Chip Music, Reviews

Getting Religion Via Jay Tholen’s Chiptunes: “Control Me” (Review)

November 10, 2010 | | 4 Comments Share thison Facebook Getting Religion Via Jay Tholen’s Chiptunes: “Control Me” (Review)on Twitter

Full disclosure: I can’t write this review and try to hide my bias. The fact is I share some similarities to Jay Tholen. Tholen is a chiptune artist, a man who appreciates the waveforms of the 8-bit era. Though I don’t make that music, I too appreciate it.

Jay Tholen is also pretty serious about his Christian faith. And though I am, perhaps, less expressive or devout, I share the basic tenets of faith expressed by Mr. Tholen.

I didn’t even realize Tholen had a serious stance on faith/spirituality until the album “Control Me” was released last week (via Russian label Ubiktune). I had known of his previous work thanks to the Songs For the Cure project, and I recognize that he’s a respected artist in the chiptune community. That he would write an album whose music is so niche but whose lyrics belong somewhere between an art house and a Christian radio station…? I couldn’t have dreamt up such a combination.

If you’re willing to read along, though, I think you’ll see why this album can appeal to anyone that likes chiptune music: Christian, atheist, indifferent, or of a different religious tradition entirely. We’ll cover the music and the lyrics in-depth after the jump.

Tracklist Me!

01 Time Transcendent
02 Altars
03 Hashivenu
04 I Know
05 Prayer
06 A Temple of the Holy Ghost
07 Control Me
08 Be Alright
09 Bleeding Over
10 Show the World
11 Eagle Feather, Falcon Claw
12 Curtains

This digital-only album is described its creator as “an honest expression of [his] love for the Gospel.” And by that, he means the traditionally-understood, orthodox Christian Gospel. Jesus died for your sins etc. Jay’s album also provides some shocking metaphors, including that found in the cover art: Jesus plugging into my brain with an NES controller to “control” my every movement, my every thought, word and action. Is that creepy? Yes. Is it in line with most forms of Christianity? No, not entirely, though it is something of a techno-geek’s way of matching “Jesus, Take The Wheel.”

Though chiptunes provide the backdrop for the album, Tholen adds a variety of instrumental recordings, as well as his own eccentric vocal stylings. I need to quote some of the sections from this album to give you an idea of what it is Jay is trying to express. If you want to listen along, free streaming/download is available here.

From the opening track Time Transcendent:

God knew the words to this song before He gave them to me
And He knew that you’d come along so you could hear what He has to say

Listen to the way Jay delivers that last line. He wavers; he is either sad or unsure of himself, but he pushes on to say it. Throughout listening to this album, I couldn’t help but compare the talk/sing/off-key style to Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou and Daniel Smith of Danielson. The lyrics, too, match these eccentric contemporary composers. Consider the following metaphorical conceits from Be Alright:

I pray the Ghost descends like a flash flood
And every one of us drowns in savior-blood
I pray He strikes us down with thunder-love
Or slaps our tired eyes with saliva-mud
‘Cause Jesus will be lifted high and that’ll have to be alright with you

This short tune (under two minutes) shows the sort of silly boldness that “Jesus People” from the ’70s and ’80s would remember being exhibited by Keith Green, Larry Norman, or the venerable Terry Scott Taylor (who, oddly, did write some VGM later in his career).

If you find yourself thoroughly offended by Tholen’s 8-bit proselytism, let your guard down. Tholen’s message is directed just as much inward as it is outward. In the thoroughly decorative (and lengthy) piece Eagle Feather, Falcon Claw, Tholen takes aim at himself.

My hair is as long as eagle’s feathers, and my nails are like falcon’s claws
I guess I was never God, never God, never God

The kind of religious message Tholen espouses is one that can be called a great equalizer. There is no room for self-righteousness or piety; you may not like or agree with Tholen’s message, but if you’re a proponent of self-expression in art, you have to respect Tholen’s ability to successfully meet his goal of creating an album that uniquely demonstrates his love of the Gospel.

And, of course, it would be folly if we didn’t take time out to recognize just how unique the artistic expression is via the music. Even among chiptune artists, Tholen’s work is downright crazy. And I love it.

Much of the chiptunes work is … not quite atonal, but certainly lacking traditional melodic style. Yes, there are songs that fit the scheme well (again I turn to “Be Alright,” as well as “Curtains”). But avant garde is an understatement. This is wacky usage of chiptunes, no question. But it sticks with you. When I first got wind of this album, I listened to it six times in a row. I dug it. My wife, who generally loathes chiptunes, also dug it. There’s something special going on here.

What is it? I can’t say exactly. I like the blend of chiptunes with “real” (acoustic) instruments. I like all of the percussive sounds and the sound effects, some of which I assume were lifted out of games (I think I heard the Mario “pipe” noise somewhere in this album!). Maybe it’s the incredible blend of silliness with a dark, weighty atmosphere. In other words, it’s art.

This one is free, so you have nothing to lose by listening (except, again, your patience if you get easily miffed by religious talk). There are piles of great chiptunes albums out there, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that. But we want to give special attention to this one precisely because of how different it really is. Please do leave comments about your impressions of the album below. We’d appreciate it, and Jay probably appreciates it as well.

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