Joe’s Garage is a column provided by Joe Dorsey (keyboardist of Tea Club and Proglodytes contributor) in which he shares his diverse musical discoveries and examines records and genres from an unusual perspective: a cultural and historical one. In today’s column, Joe talks about Disasterpeace’s album Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar, an album that pushes the limits of the chiptune genre to the farthest reaches possible. He also discusses the history of chiptune, and the intersections between progressive rock and video game music. Welcome to Joe’s Garage!
This week I want to look at the album Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar, by Richiard Vreeland, better known as Disasterpeace. He is a producer and composer in the style of “Chiptune”, a genre that mimics the sounds of synthesized game music from the late 80s and early 90s. But what the hell does chiptune have to do with progressive music? Let’s look at the strange relationship between chiptune and prog rock, the difference between “content” and “aesthetics” in music, and why I think the album is totally awesome (and progressive).
This album was released in 2011 and was the breakthrough release for Disasterpeace. As he says on his Bandcamp page, many of the tracks “are products of a wonderful competition I participated in called “30 Songs in 30 Days” so spontaneity and urgency can be felt in throughout the runtime of this energetic record. The album description on Bandcamp also states “A small band of galactic travelers are bound together by mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, in the darkest reaches of the universe, an unparalleled force dwells on ambiguous intentions” suggesting that this piece may be the soundtrack to an unmade video game. I guess that also makes it a concept album.
Chiptune, aesthetically, is as far away from Rock music as it could possibly be. It’s essentially fundamentalist digital electronic music (fundamentalist meaning that chiptune takes advantage of the most basic digital waveforms: square, sawtooth, sine, triangle, and pulse waves, based on the limitation of the technology of the time). Confusing as this may sound, Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar, while being both “progressive” and “electronic”, does not resemble the Progressive Electronic and the Berlin School sounds of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, etc. If Disasterpeace has taken influence from Progressive Electronic, I don’t hear any of its influence in this specific work. The difference I would argue, is that Progressive Electronic music focuses on texture, ambience, and repetition, whereas Disasterpeace has a rather narrow palate of sounds to choose from (a natural result of making chiptune music), and focuses instead on crafting melodies and themes. In other words, the music on Rise… more resembles traditional progressive rock song structures than the avant-gardist soundscapes found on Phaedra or Timewind. The musical content and composition style on Rise… more resembles Richard Henshall or Kerry Minnear than it does of Edgar Froese or Brian Eno.
If you look at genuine chiptune music from the late 80s and the early 90s, this is not surprising: bombastic progressive rock is infused with gaming culture. Game developers hired composers that loved bands like Yes, ELP, King Crimson etc. Olly Ferrie of the Renegade Revolution site, when talking about Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of the Final Fantasy series, writes “Uematsu had personally been a fan of British progressive rock since secondary school, finding it the most fun genre to perform himself, and being impressed at the range of emotion the genre could reflect. Later, when talking about game music, he has stated that he is influenced heavily by 70’s prog rock in particular, commenting that the irregular meters and key changes work well with game design. In an interview with Famitsu magazine, he mentions too that many game musicians are prog rock fans, and hints that it may be due to their compatibility – the emphasis on high fantasy between the two.”1 Koji Kondo, the man who created soundtracks for games like Super Mario Brothers, and The Legend of Zelda (games so successful they’ve transcended the gaming community into mainstream pop culture) started his music career as a keyboard player in a band covering Deep Purple, and Emerson Lake and Palmer tunes2.
What are some ridiculously obvious examples of this, you ask? Well…
Someone who listens to WAY much Tarkus
And, somebody who listens to WAY much Power and the Glory.
It’s not even debatable: prog rock is deeply embedded in video game culture.
So Disasterpeace is composing in a genre that has essentially adopted the progressive rock style and used it as a major influence in its music. However, this album is a standalone work, and more than just a collection of soundbytes accompanying a game. With Rise… Disasterpeace essentially justifies and legitimizes chiptune music.
What makes Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar so incredible? One of the main reasons is its brilliant and tricky juxtaposition of the musical content itself, and the “sound” of the music. On “Club Wolf”, while the composition of the music more resembles something a modern progressive metal band would create, the use of the electronic drums and the overall electronic aesthetic makes it sometimes feel like an EDM banger. Another example of this is at 2:45 on the track “Counter of the Cumulus”: a lone melody appears and cycles through a few repetitions, and then out of nowhere, the “band” bursts in with this huge emotional peak with the bombast of a post-rock climax. One could rearrange this part of the tune with guitars, drums, and bass, and it would sound like it was lifted straight off of The World is Not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the sky. As I said earlier, I suspect by the nature of the way it was composed, the rhythms on this album are wildly unpredictable, angular, and frantically furious. In my imagination, I can see the “drummer” beating the hell out of his “drum kit” full of ideas, but with a time crunch looming. The rhythms shift on a dime, from 4 on the floor dance beats, to Phil Collins “Apocalypse in 9/8” trickiness. Occasionally the songs get really rhythmically intense, resembling Between the Buried in Me’s chaos. Tricky music has it downsides, however. The main complaints a band like Between the Buried and Me and Dream Theater get, from what I read, is that they revel in the technicality. The melodies, substance, and atmosphere tend to fall short, and the result is something mechanical, cold, and lacking heart. However, Disasterpeace is a not only a melodic genius, but knows when to pull back and rely on the simplicity and beauty of minimalism. A track like “Enesis” despite its complexity is filled with catchy, yet sophisticated melodies that float over the track. On “Day of Reflection”, Disasterpeace unleashes his melodic brilliance again with a minimalistic approach: no percussion or crazy time signature changes, just two monophonic synth voices over floating 4/4 pulse. At a mere 1:30 runtime, It is one of the most timeless and beautiful moments on the record. Another moment is the chillout and trip hop-influenced track “Submerciful”. It is a perfect closer to the album, acting as the slow and peaceful return to earth. These pockets of minimalism add warmth, depth, and atmosphere to the album. There’s magic moments all over Rise of the Interstellar (I’m looking at you Intro to “Counter of the Cumulus” doing that callback to “New Formation”)
Chiptune is a nostalgic genre. It is made and consumed by those people today who’s childhood was filled with those primitive yet endearing beeps and bloops. But despite (and I woulld argue BECAUSE of) the technological limitations of the time, chiptune and video game music is some of the most progressive and interesting music in the 20th century. Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar is a gleaming gem of an example of this, and proof that prog rock can be found in unusual places.
Purchase Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar here, and let him know we sent you!
Joe’s recommendation of the day: I’m always consuming media outside of the music world. So, every article, I’m going to have a recommendation of other great stuff out there, whether it’s a book, podcast, movie, etc. Today, I must recommend a podcast that every person should listen to: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Try not and be intimidated by the long run times of the episodes because I know you’ll be begging for more once you’ve gone through the Hardcore History marathon like I have. He does an excellent job at colorizing a historical tale, putting you in the shoes of other peoples from other times, and always has a wonderful “Dan Carlin” version or spin on a subject.
Listen to Hardcore History: http://www.dancarlin.com/