Soundplay is an exploration of the new gaming landscape, where independent game developers are today having the same transformative impact indie musicians have had on music over the past decade. We asked five innovative young game developers to create original games that didn’t simply use music as a soundtrack but that were original works inspired by specific songs. Today we feature one of those five. It’s a remarkable time in the gaming world, where thanks to Intel’s advances in processing technology indie developers can create fully formed games without the assistance of major publishers.
The first time I saw the Norwegian black metal band 1349, its usual drummer, Frost, was absent. Filling in on the skins was the barrel-chested Tony Laureano. The band’s stage show was riveting. Black-and- white corpse paint was smeared on faces, chests, and arms. Strobe lights captured the band’s fearsome visages in still–like those flashes of the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist. I was transfixed as much by the band’s look as by its music. Still, I had to break the spell and sneak around the back of the stage to check out Laureano’s work up close. I watched his feet hammer on double-bass pedals with impossible speed. His waist swiveled as he played a seemingly endless stream of fills on the skins. Elbows bent, arms spaced just so he methodically swept back and forth across his kit. The motion of his wrists was precise and mechanical. The man was sweating, but it felt like I was watching a machine at work.
There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Drum Machines Have No Soul.” The quote is part of a campaign by Los Angeles pianist John Wood to see a return to the good old days, when seasoned instrumentalists recorded timeless music. Trouble is that every generation has its own brand of nostalgia. So while gray old dudes bemoan the fall of the session musician, there are others with their eyes cast to a much nearer, more mechanical past. Chiptunes is a form of electronic music that seeks to duplicate the sound of old videogame consoles and personal computers. Many practitioners use old consoles and handhelds as musical instruments. If the Roland TR-808, the backbone of house music and electro, lacks soul, what does that say of the feeble sound chips that produced these bleeps and bloops? The high-pitched, melodic chirp one hears in the pop music of Anamanaguchi sounds like Weezer on a sugar rush. And nearly all the beats skitter as if the virtual drums were covered in virtual sand. The kick of a drum in a chiptune track shares the same sound effect as a kick, punch, or explosion in a videogame–they’re diminished, but they still convey the impact. The question to many, though, is whether these peculiar sounds have value beyond their romantic connection to games of yesterday.
Heavy metal, too, is motivated by a kind of nostalgia. Many bands seek a return to a bygone era–before hair metal ruined everything and Metallica got bloated and boring. These two forms of nostalgia intersect on YouTube, where hundreds of users have made “8-bit” versions of their favorite metal songs. The instrumental ”Orion” from Metallica’s Master of Puppets becomes a chirpy shuffle. “Spirit Crusher” by Death, the quintessential Tampa death metal band, sounds like it could have been clipped right out of Metroid. The songs’ many tempo changes and recurring themes conjure images of boss battles and retro action sequences.
YouTube user Bassbait is a lifelong gamer who plays guitar and sings in an unsigned Southern California death metal band called Dystopian. About three years ago an 8-bit rendition of Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” caught his ear and sent him back to the days when he played id’s first-person shooter Doom. The soundtrack to Doom, by composer and designer Bobby Prince, took inspiration from Pantera, Slayer, and Alice in Chains riffs, then hacked them into ambient soundalikes to avoid legal troubles.
Bassbait was curious to hear his favorite metal songs filtered through an old videogame chip. So when he discovered that some songs hadn’t been tackled yet, he set about making them himself.
Part of the reason for the wealth of 8-bit metal covers on YouTube is the relative ease of producing them. A fan can download the song tablature from a website like Ultimate Guitar, convert it to a MIDI file with software like Guitar Pro or Power Tab, then drag and drop the file into a program called GX SCC to give it that retro sound. The process is so simple that almost anybody can do it. And they do–thanks in part to YouTube user Simon Larsen, who created a video tutorial that explains it step by step.
Larsen says that he gets a lot of heat from chiptune purists who say that real 8-bit music is programmed note-by-note with “tracker” software. “Most people don’t care,” he insists. ”They just want to hear what their favorite songs would sound like on a Nintendo.”
Some fans put more care into their work than others. Bassbait told me that he poured many hours into his covers. When he couldn’t find good tab for the songs he wanted to cover, he wrote it himself. And wherever he noticed that the transcription of a solo or drum track wasn’t quite right, he corrected it. He took special care with guitar solos. When GuitarPro couldn’t properly execute “dive-bomb” or “flutter” tremolo techniques, Bassbait would manually tweak the notes until they sounded right. These minor tweaks probably aren’t noticeable to the layman, but they pay off on tracks like “The Family Ghost” by King Diamond, which kicks off with a blink-and-you’ll miss it guitar solo. Bassbait’s take on Andy Larocque’s guitar solos capture his wild, imaginative shredding. But he also does something fascinating: he conflates the guitar solos with King Diamond’s falsetto vocal melodies. Intricate guitar solos bleed right into melody as if they’re the same instrument.
Tom Martin, the lead singer of the Massachusetts thrash band Lich King, also stumbled upon 8-bit metal on YouTube. “I discovered that someone made [Slayer's] ’Raining Blood’ in 8-bit style and I giggled the whole way through it.” Martin says that laughs were his main motivation to try it himself. “It’s just the goofy novelty of hearing a familiar song in a new format,” he says. “Exodus did a cover of one of their songs in bluegrass style for a goof.” The process, he says, “was something of a nice concentration exercise.” Martin dug up some MIDI drum files left over from the band’s old demos and used Bandcamp to create the guitar and bass tracks. The end result is a record called Super Retro Thrash–nine songs that recast the aggressive palm-muted riffs of his original recordings into rapid-fire bloops. It was released on April Fool’s Day.
“I’m sick of the seriousness in metal,” Martin complains. Elitists, he says, are sapping the fun out of the music. “Stop acting like some sort of self-appointed arbiter of what’s worthy and what’s not, douchebags.”
If there’s one faction of headbangers that could stand to lighten up a little, it’s practitioners of black metal. The sound originated in Norway and was pioneered by nihilistic young men who thought that their lives should mimic the dark music they were producing. Mayhem frontman Per Yngve Ohlin (stagename “Dead”) slit his own throat and wrists; then, when he got tired of waiting to bleed out, he shot himself in the face with a shotgun. The shells were a gift from Burzum’s Varg Vikernes, who would later go to jail for the murder of Mayhem’s frontman Euronymous and the arson of four historic churches. In his last interview Euronymous opined on “true” and “false” metal, calling the band Deicide ”commercial” and warning “that it’s not enough to put on some corpse paint to make a band.” A true black metal band, he preached, “must have the right spirit.”