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PAX East 2010: JamSpace Chiptune Concert Recap

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As one might expect, there were plenty of games to play and panels to attend this weekend at PAX East. But  for attendees with an insatiable appetite for live music, the JamSpace was most definitely the place to be. Organized by Dom Cerquetti and the rest of his crew from MAGFest, JamSpace acted as both the perfect hangout spot and an awesome concert setting. Throughout the weekend, a large variety of musicians pro and amateur alike grabbed instruments and took the stage, playing everything from chipmusic to videogame music jam sessions and original compositions. Even one of PAX East’s musicial guests, The Protomen, took time out to rock the JamSpace stage. But the main reason I hung around, as you may have already guessed, was the chiptune concerts that took place on Saturday and Sunday.

Read on for our full recap of everything chiptune that went down at PAX East.

With the help of BOSTON8BIT‘s Chris Mahoney, Boston’s burgeoning chipmusic scene brought the latest iteration of its ongoing concert series to the PAX East Jamspace. The lineup consisted of six chipmusic acts spread across two days, with a few special surprise guests added to the bill at the last minute. Br1ght Pr1mate, Disasterpeace, Active Knowledge, Oxygenstar and A_Rival all made an appearance to show PAX attendees what chipmusic is all about. Oh yeah, and that ‘Zen Albatross’ guy played too, but I’m not reviewing his set because he’s a TOTAL JERK!

The crowd on both days seemed to consist mostly of people who had never heard live chipmusic before. Expecting this, I had prepared a presentation on the history of chipmusic, which was presented just prior to the concert on Saturday. A fair amount of people showed up for the presentation, and the room really started to fill up about 15 minutes in — a surprising turnout for a panel that started at 10:30 in the morning. The Jamspace was a medium-sized room filled mostly with chairs that we weren’t allowed to move. Because of this, most people remained seated while the concerts were in progress, or stood against the walls as directed by the Expo staff. This was a bit disappointing, and I tried to explain to the staff that they could allow people to stand in the front, but it was to no avail as they already seemed set in their instructions on how to populate the room. Nevertheless, the place was packed — During most of the sets, people were lined up outside, waiting to be let in by PAX’s stalwart ‘enforcers.’ One of them actually stopped me when I came back from the bathroom, and I had to explain that I was performing. Seriously, those guys don’t mess around.


BR1GHT PR1MATE, photo by Chris Gampat (used with permission)

Br1ght Pr1mate took the stage first. Representing Boston’s local chipmusic scene, the electro-pop duo busted out a set of energetic Game Boy dance jams overlayed with vocals. The vocals were performed very well for the most part, but the acoustic properties of the room were definitely not ideal, and wound up leaving some notes sounding a tad dissonant. Regardless, I was really impressed by their high-energy stage presence and glad that I finally got to see them perform after missing so many of Boston’s previous chip shows.

Despite the absence of a stage mixer, my own set went fairly well. Our eccentric but loveable sound man, Kroze, had a bit of trouble keeping the volume on both of my Game Boys balanced, which became really frustrating in the middle of the set since one of my DMGs was coming out of the monitor at roughly twice the volume of the other. I tried to compensate by constantly adjusting the volume knobs on the Game Boys themselves, but it still made for some messy transitions (Note to self: Buy a decent mixer). Overall, people still seemed to really enjoy it, and the copies I had of Josh Whelchel’s Cancer Benefit Compilation, Songs For The Cure — which I have one track on — sold out completely in the 10-minute period between sets. I was pretty astounded by people’s generosity with their donations, and it made me especially proud to have contributed to the project. Make sure to check it out on Bandcamp and iTunes if you haven’t already.


Disasterpeace

Headlining the first day was the incomparable Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, head of Pause Music and a former student of the nearby Berklee College of Music. The room started to empty out a bit as the lunch hour rolled around, but everyone who stayed undoubtedly had their mind blown as Disasterpeace performed his signature blend of polyrhythmic chip-style math rock using a laptop, MIDI keyboard and guitar. Disasterpeace’s compositions are mind-boggling — Rich plays guitar alongside a whirlwind of shifting time signatures and oddly-syncopated chords. Obviously, the fact that he’s able to play in time with such complicated arrangements is indicative of his immense talent, but I’ve often wondered if anything could be done to make his performances more dynamic. Even though his timing was off on occasion, the elaborate nature of the compositions being performed seemed sufficient to amaze everyone in the audience.

Since the Q&A portion of the panel was axed, we were running way ahead of schedule and wound up having an entire hour left after the last act finished. Fortunately, two special guests from New York were on deck and ready to fill the remaining time — Facundo Castro, who is one half of NYC chiptune netlabel Cheese ‘N Beer (and also a habitual stage diver), jumped up on stage first and played some hard, glitchy dance beats using a combination of Nanoloop and LSDJ. Since we obviously didn’t mention these impromptu performances until about 5 minutes before they began, the room was mostly cleared out at this point, but people began to trickle back in as the music started up once more. The show was rounded off by another surprise set from Anamanaguchi drummer Luke Silas, who uses two Game Boys to make some of the filthiest house beats you’ve ever heard under the alias Knife City. It’s always a pleasure to hear these guys play in New York, and some of us began tweeting up a storm to make sure that con-goers wouldn’t miss it.

On Sunday, the concerts started off later than expected due to a weird scheduling conflict with the Overclocked ReMix panel — a recurring problem that seemed to be affecting a lot of panels and events throughout the weekend. As soon as we had the green light, Boston’s Active Knowledge kicked it into high gear with some spastic, melodic NES music being controlled through a MIDI interface connected to his laptop. Donning his space helmet and jacket, you could already tell that Sunday’s concert was going to be filled with wackiness.


Oxygenstar, photo by Heyricochet

Oxygenstar followed suit, wearing his signature fluffy blonde afro wig while funky electro jams spewed forth from his elaborate setup, which included a NES, Sega Genesis and — this is my favorite — an antiquated laptop running a SoundBlaster 16 card. Seriously. Hearing those cheesy compressed samples immediately took me back to 1993, when a 25 Mhz PC running Windows 3.1 was the extent of my family’s computational possessions. The rest of the audience must have felt the same since Oxy’s beats were finally motivating people to get out of their chairs and boogie down. A small crowd formed in front of the stage, and it was finally starting to feel like a real show.

Finally, San Francisco’s numero uno chip-hop emcee A_Rival came on, and all bets were off. Even as the room’s population became sparse, Rival easily kept the attention of the crowd that had gathered at the foot of the stage with his rapid barrage of rhymes and super-tight chip beats. Right in the middle of a particularly energetic number, he and his DJ lined up side-by-side and busted out into a crazy synchronized breakdance routine. This was, of course, standard fare for A_Rival, who always manages to put on an engaging show regardless of the turnout.


A_Rival

All hiccups aside, the chiptune concerts at PAX East were a pretty good time. Those who couldn’t make it out this year should definitely make an effort in 2011. By then, maybe we’ll even have chipmusic acts like these featured in the main concerts. Let’s make it happen, people.

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