Future, Towards the Edge of Forever

(Self-released; 2011)

By George Bass | 17 May 2011

In the cutthroat world of chiptune music, Anamanaguchi may have struck it big with their soundtrack to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but NY duo Starscream were always a close second, and have now got their shit together and finally made an album. Carrying on with the moniker they stole from Transformers (1984) and writing instrumentals that lament the death of space travel, Starscream are every closet cosmonaut’s last hope—their steely-eyed goofiness knocks the enthusiasm of cooler, less agoraphobic artists into a cocked hat/visor.

Collectors of their three anthemic EPs—specifically 2009’s Future, and it Doesn’t Work—will know Damon Hardjowirogo and George Stroud can perform miracles with obsolete circuitry, and have been doing so since long before these modern producers discovered NES chirps as seasoning. You don’t have to listen to more than a ten-second patch of Starscream’s material to know these aren’t just your usual button squealers: they’re trying to make a point, eulogising technology through tight pop structures that are played on the machines of yesterday and not much else. And while the future didn’t work back in 2009, two years later it’s apparently roses, with Stroud and Hardjowirogo deciding to make their album a fifty-minute slug of optimism—credible optimism. Anyone revisiting classic hardware in the hope of producing instant operas should use this record as a point of reference. Tron Legacy 2, I hope you’re taking notes.

Exactly how Starscream take one of the ’80s most abrasive sounds and make it tuneful is impressive enough, but how they invest it with such emotion and scope is staggering, like someone writing a concerto for nothing but kango hammers. Purring consoles and hopeful fizzes are the staple of Towards the Edge of Forever, along with a selection of real instruments that smooth off the novelty value. Already the bane of the chiptune purists, Hardjowirogo and Stroud take these real instruments seriously, going so far as to hire a real studio/producer/musicians from other bands to help fine tune the mix. This pays dividends when you first hear the live drumming of “Galeforce,” which depicts a stellar storm using guttural screeching and a touch of the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You.” Stroud mashes buttons to simulate a hurricane, jamming in time with Kotaro Tsukada of Peelander-Z’s bass, while someone else concocts burning oxygen noises in the background. It’s like listening to Hot Chip on a shoestring: equipment downgraded, vocalist barred, and everyone else in good spirits. There’s barely a chink in the good vibes anywhere, and the bouncing combinations of “05.10.2094” even attempt to play house hats on a Game Boy. This must mimic the awkwardness of astronauts when they get to space and realize the coffee’s not coffee. Nathan Ritholz hacks his guitar like he’s Steve Vai feigning intimacy, and there’s some amazing reverb/disintegrating microcircuits used for backing in the chorus. The makers of Drawdio claim you can create music using absolutely anything to hand. If it’s possible to make songs out of sherbet, Starscream deserve some sort of trophy.

The only way they’re likely to shed any believers is when they overcook the space factors of FTTEOF, adopting post-rock structures to drive home their big message: that the earth is a finite orb, and seeing as man’s not prepared to slow down on the consuming he’d better sink his money into lunar module research and find himself a new orb to picnic on, quickly. “Moonrunner”‘s increasing but unvaried riff makes it jump from deep adventure to a delay drumming exercise, and “Space” begins with an ECG and takes the longest possible route to utopia. Ritholz gets to show off some vintage guitar licks here, the 8-bit pads jammed so hard they sound like steel drums, and there’s a heart attack rock drop at exactly four minutes, presumably to signify some kind of ignited booster. Pretty much everything else anyway cosmic you can think of gets a look in during its eight minute flight—phasers, meteorites, radio interference, all translated into chiptune. It only needs some frantic ground controllers to make you think they’re streaming live from Houston.

Luckily Starscream shrug off the politics, and let each track play out until its hopefulness overtakes its regret. And in the end, anyone regretting the prominent space angle on an album made by two programmers writing love songs to NASA on cold war technology has plainly got on the wrong bus. While it’ll still feel like acid to the majority of pop fans, those smart enough to acknowledge that the Blind Willie Johnson vinyl placed on Voyager needs updating should at least love a fraction of this album. It might take three tracks for the band to convey an emotion other than gee-whizz (“Outer and Onward” is amazingly forlorn, crumbling and dissolving like aspirin), but Future, Towards the Edge of Forever has been designed to lift spirits using the simplest means possible: prolonged exposure to enthusiasm. The tunes are clever in that there’s always the glint of something dark in each track threatening to destroy it, but Starscream bypass their own traps and make an album that chip fans can champion—even the sour-faced straightedge ones who won’t talk to you unless your thumbs are arthritic.