Mind Flare Media MFM 007, 2011, CD album, 47m 43s
Chiptune purists may stick exclusively to using sounds as they are synthesised by their chosen platform, but there’s a well established set of musical practices that take the sounds of a Gameboy, an Amiga, or, in this case, an Atari 2600, and liberally mash them up. Mike Bourque likes to slather distortion over his sounds, but he still has an ear for the original context of his instrument; the sounds captured on Return Of The Bloop Beep Buzz are not sourced exclusively from his computers, but they are deeply, nostalgically redolent of the sounds that accompanied many geeky kids’ gaming experiences in the 1980s. Those dualities, I think, are a key feature of this music: it’s not a fusion, so much as it is a bridge between musical worlds. The listener is offered a road to travel between a hiply geekish appreciation of the sounds of an early form of digital culture, the insistent exigencies of the dancefloor, and an avant-gardist sonic aesthetic that hears pitch and noise as two equally interesting forms of sound.
The beats here drive forward with some considerable force, usually with a techno or electro-industrial rigidity that reinforces the mechanistic impression established by the orchestration; on some tunes (e.g. ‘Full Attack Mode) two different high frequency distortions are marshalled in the manner of hi-hat and snare, but for the most part this music refuses dance music convention, and builds rhythms from the materials at hand, rather than imitating a drum kit. As with powernoise, where every sonic component is so harshly filtered as to deny it any representational function, there is no clear distinction in Return Of The Bloop Beep Buzz between field and figure. It’s impossible to say, except in the case of a few samples and a few low frequency jackhammers, which elements are ‘rhythm’ and which are ‘melody’; which are the content, and which are the setting; which are the composition, and which are the arrangement. This is something Army of 2600 also has in common with the music of his game composer forebears, who worked with instruments incapable of timbral variety, except for what could be finagled by testing their limits. Timbral variety is not an issue for Mike Bourque, whose Atari 2600s inhabit a 21st century studio: I don’t know what technologies he uses to process and record his sounds, or whether they are analogue, old school digital or cutting edge plugins. These days it’s pretty much impossible to tell just by listening anyway, as producers get more and more sophisticated in the way they employ their tools. What I do know is that this release contains an incredibly varied and carefully crafted selection of sounds, running through a continuum from clearly pitched, coherent tones, to totally broken and harsh.
Return Of The Bloop Beep Buzz is an intense listening experience. It refuses to recede below the chatter of whatever else you may have happening: through speakers it fills a room, and if you turn it down quietly, it fills the room quietly; through headphones, it fills your world. It is harsh, persistent, and fiercely demanding. It’s also a lot of fun, however, and I would love to dance to some of these tunes pumping through a serious rig; tunes like ‘Jammas On The Amazon’, or ‘Wave 44’ sound like Kraftwerk with a machine gun, or Terrorfakt loved up on MDMA. They could drop quite happily in an electro DJ set, or an electro-industrial one, and a few eyebrows might go up, but arses would continue to wiggle, and jackboots to stomp, respectively. Even then though, the music would demand your full attention; this stuff needs to be listened to. It is so full of detail, variety, and moment-to-moment creative choices, that you will miss something if you look away: I should imagine that for people who simply don’t like harsh electronic music this would make it pretty much intolerable, but for me, it’s a real treat.
There are tracks here that eschew the dancefloor as well, and present themselves as sound art more than music: ‘The Zaxxonian Theory’ is a six minute arrhythmic mindfuck, an essay in the fringes of comprehensibility. A sound more disorganized would begin to sound like static, and give us an easy way to digest it, but hanging around just the other side of the line between meaningful utterance and acoustic happenstance produces a sound that reads like gibbering insanity. I think there’s an element of humour in that, but there is also, clearly, a serious, rigorous artistic agenda. Army of 2600 is a project that explores the cracks between worlds, and that will take us along as unwilling passengers if necessary, with the sheer immersive physicality of its music.