I’ve been to a fair number of conventions in my time. I used to think it couldn’t get any better than E3. You know, seeing new and upcoming games, hanging with industry big-wigs. That’s all good stuff.
But today, I experienced my first MAGFest. Music And Games has been going on in Alexandria, VA (just outside Washington DC) once a year for eight years now. It’s remarkably close to my hometown. How am I only finding out about it now?
During the day, I took in all the sights. LAN parties, a huge gaming room where people bring their own consoles and equipment to share all kinds of good stuff from the last 3 decades. Classic arcade cabinets lined the hallways of the Hilton Hotel. And merch, merch, merch! All sorts of cool stuff for sale. Hats and prints and some hand-made “Pixel Art” using legos (thank you MC Death Bear!). Good stuff.
One of the best panels I went to today was “The Being, The Business, and the Evolving of an Indie Game Composer,” led by composer Josh Whelchel. Josh talked about interacting with a game’s designer or producer, and how to sell yourself without “selling out.” A lot of people that attend MAGFest have their own fan projects, and Josh (who has begun to break into the industry himself) gave some great tips for everyone at the panel.
This isn’t a big convention with game developers and the like. This is by the fans, and for the fans. All of the people here, male or female, young or old, have an undying love for games and game music. I witnessed that love, firsthand, later in the evening, when the second round of concerts started. Sadly, I missed the New Year’s Eve show, and I won’t be staying for the rest of the convention. But if there was one night to make, I think this is the one I wanted, and needed, most. Find out why after the jump.
The shows kicked off with Armadillo Tank, a band I’d never heard of. The put on a solid, straight rock set of game covers. They served well as an opening act. Speaking with fans on the show floor who had attended previous years, the general impression is that they continue to get better with each subsequent year. And that’s good stuff.
After that, Rare Candy was up. This was another rock band, but they had more keyboard than guitar going for them. The arrangements were unique, sometimes like a jam band, and they really knew how to get the crowd going. Their arrangement of Chrono Trigger‘s “Undersea Palace,” which went on for a solid six or seven minutes, blew me away. They worked in Schala’s Theme as a transition/bridge, and when they came back on the reprise: oh man. It’s something all game music fans need to experience. A live concert with a dude rocking the bass and another dude rocking the drums, just pounding out the notes to one of Mitsuda’s best tunes. I loved it. And their final track? The castle music in Super Mario World. Wow! I didn’t even realize how rich that melody was until I heard Rare Candy lay it out. Count me impressed.
There’s no question that the concert organizers set up the bands right, however. Because the last band of the night was Metroid Metal. We’ve talked plenty about Metroid Metal before, including this year’s full-length “Varia Suite” debut album. I’ve known about the project since Grant “Stemage” Henry released the first few mp3s on the ‘net in 2003. Getting to meet the brain (stem) behind the project was a real pleasure.
Metroid Metal was a studio-exclusive project until MAGFest 7 (last year), when they made their live concert debut. They were a surefire hit, and thus, they came back for MAGFest 8. And man, they wiped me out. Let me tell you, I was having convulsions over this show. As a rule, I always wear earplugs to concerts, but I was sorely tempted to take them out during the Metroid Metal show. In fact, I did take them out for the encore. I may now go deaf before my kids graduate from high school, but it will have been worth it.
Metroid Metal, as I said earlier, is led by Grant Henry. He created many of the arrangements for the project, and on stage, he plays rhythm guitar (he’s one of three guitarists on stage). Watching him perform, it’s clear he’s the “level head” of the band. He always looked cool, confident, and in control. Compare that to lead/solo guitarist Danimal Cannon, or as I like to call him, the “loose cannon.” He is likely the most technically talented performer of the bunch. But his stage presence is just crazy. He would smile, and make funny faces, during these complicated solos. He was spot on for almost everything: the only slip-up I heard from him was in the impossibly difficult melodic line in “Kraid.” Even the recorded version of that track isn’t without flaw, so I guess I shouldn’t have had my expectations set so high for the live performance.
But other than that one little slip, Danimal was on his game. Everything was great there. And the rest of the band? They followed Grant’s lead perfectly. Dan Taylor, the bassist that’s been with the project since its inception, had a great feel for the music. He would often have to pull off octave slides in quick succession, and he always came through. Like many bassists, I found him to be a strong, silent type. It’s also worth noting that while Grant is the project lead, Dan has co-arranged some of the pieces, and his talent and knack for matching up the bass lines and adding some “groove” to an otherwise insane metal-fest really helped round out the experience.
Guitar number three, for backup support (and extra energy) was Kirby, who also plays in a VGM cover band called Temp Sound Solutions. Kirby seemed to be enjoying the show as much as the audience. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t talented. Sometimes, Danimal’s solos would require a harmonic counterpart, and Kirby was ready to jump in at a moment’s notice to rock hard.
The drummer, Kevin, kept the band in tempo, which is no small feat. There are a lot of intentional tempo and time signature changes in these arrangements. It was rare that Kevin got to show off his talent with a solo or an extensive fill. But, the real trick was that he led the band in the random jumps into 5, or 7, or a polyrhythm of 6 in the melody and 8 for the backup. Some of these arrangements are just straight up MATH ROCK, which I love! And while the whole band deserves credit for nailing each and every change-up, the drummer should get the most love for it.
Now, what did they actually play? Much of the set came off of the Varia Suite album. But there were a few new-ish arrangements here, some of them being played live for the first time, including the Metroid Prime theme.
Two of my all-time favorite arrangements from Metroid Metal are “Item Room” and “Item Collect” from the original NES Metroid. Grant and Dan did some fierce arrangements to take these 10 second tracks and flesh them out into something substantial. The variations on each repetition of the melody was, usually, a rhythm change. And the fact that the whole band nailed it, EVERY TIME, just blows me away. The level of precision required is absurd. And when you realize that these guys do it for love of games, and particularly for one classic series from Nintendo, it’s insane that they’ve devoted so much to it.
You know who really needs to see this show? Other than you, the unenviable reader who missed it? Kenji Yamamoto and Hip Tanaka. That’s who needs to see this show. If they saw that a precision-rhythm metal band was able to take their mighty melodies and craft them into such an amazing live show, they’d be more than flattered. They’d be FLOORED. The show was amazing, and I’m just thankful to have been able to attend. When they “ended” with the Super Metroid end credits, and then did the Metroid intro for their encore, I almost peed my pants. And there were mosh pits. Real mosh pits, at a game music concert. Jayson almost got taken out. It was awesome!
As I sit here writing, the concerts continue. A whole bunch of chiptune artists are going to perform late into the night. Some of the attendees have already busted out glow sticks. I’m going to stop writing so I can hear more from Inverse Phase, Animal Style, and more. Patrick Gann, signing out.
[Special thanks to Brandon Robison for providing these excellent photos]Tags: Animal Style, Armadillo Tank, Chiptunes, Danimal Cannon, Grant Henry, MAGFest 8, MC Death Bear, Metroid Metal, Rare Candy