heh.

CT: Kind of a separate question, but what is your favorite video game song, soundtrack, and/or composer?

Overall I would probably have to go with Nobuo Uematsu for favorite VG composer. I mean there are so many amazing composers that I love but if I had to pick one who had the biggest influence on me it would be him. Again – hate favorite questions! For soundtrack I’d probably go with FFVII or IX. Again so many amazing ones I love so much and it changes with my mood so favorites are hard for me to pick.

CT: What are the future plans of Daniel Tidwell? Anything in the works at the moment? You don’t HAVE to answer in the 3rd person… 

DT: Daniel Tidwell likes his chicken spicy. Right now the DT is working on original compositions for a separate project and also some to be released under the DT banner. Some cool live show opportunities have been popping up too which I definitely want to start doing more of it’s just a matter of practicality and figuring out the best way to put on a live DT show.

Again, my thanks go to Daniel Tidwell for the interview and for his fantastic music. If you’d like to follow him on Facebook, he has one of those! While you’re at it, you might consider “Liking” the official Album Du Jour page or maybe even my video game band’s page, where we love to interact with VGM fans on the topics of video games and video game music. Thanks for reading! Rock on!

The Immortals – Mortal Kombat: The Album

Since we’re close to the end of the year, I figure maybe it’s about time I expanded the scope of music I wish to talk about, and touch briefly on one facet of music that’s rather interesting to me: video game music.

Of course, this isn’t music contained within the video game Mortal Kombat, as that music is rather sparse and not worthy of really mentioning. No, instead this is music inspired by Mortal Kombat, that is completely terrible, yet went platinum within less than a week. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAAAAAAT *cough*

Yes, that infamous roar followed by pounding synth bass and that oh-so familiar riff will be emblazoned in the minds of everybody around my age as we think fondly back to the year 1994. Oh sure, it was a year that had its bumps; in April, disgraced vocalist Kurt Cobain had an unfortunate mishap with a firearm, ending his brief career in making music that would annoy me forever, and exactly one month later, Weezer would release their first album. Yes, it was a dark time in music, but kids like me, around the age of 12, couldn’t give a crap about music. There were video games to be played.

One of the biggest games to come out the previous year (besides Color A Dinosaur, of course) was Mortal Kombat. Combining the new, insanely popular “Street Fighter II” style of face-to-face fighting gameplay with bad spelling and a grittier, more “realistic” representation of violence:

Super Nintendo Graphics!

…The game was a legend. In fact, it’s the game that more or less singlehandedly unleashed the torrent of lawsuits directed at video games for screwing my generation up, and in that respect, is the video game that best represents rock n’ roll.

 

You know, besides this one.

Anyway, as would become the tradition for ultra-successful video games, the entertainment industry (a bunch of evil guys in suits) saw the success in this contemptible form of entertainment, which caused their eyes to turn into dollar signs as they rubbed their hands greedily. These guys in suits were Virgin Music, and they wasted no time in contacting… get this… a moderately successful techno group in Belgium to produce an album of music based on this game (there was also a movie involved somewhere starring The Highlander but whatever), so that they could have an official soundtrack without having to pay Midway or Acclaim much more than the price to use their dragon logo and ridiculous misspelled name to make piles of money appear. Well, that’s my theory anyway, but doesn’t that just sound like something evil guys in suits would do?

So the group, at the time called Lords Of Acid and fronted by an artist called Praga Kahn (Maurice Engelen), decided to call themselves The Immortals for this album, presumably under the wise decision to not associate this album with any of their other stage names (which is why I’m doing that right now). Besides Maurice was long time compatriot Oliver Adams, who wrote the songs, and an ex-roadie of his (but very important to our cause) called Dieter Troubleyn who is apparently a well-known Belgian soap opera star (he looks it), and a girl called Julie Wells.

Now, most of you are going to know this album just by its most popular track, “Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)”, which you would probably know better as the “MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAAAAAT” song. True story: I used to do karate back when I was a teenager, and some of the younger kids would put on performances and do a bunch of fancy moves with nunchucks or whatever, and this was almost always the soundtrack to said performances, even though this would be somewhere in the late 90’s.

Anyway, that theme has been well established, but what about the rest of this album? Well, I’m glad you asked. Basically, using nothing more than a Sega Genesis with a copy of the game that Virgin sent them, songwriter Oliver Adams had to write some kind of lyrics to go along with the terrible techno music that they apparently love so much over there in Belgie-land. Shouldn’t be a problem for this guy:

The only problem with the music in this album is everything. Despite the obviously terrible techno music going on here (well I don’t know, maybe it’s supposed to be good, I don’t care for techno, but I know cheese when I smell it), these guys don’t have the strongest grasp of English, much less the intricacies of these ridiculous video game characters.

Take the first song, for instance, a synth-blatting tribute to Mortal Kombat, disguised as a tribute to the game’s supposed hero, “Johnny Cage“. The chorus kind of has nothing to do with anything but some kind of lyrical mad-libs where Mortal Kombat is the noun:

Prepare yourself, the Mortal Kombat’s on today
Prepare yourself, Mortal Kombat all the way
Prepare yourself, Mortal Kombat’s here to stay
Ooh, Johnny Cage is not afraid to die

And yeah, there’s kind of a rap in the song that describes Johnny Cage’s moves, but the main point of the song is that he’s not afraid to die. Sure, this isn’t really a point that’s driven home at any time in the game, indeed most of the characters shouldn’t be afraid to die, they do so at the end of every match if you know the fatalities, but still, the song remains.

The song about “Kano” is even more perplexing, partially because a song about a hardened criminal should maybe not have “Woo!” being shouted on every bar, but also because all the lyrics are sung by a woman (the same woman who sings Sonya’s song, thus is sounds like Sonya’s singing a love song to her supposed bitter enemy and… please excuse me, my coke-bottle glasses just slid off my face), and go something like this:

You are wanted, and you’re haunted
You’re the Bad Guy, but I feel for you
You’re the danger, a fallen angel
But I like you, you’re the strongest of them all

Kano Wins
Use your might, Kano fight
The world is at your feet
Fight, use your might
I’m on your side

Well, I applaud the song for wanting to take a stab at some depth to the character, but seriously? His “fatality” move is that he punches a hole into the chest of the other guy (or girl) and rips out their still beating heart, exactly how much can you empathize with this guy? (Woo!)

Still, if you want to talk about classics (sorry, “Klassics”), there is only one song that wears the assless chaps around here: “Sub-Zero (Chinese Ninja Warrior)“. Featuring epic piano and an admittedly catchy beat, this is one of the songs I’m convinced is using Dieter Troubleyn’s singing voice, because there is no way those “WHOOOOAAAOH”s are coming from anything but a guy that looks like this:

Dieter, your life is a mystery.

Indeed, the song makes absolutely no sense, but it is the funnest thing to sing to at the top of your lungs, if you can suppress the laughter long enough. True story: I heard the female “FREEEZING VIBRATIONS” line (what?) in a song on the radio a few times, and though I haven’t found out whether there was some kind of sampling going on, apparently that particular line sounds very similar to one by Marky Mark, but I have not found out which song because I’ll be damned if I’m going to go looking for Marky Mark material to find Sub-Zero material. That’s lose/lose for everyone.

The song “Liu Kang (Born In China)” is another song that also amounts to little more than a Belgian guy spouting off facts about the character that he read in the instruction book. The real pay-off in this song is in a section that starts off with someone shouting “FIREBALL!”, as that is one of Kang’s moves, and then a sample of the game character’s voice, which is a bad Bruce Lee impression in itself, going “WWWEEEHH HEHHH!” in every beat, and then, presumably to note the character’s “flying kick” move, instead shouts out “FLYING CAKE!” I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s hilarious, but the best is yet to come.

Basically, if you took Sub Zero and colored him yellow, you would have an equally ridiculous ninja called Scorpion. His song is called “Scorpion (Lost Soul Bent On Revenge)”, and Scorpion is generally a favorite among players for his super easy Fatality and the fact that his face is really a skull, so you’d think it would be a pretty killer track, right?

Well give it a listen and come back, I can wait.

Yes, this is perhaps the most ridiculous track on the album. It sounds like a drag queen singing against a new agey kind of tuneless thing, and the whole thing is followed up by repetitions of Scorpion’s famous lines “COME HERE! GET OVER HERE!”, which in the game is what he shouts when he throws a harpoon into your sternum and drags your bloody body over to meet with his cheap uppercut. In the song, it just sounds like he really wants you to come over to him, and his insistence is unyielding. So yeah, that and nature sounds, this album went Platinum folks.

The other half of the album is ridiculous as well, what with a feature-length rap about Sonya (again detailing her special moves and other information they got from the instruction booklet) and Raiden, where they insist that, because he’s a thunder god, he can’t be killed and is thus immortal (which kind of makes him a bit out of place in “Mortal” Kombat?) Another point they  make in a very matter-of-fact way is that he has no eyes; apparently the songwriter was just done by this point.

Speaking of, I have milked enough writeup out of this disc that cost me $2 and some shipping. It’s a fun disc, but don’t actually buy it, you can just hear it all on Youtube and forget you ever heard it, that is until you’re at work someday and suddenly you break into a round of “WHOOOOOAH CHINESE NINJA WARRIOR, WITH YOUR HEART SO COOOOOOOLD, SUB ZEROOOOO”, then you too will be affected with the plague that beset my entire generation, and you too may seek legal action against Midway (despite their going bankrupt this year) and the nation of Belgium.

 

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