Chip Music, Reviews

In Space, No One Can Hear Starscream: Enter “The Space Years” (Review)

February 19, 2010 | | 3 Comments Share thison Facebook In Space, No One Can Hear Starscream: Enter “The Space Years” (Review)on Twitter

Belonging to a musical movement commonly misconceived as a nostalgic outlet for glowstick-wielding gamer geeks isn’t easy. The pressures of distinguishing oneself within a scene that embraces extreme artistic limitation — not to mention an increasingly familiar audible aesthetic — can be taxing. Nevertheless, New York Game Boy Rock duo Starscream holds their ground, eschewing typical 8-bit dance and pop formulas in lieu of a refreshing, progressive sound that’s more akin to late-90’s shoegaze post-rock than any videogame soundtrack. And if their latest EP proves to be as prophetic as its mythos suggests, we might just be seeing the beginnings of a new chapter in the history of chip music. In space.

Don your helmet, kiss your spouse goodbye, ensure proper cabin pressure and join me as I explore the far reaches of Starscream’s political science fiction-themed concept album, The Space Years.

For first-time Starscream listeners, The Space Years is a bold journey into the unknown; an idea that their music illustrates particularly well. Despite the great disparity in their choice of instruments, Damon Hardjowirogo (Game Boy, Commodore64) and George Stroud (drums) manage to maintain a delicate balance of rigid progression and compositional wanderlust throughout their sophomore effort. Hardjowirogo’s textured 8-bit melodies and chords soar and swerve while Stroud’s drums navigate and maintain the course; a dynamic that’s especially effective when considering the album’s implied narrative themes of exploration and uncertainty. The concept, which was first introduced in their previous EP, Future, and it Doesn’t Work, involves the appearance of a third political party in America, the Space Party, whose rise to power ushers in a new era of cosmic exploration and political turmoil. It’s the story of man’s migration into Space; a chronicle of triumph and tragedy told in two parts, “Years (One-Four)” and “Years (Five-Eight).” Both movements are then further divided into several sub-sections, as described in the gorgeous handmade art book that accompanies the disc.

The album begins deceptively with it’s first two sections, “The Rise of Science” and “Awakening.” Simple tones and ostinatos create a false sense of security; a prelude to the oncoming plunge. Soon the voice of a subway preacher is heard amidst the slow-building Game Boy chords. It seems out of place at first — and perhaps a tad cliche — but as Stroud’s bass drum thumps to life and the sound of the chords grows more dire, the preacher’s strained and exhausted voice quickly becomes an essential part of the album’s grim preamble. The drums kick in full-force, followed by a series of harsh arpeggios. There is a brief respite, and we hear for the first time Hardjowirogo’s custom Commodore64 keyboard. It plays a simple melody with a full, rotund voice that nicely counterpoints the Game Boy’s shrill and tinny sounds. After a cascading crescendo, the C64 rings out as everything fades to black and we come to our first discernible transition, ending the first two sections of the album’s first movement. The third and fourth sections, entitled “Waning Believers” and “Renewed Faith” are a refreshing change of pace from the outset. Warm, comforting chords glow in the night sky while soothing melodies let the mood simmer. In contrast to the album’s opening, it’s much more sincere and with a genuinely reassuring tone. Cheerful notes and pleasant ambience wash over with a hint of melancholy just before a leisurely fade-out suggests that a universal serenity has fallen over the populace. The Space Party is in control, and for the time being, all is well.

A single bass drum hit followed by gloomy pulsewave vibrato begins the album’s second half. Feelings of trepidation and emptiness bubble to the surface as the human race’s bonds with the Earth begin to loosen. It isn’t long before these anxieties turn to widespread panic as the drums kick in at a frenetic pace. The Commodore makes it’s presence known once again with long, drawn-out tones in a thick, portly voice. It sounds almost like it’s honking while in the lower registers, but still manages to blend nicely with the chaotic arpeggios, energetic percussion and dark basslines that play behind it. There is a brief lull and the keyboard’s voice changes again, this time sounding more akin to a Rhodes. At this point I found myself deeply pondering the nature of Damon’s custom C64 keyboard. I’ve seen it used live on a few occasions, but not until hearing this album had I fully comprehended the immense diversity of timbre this piece of tech is capable of. If all the sounds are being generated from a C64 like I’ve been led to believe, there’s certainly some impressive electrical magic at work beneath the hood of this thing. The story concludes in the last two sections, “Breaking Low Earth Orbit” and “Space and Onward.” Playful twangs of noise dot the sky over a building collection of repeated melodies. Mankind’s exodus from Earth is finally underway, and there seems to be nothing left to do but drift further away and embrace the unknown. The drums take control and lead us into one last grand chord, which is soon overtaken by a flood of cosmic ambience.  Hopes are dashed, and the Space Party’s time is over. In a way, these final moments play out in harmony with the album’s beginnings, illustrating an eight-year emotional cycle where fear and urgency yield comfort and optimism, and eventually lead back to hopelessness and disillusionment.

While Starscream isn’t exactly breaking new ground in terms of composition — something that most fans of dramatic, Mogwai-esque post-rock will attest to — the band’s ability to take basic structures and simply ‘roll with it’ allows them to concentrate most of their energy on producing a unique audible spectacle using an incredibly limited palette. Like many albums of this kind, the narrative I’ve described in the paragraphs above can come off as esoteric and even a bit extraneous when matched with the music itself. But fortunately, these concepts — and the album’s ability to communicate them effectively — take second chair to solid chemistry and the overall knack for building tension and atmosphere that the duo demonstrates. If Starscream really is the music of the future, I have a good idea what’s going to be playing on Richard Garriott’s iPod during his next spaceflight. Hopefully this time, he’ll save us some extra seats.

Available at: Bandcamp (Digital) / Starscream Web Store (Physical)

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