Game Music, Indie Music, Reviews

Boston Plays Indies (Concert Review)

October 22, 2013 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Boston Plays Indies (Concert Review)on Twitter

On September 14, the MIT campus hosted the second annual Boston Festival Indie Games. The one-day event featured games by local independent developers, talks by people from the game industry, and viewings of gaming documentaries. To end the event, a concert was held at the Middle East Downstairs, a small music venue just a few blocks away from the MIT campus. This concert, titled Boston Plays Indies, featured music by Deadbeatblast, Control Group, DJ Cutman, and the Video Game Orchestra. I had the chance to see the VGO (Video Game Orchestra) perform before and I was also familiar with the work of DJ Cutman, but I was not as familiar with either Deadbeatblast or Control Group. Having some idea of what to expect, I entered the club and took my seat for what ended up being a great evening of music.

Starting up the show was solo artist Deadbeatblast, a chiptune DJ from Toronto, Canada who’s setup consisted of two Nintendo Game Boys and a set of devices to mix and manage the audio being generated by the two handheld devices. All of the music was original work by the artist. No covers or remixes, but all of it created with the 8-bit sounds available to him on the Nintendo hardware. To describe the music as simply chiptune or 8-bit is too inaccurate and vague. Many of the pieces he performed had an aggressive and experimental sound, similar to what you would hear in industrial genre music. Even with this experimental vibe, Deadbeatblast’s tunes maintained a good steady dance beat that the audience could rock out too. A particular favorite of mine was “Hyperspace”, a piece that started with a simple pattern and steadily built up as he continued to stack more and more music elements into the mix. Pieces took sudden but brief shifts in tempo, incorporated improvised interruptions, and always kept me guessing as to where the music would go next. The performance was full of great rhythms, memorable moments, and some great chiptune sounds. He has definitely made a fan out of me.

The second act of the evening was Control Group, a band which included Evan Reynolds, Jeremy Park, and Bastion composer Darren Korb. Rather than being a game music group, Control Group is a three person indie rock group based out of Brooklyn, New York. Korb began the night on drums, but later swapped places with guitarist Jeremy Parker. The songs that they played for their set ranged on a variety of bizarre but fun subject matter. A particular favorite of mine, for example, was their song “My Alien”, all about the experience of dating an extraterrestrial. Most of their songs maintained a light and upbeat indie feel with a few songs occasionally leaning towards a more grunge or punk tone. While the music from this group wasn’t from any games, it was interesting to see a game composer display his music talents outside of a genre that he’s usually associated with. A very interesting group and they’ve left me with a great first impression.

The next artist was actually the first one that evening whom I was familiar with. DJ Cutman is a remix artist known in particular for his arrangements of video game music. A majority of these involve building beats and new material around familiar game tunes. One of his recent albums Meow Meow & Bow Wow, for example, is a tribute to the game The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. His remixes span a wide collection of games including Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Animal Crossing, and Metroid.  Appearing in a custom made Mega Man X style Cutman headpiece, DJ Cutman performed a wide selection of some of his best work. The pieces included “Tal Tal Hights”, from Link’s Awakening; “Prelude” and “Kefka’s Theme”, from Final Fantasy VI; “K.K. Crusin”, from Animal Crossing; and “Bynn the Breaker”, from Bastion. What I’ve always enjoyed about DJ Cutman’s remixes is that he always manages to create interesting variations on the music he’s covering, without having his new material obscuring the original melodies. Each piece was instantly recognizable, often prompting cheers from the audience with each new song as they continued to dance to the remixes.

The final act for the night was Boston’s own Video Game Orchestra. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing their previous performances at venues like MAGFest and PAX East. Their group that night consisted of two of their guitarists, Shota Nakama and Masato Itoh; Louis Ochoa on electric bass, Tia Lai on violin,  Arthur Kam on drums, keyboardist Livan Chevalier, and vocalist Ingrid Gerdes. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the VGO (Video Game Orchestra) is their unique approach and adaptability to arranging, a major portion of which is done by Shota Nakama. This night’s performance included a number of songs from their usual repertoire including “Snake Eater”, from Metal Gear Solid; “Melodies of Life”, from Final Fantasy IX; and of course “Still Alive”, from Portal. New for this concert was a special arrangement of Chipzel’s “Focus” from the indie game Super Hexagon. This version was what Nakama described as a speed metal version and boasted that it was the second most difficult arrangement that the Video Game Orchestra had ever performed. Much like the original, the arrangement was fast paced and intense, featuring some very virtuosic playing by the guitarists, violinist, and keyboard player. Now of course after playing only their second most difficult piece, the audience cheered for them to play their most difficult piece. Never wanting to disappoint, the group proceeded to perform their arrangement of “Big Blue” from F-Zero. I remember hearing this piece for the first time at MAGFest and it was just as impressive at this concert as it was back then. The piece launched at a breakneck tempo and continued to climb in intensity with some amazing solos by the guitarists, violinist, and the bass player. The bass player in particular pulled off some passages that I would have thought impossible to play on the instrument in a live setting. The end of the piece was met with thunderous applause.

To finish the concert, Darren Korb returned to the stage and joined the Video Game Orchestra to performed music from Bastion. He began the first song “Setting Sail, Coming Home” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. He was then joined by Ingrid, performing the second vocal part, with the rest of the VGO providing backup. For the final piece, Ingrid took the lead to sing an arrangement of “Build That Wall”, arguably one of the Darren Korb’s best known songs from the Bastion soundtrack. While the original version is known for being a solemn and melancholic, the VGO and Darren Korb did something a bit different. While they kept the opening verses similar in tone to the original, with Korb accompanying Ingrid’s vocals, the piece eventually built up into a rock ballad. The song continued to build with each verse, the entire Video Game Orchestra eventually playing along, and finished off the song and the entire concert with a bang.

Ingrid Gerdes and Darren Korb performing “Build That Wall” from Bastion.
(photo by Christopher Hoffmann)

The Boston Plays Indies concert was an overall great experience. There was a good variety of music performed from the each of the music groups. My only criticism for the show was that there were only a handful of indie game pieces actually covered. Given that this was tied to an indie game festival, it would have been nice to see and hear more indie game music represented. That however, may have been me incorrectly interpreting the program title as presenting indie game music rather than indie artists, which is what the show really was in the end. That minor criticism aside, the music performed was excellent and each group brought something unique to the event. From Deadbeatblast’s industrial dance beats on his Gameboys, Control Group’s catchy indie rock songs, DJ Cutman’s lively remixes, and the VGO’s impressive arrangements and performances, there was never a dull moment. The concert introduced me to some new artists, whose work I will continue to follow, and featured new material from groups that I was already familiar with. I hope to see the Boston Festival of Indie Games and the Boston Plays Indies concerts continue to grow. It was a great experience and I can’t wait for next year’s show.

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