The world of edgy, contemporary rock can be a dour place. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean: a 26-year-old guitarist, sitting in his dreary Prospect Heights, Brooklyn apartment wearing black jeans and a Minor Threat t-shirt, reading a John Barth novel while also contemplating the direction for his post-punk, no-wave, math-rock band. He broods. His band has no groupies. And, really, who wants to dance to that stuff?
In a quandary, our hero seeks solace, distraction, even entertainment. Where does he turn? His video-gaming system, of course. And there, ZAM!, is the answer to his question. If you want to make your nerdily cold math-rock bounce to life the answer is: Nintendo!
The answer is The Advantage, though they do not hail from Brooklyn. (No word on whether they wear Minor Threat t-shirts. Sorry.) An instrumental quartet from the Golden State, The Advantage are named after a particularly snappy Nintendo video game controller from the vintage days of gaming. And their music follows: they play only tunes written for old games from the NES era—those unmistakable little ditties and fugues and head-boppers that would play in endless loops of 8-bit sound as you tried to defeat a boss in the dungeon of World Six of Mario-land, let’s say. They play them, and they rock them.
And the beauty is this: you don’t have to be gamer with a nostalgic streak to love The Advantage. On their second outing, the boys add some keyboards to their twin-guitar/bass/drums line-up, but the results are the same: absurdly precise, melodic, and rocking music that elevates its source material in surprising and pleasing ways. If you know these tunes from games like Metroid, Bomberman II, and Contra, then you’re going to be in heaven—The Advantage takes these catchy little gems and puts hair on their chests. But if you don’t, it hardly matters.
Take, say, the dashing theme from “Duck Tales—Moon”. The Advantage starts it with just the two guitars, sounding almost like it sounded on the game—two voices alone playing intertwined themes. Then the drums and bass kick in for a repeat of the A theme, followed by harmonically astute bridge. Repeat just once and you’re out. Other songs are more authentically funky. “Double Dragon II—Mission 5; Forest of Death” is driven by a grooved bass line and a unison theme between guitar and organ, but it is suddenly cut off so the band can dive into a noisy and stuttered section of atonality that remains precisely choreographed—but as if by downtown jazz disruptionist John Zorn. This leads directly into a muscular theme from “Castlevania III” that is so good that is sounds like it is from the best James Bond score ever composed: all muscle and blue guitar harmony and bashed drums, until the lilting waltz theme kicks in! This is music so inventive and dramatic that it’s a wonder that the Japanese composers aren’t known by name.
Taken completely on its own, this music has the virtuosity and detail of prog-rock without any of that genre’s typical excess or off-putting polish. The Advantage play with a combination of detail and power that translates as pure exuberant fun. While you may be dazzled by the guitar harmonies or the precision-power of drummer Spencer Seim (the guitarist from Hella), there is also a punk aesthetic at work: no improvisatory noodling, just charging forward energy. At the same time, this music rewards repeated listening. Each tune has orchestral logic, and with the band tearing through them quickly, your ears hunger for a second shot of pleasure.