December 11, 2007 8:00 PM | Matthew Hawkins
[For the second year running, the effusive Matthew 'Fort90' Hawkins has helped us out with an insanely detailed, awesome write-up of the Blip Festival, New York's premiere chiptune mashup insanity music fest. This year, it's so long that we're splitting it in twain - part two, for the third and fourth nights, to run v. soon. Here we go...]
One year ago, almost to the date, history was made. Chiptunes artists from across the globe gathered in New York City to play together, to celebrate the medium, as well as educate the greater public, in an event that was the first of its kind. The inaugural Blip Festival was called many things, with the word “ambitious” being high on that list. And it was a blazing success.
So when it came time for round two, anticipation was even higher than before. Expectations simply had to be met, yet something new, something fresh also had to be offered. And Blip Fest 2007 did indeed deliver on pretty much every single count, at least the ones that really mattered. Most importantly, it offered ear bleeding, mind melting beep and blops for four nights straight. There was something for everyone… provided said person enjoys manic beats provided by old Game Boys and other “archaic” forms of video game hardware, or open minded enough to give them a listen. I myself had an awesome time… I’m pretty sure I lost about five pounds when all was said and done, from all the sweating and dancing. As for the rest of the audience… there was more of them this time around.
The whole chiptunes is constantly on the edge of making it “big”, and Blip Fest 2007 was further evidence of things “getting there.” Not only was there more in attendance, the gathering itself was a noticeably more diverse. Perhaps due to the fact that there was a lot of hype going into the event; coverage, at least on a local level, was quite high, with coverage from the New York Times, among other outlets.
In fact, thing somewhat kicked off one week early, via a 8bit-oriented art show called B I T M A P at a gallery in Williamsburg, the trendy, arty-farty quadrant of Brooklyn. Aside from featuring both non and completely interactive pieces, such as GR_DIUS, by Jeremiah Johnson, aka Nullsleep, noted NYC-based chiptunes artist, and one of the men behind the Blip Festival (the piece is basically Gradius for the NES, with the player’s ship and bullets completely invisible).
"Icarus Returns to Spook His Father" by David Mauro
The opening also had some 8bit music, courtesy of x|k, who was part of the previous year’s festivities, but was not on the card this time around. And that’s the thing… once the list of performers was made available, there was a certain degree of head scratching. Why was such and such not coming back? There were several reasons; first off, not everyone they wanted was available. Damn. But also, there was a concerted effort to bring in as many new acts as possible. Those who returned was apparently chosen at random by drawing straws, though I believe the initial cap was to be set at five, but over time that number grew, I would imagine due to schedule changes and the such. Anyhow, that meant no Jeroen Tel or Saitone. Oh well…
But I was looking forward to checking out Blasterheard, whom I had heard about for years, as well as see the glorious return of Bodenstandig. Plus, last year I had to miss out on two of the four nights due to a personal engagement, which I meant I had missed out on the star of that show, that person being Hally, but he was coming back at least, and I’d get to finally see what all the fuss was about.
Again, the fest had a lot to live up to, and it did, for the most part. Was the whole thing perfect? No, but nothing ever is. And whereas the first year’s event went relatively nice and smooth, there were quite a few rough spots here and there. Yet, in the end...
First off, the new space was an improvement over the last one; everything went down at Eyebeam, a gallery situated in midtown, over in Chelsea. There was plenty of room, with no huge columns to obstruct the view. The bright and brilliant pixel wall was back in effect, though rotated 90 degrees, with dual video projections on each side. An excellent idea.
I forget how it compared with the previous year’s opening evening, but there was just a smattering of people when thing kicked off a bit past 8. Hey, it was a Thursday, and it was early.
Performer 01.01: First up was Alex Mauer, who was obviously nervous about being the first up on the first night. But that didn’t stop him from providing a fine aural history of video games. Marer was completely no nonsense, as he played one smooth and jazzy tune after another; virtually each song featured a different sound chip, with his tune based upon the Commodore’s sound set being my personal favorite.
Unfortunately the crowd was not too into the tunes, for whatever reason. I guess cuz it was early and not everyone had loosened up. There was quite the valley between the stage and the audience, though that would be filled as the night progressed. At one point, after Mauer moved onto his fourth or so chip of his set, someone yelled out, jokingly “Make up your mind!” in which Mauer replied, quite dryly, “Well the whole point is for me to play as many different kinds of chips as possible.” The first guy, rather sheepishly responded with “I was just kidding! It’s all good!”
Performer 01.02: Neil Voss was the second man to take the stage, and the first returning act from the previous year. And just like before, he not only filled the house with soothing, crescendo laden tunes, but also played the part of the soft spoken lady killer yet again.
Performer 01.03: The very first international act of the festival was 8GB, hailing from Argentina, was also the first guy to turn things up and make it a party. His beats were hard and fast, very dance hall like. And also very effective; people got a bit looser, heads started to bob, and we finally got some dancing.
Performer 01.04: Here’s where things finally got very interesting. Gijs Gieskes had with him a table full of... stuff. Even now it’s hard to describe the scene he had laid out; folks were crowded around the stage, not to dance but simply to see what the hell was going on. I asked about three different people who were far more familiar with the tools of the trade, and each person offered a different explanation or theory.
Basically, Gijs (is that a common name in the Netherlands?) produced music via a Game Boy, which was hooked to some sort of midi-relay-controller-type-thing. Which produced a series of lights, that was captured by a small camera, which is then projected on the wall. Possibly connected to all this is a totally different set of mechanics, which mostly consists of a pair of moving cylinders, and on them he would place little metallic discs, what used to look like food tins, which have been hollowed out.
Gijs Gieskes's instruments
There’s a second tiny, b&w camera that shows the contents of the discs as they move around, to reveal kaleidoscopes inside. There’s flashing lights as well, and the discs might have possible had some affect on the music (I noticed tiny groves around the cans that might possibly have some influence).
Gijs Gieskes's kaleidoscope
It was also during Gijs’ set in which we had our first major technical problem of the festival. For whatever reason, he simply lost all power, and it took some time and work to get it back. Days later, and no one still knows what really happened…
Performer 01.05: NrGiGa, hailing from Italy, hit the stage next. His set was pure, high energy. And helping to power the beats was his unbridled enthusiasm. Unfortunately, NrGiGa was yet another victim to technical difficulties, this time stemming from his own equipment. One of his two Game Boys kept going out… which at first stemmed from what appeared to be a defective transfer wire. Another one was produced in a timely fashion, but problems persisted, this time with his copies of LSDJ (Little Sound DJ). He had to struggle through his set, but the audience hung in there, though it took up more time then expected.
Performer 01.06: As much as happy and on top of the world NrGiGa appeared to be during his set, compared to the next guy, Paza, he seemed absolutely morbidly depressing. I knew of the Swede’s work with Beck, which is how is he mostly known, and also told that his liver performance was going to deliver, and he didn’t disappoint; armed with assorted bits and pieces, including a children’s toy that made animal noises, as well as some kind of voice modulator, Paza took the stage and ran with it, with another ultra high energy, clothes ripping (literally) performance. And building off of what NrGiGa started, the energy level in the room was at least starting to rise...
Performer 01.07: But it wasn’t till man number six got up front, that the party was officially in effect. His name was Saskrotch, a complete unknown to myself and my companions, and it took next to nothing for him to turn us, as well as the every other body in that room into lifelong devotees. This mystery man was all over the place, starting out nice and jazzy, and quickly going into intense, dance mixes, laden with rap and dancehall beats and samples. I consider him the Meatloaf of the chiptunes, and NOT because of his physique (he was not just another skinny white guy up there making jams from Game Boys, which to be honest, a tiny bit refreshing), but his complete charisma and ownership of the stage, as well as his sweeping, almost hypnotic openings, like a bear trap, which is quickly followed by a barrage of beats, going in for the kill. Far and away, one of the highlights of the entire festival, and one of its greatest discoveries for us New York boys.
And of course, off stage, the kind is rather quiet and somewhat shy, and very friendly. Dude is from Chicago and needs to get his ass back over here as quickly as possible.
Performer 01:08: Going on past 1 in the morning, and well past the 12:40 scheduled timeslot was Lo-bat, the man from Belgium, who could be considered a vet of the chiptunes scene, one that decided to hang up his Game Boy and Amiga to pursue a more stable career… making comics (well, it’s a far more stable job in Europe). But he came out of retirement to show his stuff, and...
Truth be told, I must be getting old, because it was past one in the morning, and I had a job in the morning and other responsibilities, hence why not feeling up for yet another act, especially after the intensity that was Saskrotch. And I have to wonder if I was the only person to think the same. But Lo-bat was the first of the “Gee, how the hell is that guy gonna follow XYZ?” And less than half a song later, everyone was instantly transfixed.
Again, another man who knows his chops, and able to bend circuits to produce dance, trance, techno, break-beat, and everything in between. Night one raged well into the dark, including one encore, close to 2 am (actually, it might have been a little past it). When it was over, we had received only our first six solid hour dosage of chiptunes. With many more to come...
Friday night kicked off with two things: first a stroll to the merchandise table. Among the many highlights was the official Blip Festival 2006 DVD, which features performances from every single act the previous year, in a very handsome looking and slickly produced package. And of course you had plenty of CDs, mini CDs, shirts, and even some zines and other crafty stuff. I myself got the new “Holy 8bit Night” chiptunes Xmas album, since I both love chiptunes and Christmas songs, plus it had two tracks from Saitone. There was also a curious looking 3CD collection for just ten bucks (what a steal!) that was simply titled “Real Japanese Underground 2007” that no one, even those manning the table, knew about. I was told it was brought over by Bokusatsu Shoujo Koubou (aka BSK), who tried explaining via his limited English that it was a combination breakcore chiptunes and hardcore noise punk complication. Sold!
But the true highlight was actual Little Sound DJs for sale, for just $75. The real deal, tools of the trade, which has been long out of print for years, and the only real way to get them has been via eBay; last I checked they were going as high as $400-500. I’m not clear on the details, but the folks behind them have decided to go back into production, and they had 100 units available, and a good number were pushed by the end of the weekend (something tells me that a good portion of the buying audience was more than likely the artists at the show, since some had to deal with issues relating to their war wary carts starting to fail). I myself was sorely tempted, but ultimately, $75 is a bit too steep of a price for the inner sanctum of coolness, at least when I heard that LSDJ is not for the faint at heart, though Jeremiah insisted that it’s “not that hard to learn.”
The second order of business was trying to figure out what the deal was regarding the after-party, which I first caught wind about the previous Saturday night, at the B I T M A P opening. The initial impression I got that it was going to be a low-key, strictly on the down-low affair, so I didn’t really say anything about it, except to friends. Later in the week came word that it had “leaked” via Facebook, and then that night I heard that Jeremiah was going to make an announcement at the end of the show, so I guessed it was going to be open to everyone. Though the main point of contention was where it was supposed to be exactly; the supposedly locale moved from Lower East Side of Manhattan to somewhere in Brooklyn to back to Manhattan, somewhere in the West Side (which made sense since that’s where the venue was). Then came the final word: in Williamsburg at some dude’s place. What? I was told that it was big... but how big is big?
Also, the party was set to kick off around two later that night/morning. One of the biggest selling points of heading to Brooklyn well past midnight, and after six plus solid hours of chiptunes was for more chiptunes, featuring artists from last year’s show (including ones I had missed) who were in town for some fun, but also brought their gear. One was scheduled to go on at 4 I think, then next at 5 or 6. Things were supposed to wrap up around 9 in the morning. Okay...
It should also be noted that there was a pretty sizable crowd from the on-set, which was expected, it being Friday night and all. There was more buzz and excitement in the air this time, as compared to the other night. The butterflies were out of certain stomachs, and it was time to get to business. And expectations were high, at least among myself; the card looked good, damn good for that night.
Performer 02.01: The lone female artist for the entire event, New York City’s own Bubblyfish took the stage, though not as nimbly as she normally would; she was sporting a cast, due to an injury sustained while jogging or something just over a week prior. But that did stop her from her doing her thing.
Bubblyfish’s sets are always a delight, with a set that’s very mellow, yet quite playful, and she was an excellent choice for an opener. Her songs are like taking a journey. One that’s no so much bumpy as they are thumpy.
In the middle of her set, she explained her injury to the crowd, which didn’t prevent her from standing her ground like she normally does, though it did ground her. “I can’t dance, I can’t jump!” she explained, hence why she called for dancers. The first name was of Chibi-Tech, who wowed everyone last year, not just with his highly intricate and ultra dance-y tunes, but his own body shaking, and since he was an expected surprise, me and my friends were immediately pleased. But... he was nowhere to be found, so some other guy took the stage, dressed somewhat like Michael Jackson, and almost moved like him as well.
Bubblyfish & the dancer
And not too long afterwards came some girl dressed in mostly blue, looking like some character from a King of Fighters title. And her moves were a bit more... interpretive. But soon came some more trouble: the sound kept going out, which resulted in the two dancers completely freeze framing. At first the pauses were brief, but they kept coming, and grew longer. But the frozen dancers kept everyone entertained, plus on the video screens behind them was a game of Contra going on (throughout the show, various artists created shapes and color via NESs) and that was a big hit. The interruptions would be bad for anyone regardless, but considering how for Bubblyfish, everything melds and transitions into each other, it was particularly frustrating, who I believe had to cut things short.
Performer 02.02: Time for something very different: Loud Objects, an ensemble consisting of three chip artists created both sights and sounds, from total scratch, in the very middle of the room. Everything took place on an old overhead projector, with various chips strewn about, with hands going in and out to connect all the elements together. At first there was no sound, but over time, as they connect, audio is produced, as well as the occasional word written on the projector; for whatever reason, the very first word written was “Metroid”.
It was... interesting. Though not as effective as it would have been in a smaller, more intimate setting, since those who could see first hand what was going on were totally confused as to what was going on. Many could not tell if something was actually being assembled, or if they were having technical difficulties.
Performer 02.03: Third up was one of the few local talents that didn’t manage to make it on the show last year, minusbaby. On stage with him was a DJ, manning a turntable that didn’t appear to have any vinyl, but instead was attached to minusbaby’s laptop, which fed the DJ bit-laden beats to be scratched. The result was truly eclectic, something I had not personally witnessed before. The songs themselves were almost Reggie-ish, and got everyone moving with no fuss.
minusbaby & his mixmaster
Performer 02.04: Up next from Sweden was Rugar, who was top on my personal list of must see’s. His music isn’t meant to necessarily make people dance, but to tell a story. And not just any story, but a powerful epic, and his melodies run the gamut of emotions, from hopeful to somber, and even somewhat scary. Of all the music produced by all the artists that entire weekend, his seemed most appropriate for an actual video game, though more specifically, a Japanese RPG for the NES or SNES.
Unfortunately, most folks in attendance was not sure what to make of it. It’s like being at a club, and after the DJ throws down one rocking beat after another, then all of a sudden, a slow song gets played. Even if it’s good, the people will not exactly be there receptive to it. Well, I personally didn’t mind, and I’m glad he was placed where he was, to add variety to the evening, but again, I don’t think it quite worked.
Performer 02.05: Everyone loves Nullsleep. That’s pretty much the bottom line. Aside from the fact that he’s the local boy gone good, as well of the key people behind the entire event, Jeremiah also happens to be one of the finest chiptunes artists in the world today. Also, on a personal aside… I have many friends that I have tried to introduce to chiptunes. Some love it, and some think its nonsense. But… almost every single one of those folks who could care less about the music has gone “Though I will say that I do like that Nullsleep guy’s music” Again, everyone loves the dude.
You kinda know what to expect from a Nullsleep set: intensively, brilliantly composed tracks, a reason to dance till you sweet, among other things. And everyone got all three this time around, because Jeremiah always delivery. Period, end of story.
Performer 02.06: The second “Gee, how the hell is such-and-such gonna follow that?” artist for the weekend was Virt, which was a dumb sentiment, since it was completely unnecessary. Another well-known and well respected vet from the scene, no two performances from the man are at all alike.
Virt could be best described as the chiptune musician’s musician. I’m fairly certain if you threw any instrument at the man, he would know how to play it in a heart beat, and make the song sound vaguely Miami Vice-ish, and somehow transition it to sound vaguely Mega Man or Castlevania-ish. The crowd was already at 11 thanks to Nullsleep, and Virt cranked things up even further. And then IT happened… Chibi-Tech finally made took the stage to dance, and dressed in a maid costume from Akihabara no less. It was simply insane.
Virt with Chibi-Tech
It was also at this point in which the festival was finally “on”. Everyone had loosened up and you had a small army of nerds doing their awkward white person dance up front (with plenty of people kicking it in the back, just soaking up the scene). Which was where I was for the most part, and that had its plusses and minuses; it was quite awesome to witness the crowd being overtaken by the music and be in the thick of it all, yet a few annoying types did dampen the spirit, but that’s to be expected at any show.
Actually, last year this one guy that really got on my nerves with his overly spastic dancing (who managed to not just run into, but punch in the nuts of anyone within a ten feet radius) was back. Everyone who noticed him simply figured he was just “having a good time”… that was until they too got sick and tired of having their feet carelessly stomped on, or dealing with his constant crowd surfing, which wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the fact that, instead of relaxing and letting the crowd do their thing, he would kick and flail his arms constantly, resulting in almost everyone getting kicked in head by him at least once. Though when he also got greedy by attempting to surf about eight or nine times during each song, people began to get sick of playing babysitter, which resulted in him getting dropped a sack of potatoes onto the floor, which was pretty funny.
Though he wasn’t the only one; for whatever reason, a few others were also pretty aggressive. For the first time ever, I witnessed a pit at a chiptunes show, which was pretty strange. Mind you, a pit made up of scrawny white nerds, so use your imagination with that one. Another amazing spectacle was, half-way through Virt’s set, I saw a huge jug of what appeared to be vodka being swigged hard way by a small group of friends. Later on, my friend and I would witness one guy and girl from that group making out totally hardcore in front of us. It was... pretty hot to be honest! I swear to God, I though they were going to screw, right then and there.
There was also this one guy who came up on stage while Virt was playing and start dancing on stage. Initially I thought he was a fellow chiptunes guy, joining in on the fun, but no one could recognize the guy, and it was soon evident that he was just random guy that was drunk out of his mind. At one point, he took one of Virt’s Game Boys and started to pretend that he was making music; it’s one thing to go up there when you have no real business doing so, but to handle someone’s tools… that took balls. Later on, he would also appear during another performer’s set and just stand there, as if he was going to either pass out or just vomit on himself. Oh, and it was during Virt’s set that I got kicked in the back of the head, by yet another crowd surfer who didn’t do the best of jobs handling herself, and my glasses flew from my head, onto the floor and among many moving feet. This had happened once before, at a GWAR show, and thankfully I found it in just a few seconds (albeit covered in fake blood and other bodily fluids), but this time around, after much searching, I couldn’t find them, and every passing second felt like an eternity. And considering that I’m blind as a bat without them, it was hell, but thankfully, as people around me caught on, they helped in the search, and thankfully, it was found and without a scratch! So the point is, most folks in the crowd at the fest were totally awesome people. Though unfortunately, Paza was not as lucky; he too was crowd surfing, and his glasses flew off, which got stepped on, and then he himself got dropped, then landed on broken glass. Once again, a totally wild scene.
Also afterwards, Virt mentioned how he had pushed himself so hard performance wise that he thought was going to have a heart attack. I thought we was simply joking, but he made the same comment to others, and it began to dawn on us that he maybe wasn’t kidding… The guy puts on a hell of a show, that much is clear. Hopefully, it won’t kill him!
Performer 02.07: It was finally time to see what all the fuss was about; Hally, the first act from Japan, in a card that was sadly a bit lacking of Eastern acts, at least compared to last year’s, and who was arguably the talk of that show, as well as the one guy I was most pissed about missing. I had seen the guy all throughout both evenings, soaking up the tunes, and seemed like a very non-assuming sort, mostly due to his somewhat small size. But the second he went up on stage, and put on his gigantic Yoko Ono sunglasses, he became a chiptunes God, and an exuberant one that at, with his extremely happy to be alive “HELLO MY NAME IS HALLY!” address to the people. And armed with his pair of twin 2nd gen Famicoms and a GBA synched to them both I believe, he completely tore the house down, then rebuilt it in his own image, and again demolished it.
Words cannot capture the frenzy that was the end result, but Hally’s set was simply flawless, it was magic, it was madness, and everything in between. The man more lived up to the hype, and then some. My personal favorite moment had to be hearing his wicked Xmas Song Megamix, which was the cut from the 8bits of Christmas compilation that I listen to over and over again, but in live at last. There was also a very exemplarily live rendition of Blue Monday as well. But also fun was when Hally had some technical difficulties, forcing him to profusely apologize, which was hilarious and somewhat cute. It was also funny how near the end, most folks around me were getting sick and tired of dealing with the constant crowd surfers, since it was getting in the way of enjoying the music. Then all of sudden another body approached, with everyone adopting a “Oh great, not again” attitude… until they realized it was their new God himself, and they went “Oh sh-t, it’s Hally!” and they all rushed to lend him support.
Performer 02.08: The last act of the mind-melting second night was the bunch of New York kids that were more than just alright: Anamanaguchi. You’d think that by this point, the crowd would be running out of gas, but that was far from the case, and after three solid techno dance acts in a row, some rock and roll was more than welcome. They lit up the stage with their mix of rocking guitar riffs, accompanied by the beats of an NES, plus brought out all the girls up front (everyone in the band are handsome young men, so its hardly a surprise).
Unfortunately, technical issues reared its ugly head once again, in a somewhat big fashion. Though it’s kinda humorous when a band has to literally hit restart; the console was acting up, and instead of having to restring a guitar, the NES cart with their backbeats had to be constantly blown into. But problems aside, it was clearly the best I had ever heard the guys; usually the guitars overpower the console, but the levels were just right.
But once they were done, the night was far from over! Though the announcement from Jeremiah of the party was never made. It went back to being a word of mouth affair, and once I got my instructions, I took a cab to Williamsburg, to again, some dude’s apartment. But it turned out to be a very big apartment!
It was there that all the performers got a chance to kick back, relax, and drink some (more) beer. In the bedroom, I got to see a bunch of performers all pull out and compare their Game Boys; it was a fun sight, one which was captured via camera, but I didn’t want to intrude… it almost felt intimate. Around 3:30-4:00 was when Touchboy played his set, which turned the place into a rockin’, chiptunes disco (literally, with smoke in the air, and strobe lights beaming). And after him was x|k, who did a similar set to the one he played at B I T MA P. Afterwards, a bit past 5, both Hally and Chibi-Tech were supposed to do a set together, but some DJ that was hired for the party absolutely had to go on at 5, so the aforementioned duo had to get bumped, which was a bummer.
Which was why I decided to take my cue and head home, and ended up taking a car back into the city with a German chiptunes guy (Bernhard from Bodenständig), an Italian chiptunes guy (NrGiGa) and a Swedish chiptunes guy (Paza). All three were staying at Nullsleep’s apartment, who lives half a block from myself, and guess what the main topic of conversation was? The Governator, who all did Arnold impressions all the way home…
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]