[12 February 2007]
We arrived to barrage of electronic bleeps and pops, shrugging off the cold and easing into an audience pumping their fists in unison with the bass rumble. Flashing lights gleam off white tile, imported bottled beer diffuses out from the bar, and the stark pillars spaced at intervals along the cavernous space practically pulse with the sound. The venue is modern—a stylishly futuristic art space buried deep into downtown New York City, just a few blocks from Wall Street—but the atmosphere is almost rave-like. The lights flicker dazzlingly bright and the much of the audience dances fixedly, immersed in the clicks and whines stabbing out from the stage. But this is a decidedly unusual dance scene: the lights beam from a huge screen, silhouetting the performer, where pixels nearly a foot across display blocky lo-res bombs and the music, for all its energy and relentless melody, is being triggered from a ‘90s-era Gameboy. We have stepped into Blipfest, a four-day festival of 8-bit music.
It’s either remarkable or dead obvious that the musical spawn of ‘80s videogames has flourished underground for all these years, even now actually growing in audibility. Such “chiptunes” have long had entire Internet archives devoted to their preservation, Tigerbeat 6 IDM-scenester Jay Lesser released an entire chiptune dance-party all-cover megamix, and the raw saw wave sounds have made occasional cameos in Apotygma Berzerk remixes and Swedish metal band Machinae Supremacy. Still, it seems like an odd niche to devote a festival to, until you realize that an entire generation weaned on Nintendo and its Euro-equivalent, the Commodore 64, is coming into its own right now… and building symphony halls of its nostalgia.
Which brings us back to Blipfest… Its audience—who, for all their atari t-shirts and pixelated pins, would probably be equally at home at a DFA concert—and its performers, who are good at what they do. Now, six of those acts, including Blipfest organizers Bit Shifter and Nullsleep, appear on 8-Bit Operators, a bold, but inherently fitting, tribute album to German techno pioneers Kraftwerk. The match makes so much sense that it seems surprising that no one had proposed it before. Kraftwerk’s once ultra-modern synthesized beeps and drum machines, unabashedly electronic and robotically rigid in their timing, already resemble (and probably helped inform) video game technology of the ‘80s, and the band’s fascination with the technologies of future (see: Computer World) easily converges with current fascination with the past halfway. Astonishingly, as a mark of how far chip music has come, veteran mainstream electronic label Astralwerks picked up the project.
From the opening beeps and vocoders of Bacalao’s version of “The Robots” (the classic opening track of Kraftwerk’s 1978 mission statement The Man-Machine) 8-Bit Operators is almost exactly what you might expect from a collection of the best musicians in the chiptune community. The arrangements are faithful to both the original songs and the technology on which they’re performed, the frill-free synth tones smoothly bridging the gap, and the percussion, often nothing more than tightly gated pitched noise, has a simple, crisp precision reminiscent of early drum machines. As such, this is music that is easy to appreciate, certainly by anyone with an affinity for old game music, but likely for Kraftwerk fans intrigued by an original take as well. Of course, adherence to the 8-bit soundsourcing throughout the compilation also leads to a certain uniformity: the limited technology makes for a limited sound pallete and a tightly curbed range of possible interpretations of Kraftwerk’s sound. It’s a problem that’s built into the genre, and one that doesn’t seem to deter its fans, but its there nonetheless.
This may be why the last couple tracks stand out from the rest of the tracklist so effectively. While many of the pieces contain vocals, clean or vocoded, Bit Shifter’s apparently multi-tracked refrain on “Antenna” has distinguishes itself with more of a sing-along quality, supported by bright arpeggiated chords (a necessity of writing for hardware that once allowed very few notes at once) and buzzing bass. It’s one of several points at which it becomes difficult to deny that this is effective pop music, however it’s made. The album closes on its most original note with the hard-stepping drum and bass interpretation of “The Man-Machine”, complete an with MC, Counter Reset, rapping original words about electron beams and sonic forces in alternation with gwEm’s shoutouts to “all chippers, all over the world”.
And they are all over the world, as evidenced by the three acts I saw back at Blipfest, from Sweden, New York City, and Japan. Everywhere, 8-bit music is still thriving in its communities, and more and more often is breaking out into the larger music world. We’ve seen plenty other electronic sub-movements (glitch, for instance) creep into the pop production vernacular before; the way things are going, it seems like 8-bit sounds could even do the same.