Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This Week on Audiosurf Radio – This Ain’t No Hamst3r Dance

hamster-dance-large It’s been a long time since I identified myself by an Internet handle.  I’m actually not sure I ever have.  I still get that little twinge of silliness when I hear my Xbox Live gamertag over voice chat.  But that’s just me, and I have nothing but respect for people who roll their handle into their Internet music career.  People like Jamez “Hamst3r” Gillman.

Gillman’s website is absurd.  Dude’s catalogued and rated every game he’s played since 1991.  I couldn’t tell you why.  But I can tell you that he also enjoys making commented gameplay videos.

As for his music, you can head directly to The Hamster Alliance website.  According to Gillman, “The goal of "THA" is to produce awesome and diverse music without any restrictions.”  Everyone should include the word "awesome" in their mission statement. 

Hit the jump for some awesome and diverse variations on the chiptune genre.

The Songs

“Nihilist” starts off super quiet and low-fi.  A heroic little chip melody – a mix between Zelda and Mega Man – plays softly.  At the crest of the first major hill, the track goes into overdrive.  Elaborate, doublebass drumming underpins a whole host of awesome synth noise.  Pulsating strings keep the song from residing solely in the realm of the electronic.  Throughout the track, Gillman plays games with the song’s fidelity, often isolating the low-fi melody before surrounding it with high quality instrumentation.  At times, it sounds like Gillman’s remixing a classic tune.  That’s how good both the chip melody and the supporting elements are.  During the climactic final section, a skittish house beat morphs the song into a techno version of itself.  Add in a random dude yelling “Yo!” and you’ve got one hell of a schizophrenic track.  It’s somewhat dizzying but ultimately makes for a song that’s fresh moment to moment.  A driving quarter note beat sets a nice standard from which the song often deviates with syncopation and other rhythmic tricks.  This helps to send much needed tremors through a track that’d otherwise be plain downhill slopes.  Bottom line, play this song.

The beginning of “Turboprop” sounds Tetris was asked to jam with a grimy bar band.  The distorted guitar is chunky, palm-muted, and smacks of late 90s hard rock.  Behind it is a drum beat so bland the track barely moves (save some melodic twisting and turning) until the very end of the song.  Tetris comes in as a chirping 8-bit melody that quickly wigs out, going five different kinds of crazy until the strings kick in.  Then with strings in tow, “Turboprop” begins to feel like doomsday boss music.  It’s classic earth-crumbling-beneath-your-feet-while-lava-rains-from-the-skies-and-oh-wait-you’re-fighting-a-demon music.  Kind of.  It is…if you’re viewing said boss fight from 1000 yards away.  You can see each lava burst take shape.  The explosions don’t surprise so much as politely dazzle.  It looks epic, but it doesn’t feel epic.  The overall smoothness of the track demonstrates that there isn’t much in the way of the unexpected.  The music will be fine.  It will change chords.  You’ll match blocks.  And then it’s over. 

Every few weeks I get a track that lets me take stock of how well I understand Audiosurf’s various track generation algorithms.  One thing I do know is that sustained notes or sounds tend to generate long, sweeping curves of smooth track.  As I rode “Zweidecker,” I began to wonder if it’s long passages of distorted, strummed guitar appeared as sustained pitches in the ears of the algorithm.  That might explain why, despite the drummer’s best efforts, much of the track (and much of “Turboprop”) featured little more in the way of terrain than a steady decline around several curves.  As a marriage of chiptune and hard rock, “Zweidecker” surpasses “Turboprop” simply by doing more with its constituent parts. The strings pulse and shift more often.  The guitar gives more room to the melody before offering hints (though no full delivery) of an actual solo before the final refrain. There is an awkward transition into that last refrain, as if someone was changing channels back to the Melody Already In Progress. It’s on the beat and everything, so it’s definitely on purpose. It just feels abrupt and unearned.

Author’s Note

All songs were played on the Pro difficulty at least twice using the Eraser and Vegas characters. 

Of “Zweidecker,” user Sage 009 says “Band is boring.  More chip less rock.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Gillman’s at his best creating novel instrumentation combos for chiptune, not relying on a hard rock trio of guitar, bass, and drums.  The latter two songs aren’t bad, but to enjoy them as rides you should challenge yourself with how you play.  Try a more difficult mode.  Try Mono play.  Break out of your comfort zone to keep yourself engaged.

Anyone who’s reading this without having played Audiosurf (including non-gamers!) should reallycheck it out.