Chip Music, Featured, Reviews

Return of the Zen Albatross: SIGINT (Review)

January 13, 2016 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Return of the Zen Albatross: SIGINT (Review)on Twitter

The ZEN ALBATROSS is different from your average albatross. You see, the ancient mariner has nothin’ on him. Nor do invasive government spy agencies. Confused yet? You need to get to know ZEN ALBATROSS then. This bird is a master of cryptography, and he is also good at dodging the slings and arrows of would-be seafaring jerk wads.

My single favorite chip music album from 2010 was a double-single featuring “Mastada Gestalt” and “April 10,” both songs by ZEN ALBATROSS. Since then, we’ve heard precious little from him. Now he’s back with a new EP (almost 30 minutes long), which you can get digitally or on cassette tape via the artist’s Bandcamp page.

This new EP, “SIGINT,” is a head trip from start to finish. Interested in the finer details? Keep on reading…

Disclosure: the man behind the ZEN ALBATROSS moniker is a guy named Josh. He used to write for OSV; he and I wrote together and worked on some projects together, including past MAGFest coverage (we’re talking a good four or five years ago). Josh no longer writes for OSV, though he has done game and tech journalism since. Because I’ve had generally positive experiences with him in the past, there is a part of me that cannot separate my memories of the individual from the music I hear. You, dear reader, may as well expect this to color a positive bias into this review.

Now then, about SIGINT: where to start? It’s a puzzle. The music is a puzzle, a series of patterns that fit together, but good luck deconstructing it yourself. I consider myself decent at music theory, and I get lost in SIGINT all the time. So that’s either a problem, or something truly amazing. The fact that I enjoy music that can “defeat” my brain’s capacity without devolving from music to noise probably means it’s the latter.

But the music isn’t the only puzzle. The album itself has a meta-puzzle. Look at that cover art. See those alphanumeric codes? They mean something. What they mean? I don’t know. All I know is that, when you pick up this album on Bandcamp, one of the things you find is a text file with a link to a .rar file that’s only 308 bytes, but is also password-protected. I think it’s the first step in a longer journey. And, considering ZEN ALBATROSS gives shout-outs to the likes of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and other whistle-blowing data leakers showing off the American Empire’s new clothes (the NSA, among other things), it’s clear that the Albatross has nothing but respect for individuals who are both “in the know” and who take a stand. I am inclined to think that, based on the track titles and the content of the music, SIGINT is at its heart about freeing data from the encrypted circles of hell they’re presently stuck in. That’s just my speculation.

Individually, each song isn’t particularly memorable, with exception to track 3, US-984XN, because there are some especially memorable chip effects here: pitch-bending all over the place to emulate a sitar, or perhaps a shamisen. It is truly impressive, the feats ZEN ALBATROSS goes to so that his chip music is nothing like the pop/rock-friendly work that tends to drive the market. I don’t know anyone else doing this kind of work, especially paying that much attention to detail. Every track does have its own “featured” instrument of sorts, but the pitch-bending on track 3 really stands out.

The domineering section of the album is track 2, “Infrared Ritual,” which runs at over 7 minutes in length. This is a dance-hall-friendly piece, probably the single most accurate track for fitting this descriptor of the EP, taken from the Bandcamp page:

In this long-awaited transmission, ZEN ALBATROSS summons massive black monoliths of low-fidelity dance floor anxiety. Screaming cassette decks provide air support for slow-building Game Boy drones as waves of radio static and percussive noise hit like Hellfire missiles – an imperfect anthem for our contemporary dystopia.

“Infrared Ritual” follows the tried and true formula of foundation, repeat with elaboration, keep going, keep going, then soft/slow break … but then it diverts from the formula, because ZEN ALBATROSS doesn’t come back to “drop the beat.” Infrared Ritual eventually drones its way out to a single “signal” sound before moving forward.

The final two tracks come in a pair: they are “Skycurse” (First Circle) and (Second Circle), respectively. First Circle has a lot of complex melodic work and percussive insanity. But what’s so great about this particular song is that it’s merely a warm-up for the second half. “Second Circle” throws melodic consistency out the window. The high pitch tones are still there, but now they are being bombarded by heavy percussion and droning bass. When the music finally ends, for all the bangs dealt, we are left with a whimper. And, fade out.

These songs are all, at the very least, on par with the great music ZEN ALBATROSS released five years prior. But I’m inclined to say that, with exception to the opening/title track “SIGINT,” this new music is vastly superior. Your mileage may vary. That said, it isn’t just the work of a great composer. Recording, mixing, and co-production is credited to Luke Silas (aka “knife city,” also a member of Anamanaguchi).

Chiptune fans of all stripes need to give this album a listen, if only to determine whether or not it’s their kind of music. Let that “dance floor anxiety” take you to new heights, and strangely familiar depths. Once again, the digital or cassette tape version can be purchased here. Also, if anyone solves the meta-puzzle with that .rar file, feel free to leave us all some hints in the comments section!

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