Future, and it Doesn't Work EP

(8bitpeoples; 2009)

By George Bass | 4 December 2009

The drums are integral to the mix. When the percussion picks up on a vintage arcade game, you know you’re on the edge of something epic: boss battle, bonus shooter, continue screen…a time to get arthritic with the joypad. George Stroud and Damon Hardjowirogo are obviously very arthritic, and have wisely swapped their trigger clips for a bona fide drum kit and Game Boy. Named after the one Transformer with emo leanings, Starscream are a chiptune duo with a pessimist twist, a refuge for techies aching to socialise but who don’t want to risk being burnt again. Aghast at the West’s prostitution of science but compelled to party on regardless, their boo-to-objectives mantra comes together on Future, and it Doesn’t Work, their debut for New York’s 8bitpeoples and an EP as clockless as a casino. There’re no vocals (thank god—there’s a reason why astronauts are often put in vacuums), but Hardjowirogo’s drumming is lyrical itself, meshing with the consoles like a collision of spices and bringing in some rocker credibility. This is as close to street-smart as chiptune’s ever going to get unless someone hyphenates the term “cyberpunk.”

Future‘s appeal can be measured by its pacing: none of the tracks get too frantic and the dark, sweeping arcade machine sounds jump like soldiers to the cool steady rhythm of the drums. Rather than douse you with discontinued software signals, Starscream opt for a level of composition above the console par, the sugared atomics setting a cavalier tone on the rousing “Rise of Space.” Who’d have thought you can play “Crockett’s Theme” on calculators? It’s possible, and Damon and George keep the chords zinging as they go Steve Albini with the Moongel. In the time it takes to speed-complete Dr. Mario they’ve managed to play a little space-opera—all the more engaging when you consider the two-piece orchestra they’re working with. On “Gravity in Terms of Space-Time” it’s the kick drum’s turn to take point, jewels flashing in the hiss of the programs as virtual bacon crackles. By this point in the set list (60%) I’m already on board: the drums channel anger in a good-hearted way, mounting an assault on no-emotion retro and smashing it into the sand it came from. This is the first time I’ve heard a chiptune record that’s made me feel like I’m in a platform adventure storyline as opposed to following one on a screen. And who cares if developers can command a Michael Bay budget for their next free-roaming shoot-‘em-up? Hardjowirogo and Stroud are rolling things back to 1986, an era where flying grayscale spaceships was a genuine contact with euphoria and Bay was Goon #3 in Miami Vice, lining up to direct Playboy Video Centerfold: Kerri Kendall.

It’s that sense of “look what could have been” that makes Future stand out from the sugar rush most people class as chiptune. To the resident community it’s just another solid release, but trust me, it’s got some meaty crossover potential, up there with Anamanaguchi as an almost-classic in smoothening an inroad to the genre. Its frazzled circuitry and NASA plastic dip between utopia and reality, and as things build to the hi-score pyrotechnics of the title track, I’ll bet that registered listeners list grows. At twenty-one minutes it’s a good casual gamble; with a price-tag of fuck-all it’s a steal. In fact, that’s one of the nicest ironies about the whole damn shebang: from a time where contentment was only a full battery light away comes an EP only acquired via broadband-speed internet. Go ahead and download it if that should leave you curious. Just don’t do it in Sweden, because the web police will stone you to death.