Chiptune – the sound of 1980s and 1990s video games – was one of the cases in which a technology destined to die naturally refused to disappear, finding its new use instead. Like recent revival of cassette culture, DIY and GIF-based net art, 8-bit music embraces outdated technology and media in order to manoeuvre new ideas out of it, once its time has expired.
At the peak of its popularity, the 8-bit aesthetic attracted the likes of indie pop favourites like Robyn and Crystal Castles, and neatly squared with the characteristic Swedish dance sound, very fashionable at the time. Part of its popularity has to be attributed to its nostalgic, 1980s edge, which caused Space Invaders and Pac-Man to return from digital hibernation and pop up from every possible corner, circa 2005. Additionally, popular culture began to express interest in everything labelled ‘geek’, which led sci-fi conventions, anime, RPG and ‘cult’ computer games – their soundtracks included – into the mainstream. But 8-bit music was a slightly more complex case: situated somewhere between mass-market gadget culture, keen on its playful aspects, and more underground movements, like the demoscene (which adapted sound chip as a music tool very early on) or certain strains of the goth subculture (as it happened to electroclash, which also became a ‘dark independent’ favourite). The goths were in fact early adopters of the sound: Welle:Erdball, a long-lived German act resembling dark cabaret-influenced Kraftwerk, released their first single ‘Nyntändo-Schock‘ as early as 1993.
This leftfield connection appears to become important again, as the fad for 8-bit and pixel art is gone and the subgenre comes back to the underground. Blip Festival, one of the biggest 8-bit themed events, went on hiatus last year after seven editions, yet 8bitpeoples, the organizers behind the event, keep their catalogue going. The label’s attempts at expanding the limits of Gameboy or Commodore 64-based music seem to be much more interesting than the ‘ornamental noise’ practiced by the likes of Crystal Castles. Given the obvious limits of the very simple means the artists operate with, the results can be surprising: Kplecraft combines simple videogame tunes with acoustic elements, while Derecha displays a nearly poppy, dancefloor-friendly appeal. Many of the artists occupy a territory which borders nearly on a more accessible, colourful and zany version of EBM, simultaneously playful and aggressive. As Warren Ellis picturesquely put it, “it is the sound of Game Boys breaking into your house, killing you, and having violent and prolonged sex over your corpse”.
Finally, the most surprising take on chiptune will come from the exquisite house of Editions Mego, released under the banner of COH. ‘RETRO-2038’, due out May 13, is perhaps the lightest opus Ivan Pavlov has made so far: futuristic, busy with tiny, buzzing computer bleeps, sounds even amusing. Surprising, for a collaborator of Coil and SoiSong. This unexpected turn makes one wonder if 8-bit music will be given another chance to develop, this time away from the fashionable dance of the mainstream.**
Header Image: Ryan Somma, ‘Photo at the Art of Videogames 2012 exhibition’.