I guess you could say that I’ve been into chiptunes music since before it was cool. Back when I started listening to this stuff we only knew it as video game soundtracks, though. As a Geek growing up alongside the technological evolution of gaming from the Atari to the Nintendo and on up the line, I was one of those kids who spent way too many hours playing games and who probably got way more engrossed in them than was healthy. Considering that making video games pays my bills these days, I’d say it all turned out for the best.
Some of the first music I can ever remember being into was songs from video games, especially the ending themes from games I had beaten. I even used to record them with a cassette recorder held up to the TV, both as a way of listening to them again later and as a sort of personal trophy collection. As my tastes broadened to include non-video game music and as games themselves began to incorporate the technology to include more and more realistic-sounding music, my love affair for video game soundtracks faded. However, that nostalgia for those old tunes by the likes of Koji Kondo, Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, Nobuo Uematsu, and other 8-bit heroes remained and as it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a lot of bands either covering/re-imagining 8-bit video game music (The Minibosses, The Advantage, Descendants of Erdrick) or creating their own original 8-bit tracks (Anamanaguchi, David Pencil, Fantomenk). Austin’s own Chalkboards fall into the later category and this summer released their first self-titled full-length album.
For those who don’t have that instant 8-bit nostalgia connection like I do, the best way to approach chiptunes is probably as a more primitive iteration of modern electronic music. While Chalkboards do employ a number of more traditional and even analogue instruments in their songs, the predominant sounds are the buzzes, bleeps, and bloops of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System-era music they’re emulating. Like most instrumental music, Chalkboards’ primary means of communication is through creating a mood and speaking with sound, and the mood here is downright bubbly. This isn’t the score to some Conan-inspired dungeon crawl. What Chalkboards have here is instead an energetic jaunt through cotton candy clouds and ice cream mountains.
Generally speaking, this is usually pretty safe territory for chiptunes bands. The bright nature of the 8-bit instruments certainly lends itself to a poppier feel. There are however a couple of broader moments, such as the partially analogue intro of the album opener “this world is not yours,” the slow build of “there’s twenty-two fireflies in my jar,” and the very Octopus Project-sounding closer “the world belongs to us.” Perhaps Chalkboards’ most interesting moments are when the non-8-bit instruments become more obvious. It speaks to Chalkboards’ compositional skill that they manage to make this work where applied, and it’s certainly those tracks that stand out most in my mind.
It’s a tough thing to talk about this kind of music sometimes because it’s so distilled by its very nature. The limitations placed on 8-bit music mean that you’re always going to be hearing the same 12 or so sounds, just arranged somewhat differently. Really it’s no different in non-digital music, but for some reason chiptunes just makes it feel more pronounced. It’s to Chalkboards’ credit that despite this challenge they’ve still crafted a quality album by any measure (chiptunes or otherwise) and that, while repetitive at times, it packs a punch where it counts. Like instrumental or electronic music in general, chiptunes may not be for everyone, but if you’re into it then check out Chalkboards and support the local 8-bit scene. For everyone else, just remember that everything new sounded weird until it sounded normal. Think about that the next time you listen to anything with synths…which is pretty much everything this year. Chiptunes are like synths, before they were cool.
– Brian Audette