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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Monthly Archives: April 1999

Soundtracks to Imaginary Video Games

Never has electronic music’s inherent debt to the arcade been explored as broadly and, at times, magically as on Blip, Bleep (Soundtracks to Imaginary Video Games) (Lucky Kitchen). A dozen-plus musical acts mine the familiar sound effects of videogames to create 18 new instrumental pop songs. Some of the musicians take the opportunity more seriously than others, but the best tracks, including Colongib’s “MegaBlasterFiend” and Jake Mandell’s “Botanical Seppuku,” milk the conceptual art-pop project for all it’s worth: finding a common ground between Aphex Twin’s brand of syncopated synthetic music and Pac Man’s manic, mindless pace. Most common motif on the record? Perhaps the suggestion that the music accompanying the mid-game death of a player is the arcade composer’s equivalent to the bridge in a traditional song. All the samples you’d expect are here: phaser fire, a race car’s “vroom,” the inevitable “Game Over.” Sometimes, the sound quality says enough on its own, as with V/VM’s “The Swedish Model,” which imagines a raspy 8-bit synth-organ adaptation of Bacharach and David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” And the descriptions of the games are often a riot unto themselves. Wheaton Research has no delusions about the complexity of the average quarter-sucker; its “Soul Transport” involves “Walking around and getting zapped.” Suetso & Underwood get more carried away; their “Family Tree Polo” is described as follows: “Bounce through time in your ambulance. Save your injury prone ancestors so you may eventually be born.” The joystick may just be the conductor’s baton of the next century.

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Fish Heads, Born Slippy

Take the title of the accomplished British dance trio Underworld ‘s latest album to mean what you like. The peculiar word pairing Beaucoup Fish (V2/JBO) may simply be an expression of the breadth of material here. The vocals alone range from the intricately computer-enhanced engineering of the opening track, “Cups,” to the Depeche Mode-style crooning of “Shudder / King of Snake,” to the deadpan spoken word of “Bruce Lee,” on which vocalist-guitarist Karl Hyde intones a mash of wordplay that imitates the digital cut-and-paste methods the band often uses to process its lyrical content. Now, keep in mind that this is by no means a vocal record. It’s a dance record, and as expansive a dance record as we’re likely to hear this year — replete with sultry, soulful, cinematic, midnight-hour cruising epics (“Cups,” “Push”) and driving anthems, like “Kittens,” which keenly recalls “Rez,” the early, pulsing techno niche hit that cemented the group’s renown. A love for detail threads through the album, which hums along like an expertly coded program, bringing us an iteration closer to the day when machines are fully appreciated as instruments.

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Straight Outta Chapel Hill

A brief chat with Dub Assassin, the New South's own "Tekkno Boy."

“The music? We call it didge-Ital,” rants a character in Bruce Sterling’s late-’80s science-fiction novel, Islands in the Net. “Dig-ital, see, D.J.-Ital. … Mash it up right on the ship.”

Tim Harper, aka Dub Assassin, mashes his music up in Chapel Hill, N.C. And his new album, Tekkno Boy (on Freakadelic Records, of which he’s part owner), makes good on Sterling’s prescient rendering of digital culture’s intersection with dub-reggae experimentation.

Tekkno tracks like “Seagulls” graft varieties of warehouse-party rhythms and keyboard sounds together into a pounding, otherworldly experience, while the varying, hallucinogenic metrics of “Dream Control” and “Cosmos” challenge DJs who expect a cut to maintain the same pace throughout.

Harper got his virgin taste of studio wizardry observing one of Bob Marley’s soundmen. “That was the first time I had seen someone spin effects into each other,” says Harper. “He would take the delay and toss it into the reverb, and it would give it a nice little noise.”

If Tekkno Boy isn’t dub per se, it still feeds generously on the interaction of sonic events, sometimes the sort of machinations described above, often the prismatic overlay of house beats, triggered samples and scene-setting synth washes. “The way I saw it,” Harper says, explaining his DJ name, “there was a lot of use of delays and repeating of the same lines.”

The story doesn’t end there. Harper may be the only techno musician christened by one of “alternative” rock’s founders: Chris Stamey, best known for his band the dBs and as a major figure in the scene that gave us R.E.M. and Matthew Sweet, among others. Stamey and Harper, who supports himself as a studio engineer, run in the same circles. “I played him stuff and he turned to me and said, ‘You’re the assassin, the assassin of sound.'”

Originally published in Pulse! magazine, April 1999.

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