Chiptunes, as a category of music, somehow has the capability despite its limitations to evoke a full range of emotions and states of mind. For the most part, though, the most successful chiptune artists make music that allows the listener to clear away all nagging thoughts and enjoy the present state. In other words, “let’s party.”
In stark contrast to this line of music are songs like our own Zen Albatross’ “April 10th,” which nearly demands the listener to pay attention and — to quote Winnie the Pooh — think think think. An artist whose work recently caught my attention for carrying on the tradition of “chiptunes for the analytical” is Samuel Abram, aka Iron Curtain. His first LP, “The Aftermath” dropped at the tail end of 2011.
As always with artists who choose to host their music via bandcamp, I ask that you listen along as I give my impressions. We’ll talk about this album’s heart, mind, and price point after the jump.
Here’s a tracklist:
01 Gula Vorax
02 Dark as the Dankness
04 Twilight of the Starfish
05 Waltzing Matilda
06 Yuri’s Revenge
07 Hard Times in the Spam Inbox Folder
08 Stealth Is Wealth
09 We Lik Brk
10 The Aftermath
11 Occupy Chiptune
Strangely, as I was writing this article, I bumped into this NPR story on Philip Glass (father of modern minimalism) entitled “Listening With Heart, Not Intellect.” Perhaps that’s something one learns (as composer and as audience) with age. Because, again, the minimalism I’m accustomed to is a strong intellectual stimulant. The music of minimalism has often been described as “cerebral.” And so it is with The Aftermath.
Let’s take it from the bottom. “Occupy Chiptune” is a chipper little bonus track written as a sort of “keep it up!” cheerleader anthem for all the Occupy movements (including Occupy Wall Street, since Iron Curtain is based in NYC). But if we get to the album’s original finale, we’ll find the heart of the album. The title track. The Aftermath.
Written as a piece to remember the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear waste tragedies that took place in Japan last year, “The Aftermath” resonates with me in a way that few other songs could. From the very first note, you’ll recognize those particular frequencies and harmonies as the kind you’d associate with a warning siren. Though the harmonies occasionally change from 3rds to 2nds, and the chord progression very slowly creeps into new territory, it’s important that these “sirens” are the foundation of the music from start to finish. The song is nothing but sustained two-part harmonies until about the third minute (of eleven total minutes). It’s at this point that Samuel breaks from the medium of the entire album by throwing marimba into the picture. Oh, the marimba. The perfect instrument for minimalism and repetition.
Not only does the marimba stand in stark contrast with the chiptune harmonies in terms of acoustic vs. electronic/synthetic, but the actual harmonies are dissonant when put against one another, and the marimba part is a bouncy syncopated bit put against the slow, sustained “warning sirens.” Then, in the fourth minute, a crazy lead synth runs across with insane, legato 16th-note melodic patterns. It’s layers and layers of pain and sorrow and confusion. I don’t want to feel this. But I do want to know that I’ve ruminated on it. And that’s when I realize how powerful the song is. And I’m only halfway done listening.
Some hints of resolve and relief come in the seventh minute, but they are forced out by the harsh, crunchy synths that come in at the ninth minute. Finally, even the marimba drops out, and all we have left is the siren that started it all. That, too, fades away without any pretense.
So that’s just one song out of eleven. Granted, it’s my favorite track on the album, and I do not think the album stands as one cohesive unit. Rather, Iron Curtain is just flexing every creative muscle, and whatever direction(s) that leads him to go, he goes. You get songs that sound like they could be straight-up NES tracks (like the opening “Gula Vorax,” which reminds me of Cheetah Men 2); or, you could have the “what would atmospheric film score become when driven back to chiptunes?” concept played out in the insider-trading-slash-corporatism-protest track “Stealth is Wealth.”
Now, about supporting this musician. We’ve all gotten comfortable with the very low prices of other artists. I know I like low prices. Mr. Abram is charging a flat $11 for his album on Bandcamp, though that price is for the CD version with very nice artwork from minusbaby. The digital-only version is now available for $8 (thanks Brandon for the heads-up!). It says something about the present digital market that $8 would be “boutique pricing,” but here we are nonetheless. It puts forth the sentiment that “slow art” and “handmade” are worth the extra cost. You can sense the “this is handmade” and “this is meant to challenge you” vibes even in the most fun-friendly tracks (see “Mekkwarrior”).
As to whether or not you should support this musician with your cash? I can’t say. Even I haven’t put my money where my mouth is (yet). But Iron Curtain is refreshingly different from the still-awesome chip “scene,” in the same way (and yet a different way) Jay Tholen was and is different. I think, if you let the music grow on you, your brain will thank you.Tags: Bandcamp, Chiptunes, Dorothy Siegel, Iron Curtain, Japan Tsunami, MAGFest, NYC, Reviews, Samuel Abram, The Aftermath