Bleep the faith

The Boston8Bit collective put their chips on the table
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  January 6, 2010

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AURAL PLEASURE Imagine a vocabulary of sounds with direct access to long-latent pleasure centers in your brain and you have an idea of why chiptunes are still gaining momentum.

LISTEN:Br1ght Pr1mate, "No Sense" (mp3)
If you were young and had brain space to spare in 1985, those vacant folds were likely soon flooded with the vast audial ephemera of the Nintendo era: glossy hums with sharp edges quavering into jaggy tremolos; fluttering laser blasts vaporizing into trails of chilly reverb; tittering rhythms under tessellating melodies rich and vibrant enough to capture any mood, from dire peril to princess-saving bad-assery. Imagine a vocabulary of sounds with direct access to long-latent pleasure centers in the adolescent archives of your brain and you have an idea of why chiptunes are still gaining momentum.

"Still," because chiptunery — the art and science of prying open and/or hacking into outdated game consoles for the sweet nectar of their audio chips — has been around for a while. (The blog Chipflip's timeline traces it back to the CSIR Mk1 computer first singing in public in 1951.) James Therrien — a core member of the Boston8Bit collective who runs chips in local duo Br1ght Pr1mate — senses not just an affinity between long-time chiptuners and other fringe sound outposts (circuit benders, noise artists, datapoppers) but a burgeoning presence in the mainstream. (See: Beck, Timbaland, and Gaga.) That could be because electro came back and unpacked and now seems fixin' to stick around, and chiptunes provide similarly nostalgic tickles.

But though Therrien would hear the dulcet tones of the Ricoh 2A03 everywhere, he didn't see it in action anywhere. "To have this group of super-talented musicians not playing shows just blew us away," he tells me over the phone. His explorations of 8-bit music were made largely possible by on-line chiptune epicenter 8bitcollective.com, and though he was discovering plenty of variety (from free-form jazz to hard dance to experimental ambient and noise), he wasn't finding a community off-line. There were a few scattered festivals (London has Bleep, Brooklyn's got Blip), but there was no real scene. Thus was born Boston8Bit's Chiptune series, whose third installment will take place next Thursday at the Middle East upstairs.

"People want to go for the sideshow element," Therrien admits, "but they end up staying for the music." And though you may have to trust him on that (name recognition isn't the chiptune movement's strongest suit), this bill promises to be the best line-up they've hosted. The booty-inspired dissonance of 8-bit godfather Minusbaby will counterpoint the more melodic pop of Br1ght Pr1mate, who feature Therrien's former Fugitive Kind bandmate Lydia Esrig as the sole vocalist on the bill (and, in fact, one of the few across the genre). Also on board are Connecticut's OxygenStar (a marvelous craftsman of texture who dons a giant blond Afro), the adventurously proggy boom-blip of Disasterpeace, and the dance-floor jams of Cape Cod's Active Knowledge — which actually make you feel you're winning at something. Some will run straight from their various consoles, some will couch their chips within live instrumentation, others might flout purism and use hifalutin software to ape the sounds and lose the old technology altogether — an approach known as fake-bit. No biggie. As long as it hits the memory and the motor skills right.

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