Starscream functions within a music genre called chiptune, which typically consists of instrumental music by way of bleepy-bloopy audio effects from outdated computer and gaming hardware, infectious dance rhythms, and rapid arpeggios in lieu of melody. Like all nostalgic meditations, much of the appeal of chip music is its evocation of a simpler time. Yet the fact that chiptune’s particular retrospection is based around technology also tends to create a strong sense of irony. The subject of chip music’s nostalgia is obsolete technology, yet it is largely arranged and reproduced by way of modern computers. This music seems to revel in the humor of an obsession with the past as projected through digital age artifacts, a genre meditating on the limitations of our digitized world while simultaneously smugly congratulating oneself in recognizing those limitations.
While there are immediate pleasures in the above-described aesthetic, Starscream’s take on chip music is much more formally ambitious. It is a band not content to revel in either nostalgia or novelty, pushing past the “Eat, drink, and code, for tomorrow we die“ mentality. If most chiptune bands are like a group of robots who become self-aware and decide to have a dance party, Starscream’s music is like the morning after, when, hung-over, the robots start to actually question what their self-awareness means.
In all ways except the actual sounds they produce, Starscream’s music is more akin to the melodically layered instrumental compositions of such bands as Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You, Black Emperor than chip’s beat-driven dance affectations. As with those bands, melody and polyphony figure at the forefront. Another extremely important feature is Starscream’s use of live drums in performance—the band consists of two members, Damon Hardjowirogo (the primary composer and programmer) and George Stroud, a drummer playing on a very standard kit. It is no accident that the driving force, the heartbeat of Starscream’s electronic music is generated not by a machine but by a human being playing an instrument.
Like a lot of people, I was turned on to Starscream’s music via their appearance on MTV’s Skins. The band appeared during the Season 1 finale to back a rendition of Tears For Fears’ “Shout”, sung by two of the show’s stars, Danny Flaherty and Britne Oldford. (Starscream not only appeared on-screen but also arranged the backing music for this musical production.) The band had been hand-picked by show-runner and resident TV genius Bryan Elsley, after the Skins music supervisor Matt FX played him on of the band’s EPs. Starscream had created several EPs up to that point, but appearing on Skins enabled the band to produce its debut LP, Future Towards the Edge of Forever. And the new record is a significant development of the already brilliant music on the EPs, The Space Years and Future, and It Doesn’t Work, as well as their short TV interlude.
Future Toward the Edge of Forever feels like a fully-realized space opera. Songs often stretch past the seven or eight-minute mark with interweaving, layered melodic themes, at all times evoking images of space. “Mira, Ultraviolet” begins with one of the albums’ several moments of non-musical sound effects, a metallic static gradually forming into notes, almost suggesting the above-described robots being born into consciousness and gradually taking stock of their surroundings. The next song, “Galeforce”, begins with a minor-key melody rendered playfully melodramatic with the 8-bit quality of its timbre; this very gradually builds into a repetition of the initial melody, this time made more serious with a piercing, almost-vocal tone. Difference of sounds on Future, thus, gives way to a range of themes and musical statements. Other highlights from the album include the meditative “Outer and Onward” and the album’s first single, “Space.” Like the music of Sigur Rós and Explosions in the Sky, Starscream’s Future Toward the Edge of Forever is a perfect soundtrack for sitting and imagining things .
// Notes from the Road
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