[We've covered New York's awesome chiptune-based Blip Fest for a few years now - here's our 2006 write-up and a 2007 mega-report (though we skipped a 2008 in-depth report.) But GSW's committed NYC correspondent Matthew Hawkins has returned with a frankly mammoth write-up on this year's fest, held earlier this month.]

Every winter for the past couple of years, New Yorkers with an ear for 8-bit music have known what to expect: the Blip Festival. Formed in 2006 by two local dudes, who also happen to be celebrated superstars in the world of the chiptunes, Bit Shifter and Nullsleep, along with a little help from their various colleagues and good friends at the net label they run, 8bitpeoples, and the local performance art space that has become the de facto HQ for NYC chipunters, The Tank, Blip Fest has been since 2006 the grand stage in which all 8-bit musicians have aspired to stand upon. Name a heavy hitter from the world of NES/Game Boy/etc music, and he or she has been a featured performer. Hence the burning question once fall began to approach... what else is left?

I first began to ask this question after hearing about Blip Fest Europe, which took place in Denmark over the summer. Myself, and others, made the almost natural assumption that the show was hitting the road; after bringing pretty much every single notable act from the world of beeps and boops to NYC, it only made sense to share the love with some other lucky city. What else needed to be done back home?

Perhaps my ignorance is already downright offense to some, but it gets even better: eventually word did arrive that Blip was happening once again in NYC this winter, yet I then found myself not nearly as jazzed as in the past, and for a variety of reasons. Mostly due to the seen it/heard that feeling that I had developed. Make no mistakes, I'm good pals with some of the best of the best, and as much as I love Bit Shifter, Nullsleep, and Glomag, I've seen then perform like a billion times by now (hence why I haven't been to hardly any chiptunes shows since the previous Blip) and was aching for something new, something different.

And that's what's precisely what I got. Once names for this year's festival were finally dropped, all my friends scratched their heads as to who the heck were these people. Whereas I because instantly excited; I too barely recognized anyone, which meant new discoveries and new potential favorites. It was also more than abundantly clear that during this time in which I had stopped paying attention, the whole world had passed me by.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the increase in excitement surrounding the festival; you not only had the festival itself but countless other chiptune related events surrounding it. The night before was a Pre-Blip open mic at The Tank, which is in the heart of Times Square, yet I decided to check out the chiptune workshop and indie arcade opening at Babycastles, which is another art space in the basement of Silent Barn, a music space in the heart of Ridgewood, which is either Brooklyn or Queens depending on whom you ask.


On one side you had the aforementioned indie arcade; highlights included Jottobots, which I had been dying to get my hands on ever since its debut at the Giant Robot/Attract Mode show earlier this year, which I believe was its only other appearance (please correct me if I'm wrong) and everyone's favorite, Canabalt, along with its creator, Adam Atomic, who was hanging around that night.


And on the other side of the room you had a table filled with circuit benders, all creating their own chiptune producing devices. My favorite would have to be the guy using a Jiffy box as a circuit board!


Helping them along the way were Kunal and Syed, who not only runs Babycastles, but are also members of Loud Objects, that group which soldered circuits as a performance piece at Blip Fest 2007. Didn't totally get what they were going for at the time, but looking back, it was pretty neat. You also had Little Scale, one of the featured performers of Blip Fest 2009 on-hand, with his custom modded Mega Drive...


The original plan was for him to take everyone's workshopped creation and throw together some kind of massive mix, but it was running late and he had to jet. So instead, the evening ended with Adam sharing some thoughts and insight behind his game. My favorite tidbit was the learning how Canabalt's animation is essentially an homage to Out Of This World/Another World and Flashback. How many frames is that run cycle btw? 32, which elicited a “Smooth!” reaction from one guy in the room. Adam claimed that it was actually quite easy to take the original 16 or so and simply expand upon it, mostly since there’s only like two colors to play with.

Night one began with... hate to be negative, but... a certain degree of trepidation. Another reason why I wasn't initially jumping for joy for this year's installment of Blip was due to memories from the previous year's. Specifically the crowd; my complaints regarding the rambunctiousness has long been a point of contention with certain performers and show goers, but I totally understand their point of view, at least the former's. If I were an artist, I'd be super stoked if I was causing the crowd to go nuts, enough to incite a gigantic mosh pit and crowd surfing galore. Though it's a different story when you're in the thick of things and just trying to enjoy the music, without errand kicks to the back of the head.

But less time spent discussing the nuances of your average mosher at a chiptunes show as opposed to one you'll find at a regular old hardcore show the better. Yet that being all said, quite a few others also recalled how oddly aggressive the audience was last time. The thing is, each edition of the Blip Fest brings together a somewhat different crowd, and this year, the attendees somewhat mirrored the vibe of the proceedings. Which long story short, was serious business; more so than any previous 8-bit music show that I've personally attended, it was for the true devotees and connoisseurs, the faithful. Not to say that they weren't there for a good time of course!

To state that Blip 09 almost didn't happen would be both over-dramatic and misleading, but the fate of the festival was at one point on somewhat shaky ground. Times have been tough for everyone this year (like you all needed to be reminded this for the billionth time), so the event's organizers faced an uphill battle from the very start, though when a very important grant from the state that they have heavily relied upon in the past was denied, new plans were drafted.

Key to this was The People's Fund To Support Blip Festival 2009. $5,000 was the goal, and close to $9,000 was reached. Quite the achievement, which perhaps contributed to the feeling of accomplishment and ownership that marked the entire event. Many of the show goers were simply ecstatic to be there, and felt as if it was truly theirs, since in many ways it was.

Blip 08 was held at The Bell House, situated in the middle of the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, which feels like the middle of nowhere, despite being situated smack in the middle of two very popular and happening neighborhoods (Carroll Garden and Park Slope), and that's where Blip 09 was held as well. But it definitely felt different this time around; hard to say why precisely, but whereas the setting was definitely foreign, as well as somewhat awkward, this time the place felt nice and warm, almost like home.

Again, spirits were high, with a sense of camaraderie, as many got together, not just to enjoy the music, but also enjoy each other's company. Or to simply hobnob with superstars from the world of indie gave dev, including the aforementioned Adam Atomic, along with Phil Fish, creator of Fez, the one game that's on pretty much everyone's most wanted in 2010 lists. Dude pretty much spent the entire at the bar instead of the show floor proper, but his outfit was a sponsor, so he certainly was entitled to do whatever the hell he wanted.

It was also the place to make stuff; the first thing I saw upon entering the building were two guys sitting on couches at the lounge, punching up code on their laptops (which I foolishly didn't think of taking a picture, but at least ByteJacker snapped some videos. I would discover later that it was a fellow from Gaijin Games, and another from Robotube, in the midst of creating their title, which they actually finished that night.

I was under the impression that it was going to be playable at the show, and Chris Osborn of Gaijin would later explain that it was indeed the plan, until they realized that putting their laptops... which they use to do all their work back in HQ... in the hands of inebriated show goers was perhaps not the brightest of ideas. At least everyone can play the game right here, right now.

Okay, enough talk about everything else: what about the music? Night one was as hoped: unexpected, though rocky.


Silent Requiem was a great choice to kick things off, whose beats were loud and fast, intensely rhythmic. Though I personally found his transitions to be somewhat awkward, but certainly not deal breakers.

Failotron was all over the place, but his pieces had a great sense of cohesion, tranquil and melodic, and as a result told a fine story. Sucks that he had so many technical issues; a corrupt Game Boy cart (excuse my untrained ears and its inability to discern if he was using LSDJ or Nanoloop) required the utilization of back-up files, played via a laptop. It's generally preferred that each artist perform their compositions via the hardware they were written in, but stuff like that just happens unfortunately.


Leeni, the girl from my old stomping grounds of Seattle and who immediately followed, also had similar issues, but at least most of her performance is based upon her vocal talents and was easily able to deal.


As much as I was looking forward to discovering something new, I was always happy to see and hear a familiar face, such as Minusbaby, who I've been a big fan of since almost forever. His mix of ambient and dancehall simply needs to be experienced, especially live (though the same exact thing could and should be said for every chiptune artist).

Chromix was the first performer of the night to remind everyone that the instruments they're using is primarily associated with video games, via his cover of the Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2 (which actually sounds better as a Game Boy tune as opposed to the Genesis original, believe it or not). Though my absolute favorite from night one would have to be Je Deviens DJ en 3 Jours, whose French infused pop and sweat got the whole crowd hot and bothered....


But it was one particular move that was the biggest hit, an ode to Nullsleep, whose fond of doing the following on-stage: thrust your right hand out, snatch some energy that's floating out there in the air, and then slowly draw your fist in. After seeing Jeremiah perform for close to six years now, it had never occurred to me that he's been doing the same move every single time! Another highlight was Je Deviens DJ en 3 Jours's dancing buddy on-stage. Wish I had taken some video, cuz that guy cut the rug like nobody else.


Afterwards was Albino Ghost Monkey, a small town kid that finally made it in the big city (guy's originally from Wisconsin I think) and was clearly enjoying every single minute of it, with his infectious enthusiasm simply enhanced his set. As for the closer, it was another French guy, this time wearing a rabbit mask; Eat Rabbit's offerings was precisely what one might imagine: wacky and even at times creepy circus music, but in 8-bit format...


Night one had been immensely enjoyable, as well as very much successful; turn out was awesome, especially for a Thursday night. Friday's was even greater, to the point that it was sold out. I was somewhat afraid of a change in mood, to something similar to the year before, but that thankfully was not the case.

Yet another really great about this year's edition was the change from four nights to three. When I asked the festival's publicist, Jenn de la Vega, what prompted the shift, and the response was: "Everyone has finals to deal with." A humorous reference to the pure number of attendees, as well as performers, who are all currently attending NYU, Parsons, and the numerous other colleges across the city. Though The Tank's quite personable and hard working intern (who unfortunately was forced to man the merch table the entire time) had the full explanation:

"As it was, we had all experienced the absolute HELL of the 4th day. After four days of going to bed at 4-5am and waking up at 10am to get back in time for a workshop, we all thought that the 4th day was just TOO much. Everyone hated life on the 4th day. Also, everyone got the blip-flu this year and the 4th day would have been sparsely attended, or the flu would have gotten that much worse."

Funny enough, despite the fact that there were less days to the proceedings, everything just felt bigger, more fleshed out. When asked about any specific challenged going into this year, the intern again noted that the fund-raising effort was a tremendous asset, but overall, extra help and extra planning was what ultimately led to success:

"Kickstarter was important to the preservation of how big blipfestival was this year. [It] was a smart play that turned out well and proved that our community puts it's money where it's mouth is. While the days of the festival shrunk from four to three, the lack of initial money was not a factor in this decision. The organizing team expanded to account for a number of different things; this year we had 8+ people working on the festival for a couple of months to get everything just right.

We had a crack publicity/sponsorship team this time and we added the much needed help of wordsmith Peter Swimm [the festival's media manager] to liven up all the our avenues of output, and Chris Burke [aka Glomag] who slayed dragons to keep our artist relations alive and well. So personally I would say that our aim was not to present simply MORE concert, it was to thicken the quality of the concert that we had."

And it did feel like a well oiled machine, even to the casual observer, as well as a bigger deal, with all the big name sponsors and local indie radio station WFMU being on-hand to share the good vibes to the rest of the world. They helped to make those who were on-hand feel especially fortunate. Social media also played a significant role; of course there was an official Twitter feed, and attendees were asked to add #blip09 while at the show when broadcasting, which many were more than happy to oblige.

But back to the music. Night two kicked off with Disasterpeace, Starscream, and Fighter X; all three units comprised of young dudes fusing 8-bit sounds across the aural spectrum, everything from prog rock, to trance, to metal.


More than anything, the current crop of chiptuners continue to demonstrate the versatility of 8-bits. When asked about the scene as a whole these days, Jenn noted:

"It's bustling! More and more fans are trying it for themselves. It's become less about "videogame" culture, but more about music production. Some of the younger generation weren't even around for when the originally NES came out. It's fascinating to see them pick up a Game Boy with LSDJ and treat it solely as an instrument."

So 8-bits sounds great, but what about 16? Just as good, as demonstrated by Little-Scale, who got the warmest reaction of all the new faces the entire weekend. The wall of sound that he created with the help of his custom Mega Drive is hard to put into words, though tribal and haunting are somewhat fitting, I hope.

The one to provide the smoothest of sounds was easily I, Cactus; his soundscape was serene, like a walk on a pixilated beach. Not at all rockabilly as I expected (since that's how the dude dresses). Though immediately afterwards was when things started getting real. That's when Nullsleep hit the stage,and again defied all expectations. As noted in the past, I have plenty of friends who simply cannot get into chiptunes, or flat-out hate the stuff, no matter who or what I pass along. But every single one of them has said the same exact thing: "But I do like that guy Nullsleep's stuff. He's pretty interesting."


Believe the hype: the man is an innovator. Every single performance is completely different, and no other performer thinks and performs at such a level, let alone exhibit such familiarity and confidence with such tools to make them sound the way he can make them. Though afterwards, Jeremiah did admit to being nervous beforehand, over the reaction he might receive for his latest work, which pushes boundaries that no one else has previously touched, not even him. Though the crowd definitely hung in there. Again, these weren't dorks that are into video games and like the idea of music made with consoles (not that there's anything wrong with that, btw), but serious music aficionados, who know what is up.

With such an impossibly tough act to follow, Rainbowdragoneyes had quite the task ahead of him. Plus the dude decided to forgo the use of actual instruments and simply rely on his laptop to do most of the work, which was a curious decision to say the least. And then the dude started headbanging, and kept headbanging, and all was good. Unfortunately, all attempts at photograph his long blonde locks were not successful, as they kept spinning around and around.


Though my new favorite performer of Friday night was hands down Patric C, who officially closed down night #2; his sounds were diverse and challenging, yet still very much approachable and danceable. And a fine way to end the evening... but that wasn't all folks! Later that evening, early Saturday morning to be honest, was a special late night treat for those that had donated at $100 level or more, headlined by Covox and Random, playing together as CONDOM. But the real icing on the cake was the last minute addition of Japanese chiptune megastar Hally...


Earlier in the evening, Hally confessed to me that he was afraid of disappointing the audience later on with a set that was more or less identical to the one he utilized two years prior. I'm not clear of all the details, but one gets the impression that even he didn't know he was playing at Blip till just a few days prior. I tried explaining to him that he would find absolutely no complaints from anyone. And that most certainly was the case; to say that he tore the roof down with his amazing remix of the Gradius boss rush tune is a vast understatement.

Unfortunately I had to tend to a friend of mine who had too many to drink that evening (far and away the most popular drink at the fest was "dark velvet", which is Guinness mixed with champagne or cider, and which everyone was pouring down their throats by the bucket-loads, myself included admittedly), so I couldn't stick around for CONCOM all that long, but I was able to take this picture...


That image has to make zero sense for most, I know. Basically, both Covox and Random donned skin-tight body stockings, all black, and all their accoutrements were pitch dark as well, plus there was zero lighting in the room. All that illuminated was their goggles and the hypnotic visuals behind them, which they also controlled. I'm hoping that it appears in a future documentary from Two Player Productions, but I can't recall seeing their cameramen anywhere during the set, since the light from their cameras would ruin the effect. Guess you had to be there.

Night number three brought with it snow, lots and LOTS of snow. A blizzard hit NYC earlier in the afternoon and by the time I made it to The Bell House, it was already a wintery wonderland, though little did anyone know that it was just the beginning.


I would later discover that there was fear earlier in the day if the white powder would scare show goers. After all, I recall a heavy snowfall the previous year, which in fact kept a few friends at bay. But now so this time, which still managed to sell out. All things considered, the night went as smooth as silk; people were still in high sprits throughout the evening, with the absolute only issue I can think of being the lack of food (the two previous nights had burgers cooked on a charbroiled grill for attendees, but the sudden change in weather meant no cooking was possible).


When I asked those behind the scenes what their personal highlights was, the answer was practically unison: the shy guy from Toronto, aka The J. Arthur Keenes Band. His reputation from 8bitcollective and his Pamplemousse EP (which is one of the most acclaimed chiptune release in recent memory) had clearly preceded him, hence why many were not expecting a 17 year old kid. One who, btw, had the awesomest shirt ever: an image of Ray Romano giving the thumbs ups. Or at least I think that was the case; I've since seen other pics of him wearing Ray Romano, but in a different pose. I hope to God he has 30 different kinds.


Then you had a guy from Sweden who calls himself Trash Can Man. Simply put, the man owned the stage, and it's hard to recall another instance in which ambience was simultaneously so poppy. His vaguely David Bowie-esque persona was nothing more than an added bonus. And as expected, perpetual crowd favorite Bubblyfish gave another high energy, block of noise for everyone to dance to...


One complaint I had heard throughout was the lack of Japanese acts. Personally, and as most can already tell, I absolutely loved the line-up of this year, perhaps the strongest ever, but I do have a soft spot for J-chip. Thankfully, in addition to Hally, you also had The Hunters...


Not only did they bring the noise from Japan, they also brought the cute! Their sound could be best described as YMCK-like, yet slightly harder, and more thump-y. Though the highlight of their performance was easily the visuals, based upon the artwork of band member Coova, helping to form a mixed-media one-two punch.


Soon it was time for the home stretch, led by Glomag, whose performance was one of the most rousing of the entire weekend; from his Ennio Morricone cover, to his original tunes, everything about Chris was (and usually is) high energy and impact, like the backdrop to a chase scene. Immediately afterwards was Bit Shifter, and another first; hearing the crowd sing along to one of this song, not word for word, because their particular song had no words, but beep for beep.


The guy gave another epic performance, as he is prone to do, despite the fact that he was not feeling all that well. I believe it was stomach related? The third man to keep the party going was no other than the Ricky Davis of chiptune as I like to call him, David Sugar.


I've been a Sugar fan for years, and was there for his last NYC performance in October of 2005. Since then, he went into semi-retirement when it came to 8-bit music, to instead concentrate on other music genres, such as classical. But when he decided to pick up the Game Boy for old time's sake earlier this year, and more importantly Twittered about it, Jeremiah, Josh, and Chris all knew that they had to bring him over. The chance to bask in his glory once again at long last was not just my highlight but of many others, as evidenced by Josh and Chris, who could not help but allow themselves to get lost in the dance party that Sugar was commanding.

Sugar's mix of pop ditties and hardcore breakcore is completely unique and must be witnessed first-hand. Excuse the so-so audio quality, but this quick and dirty video shows a bit of his proficiency when it comes to mixing Game Boy beats. Look at this hands go...

The last act to grace the stage was another heavy hitter from the world of 8-bit sounds, Swedish megastar Psilodump. His intoxicating "you bet you had no energy left to dance, but I'm going to prove you wrong" beats and grooves was the perfect choice to close the show. But after all was said and done... the party was not quite over! Just a few blocks away, at the basement of a bar was the official after-party. Unfortunately, the gigantic drifts of snow that had formed during the show made the walk towards the venue far longer and trickier than anyone could have anticipated. But once there, the faithful were treated to a performance by Larry, which is a two-man unit comprised of one guy from Anamanaguchi and another from Graffiti Monsters...


The guys from Babycastles were also present and were nice enough to bring their arcade with them, via wearable video game gear. Here's Syed wearing a chest mounted version of Fractal Fighter being played by Hally...


... I made my exit around 3 am, just as things were kicking into high gear. Guess I'm no longer some kid who can party till 10 the next morning. I desperately needed some rest (the bug that was going around had most definitely bitten me), plus I knew my train ride back to Manhattan would be extra long and annoying due to the snow. And the need for rest along with the fear of a crippled mass transit system was also why I never made it out of the apartment the next day, for the half dozen or so Post Blip Fest happenings, including a show headlined by both Anamanaguchi and Hally, let alone the Post-Post Blip showcase on Monday night. [Those who want to know more about the Blip Fest 2009 artists should note that there are excellent bios and links at the official site.]

But the mission had been accomplished. Whereas my faith and interest in the chiptune scene had somewhat waned, well, not any more. As the previous Blips had done so before this latest edition, though perhaps even more so, the world (and not just lucky New Yorkers this time around) was once again treated to yet another brilliant display of the artistry, the passion, and simply the good times that the 8-bit movement embodies. Again, it was easy to forget the uphill battle that everyone involved behind the scenes had to deal with this year, harsh realities that forced so many others on the sidelines.

When asking those behind the festival what they hope for in the future, I get the sense that I'm not the only one who feels as if the world of chiptunes is somewhat at a cross roads. Peter Swimmm noted: "I am glad to see it solidifying as a genre, but I hope traditionalism does not over take its youthful enthusiasm.". For the final word on the subject, here once again is The Tank's intern:

"I want to see Blip [become] more of [an actual] festival... I would love to see an art show attached, possibly a collaboration night were everyone gets together an switches carts/files and possibly an album comes out of it... But these are all just my dreams because I am only the intern.... In the end I just want it to happen next year, it seems like a miracle when it comes off."

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and GameSetWatch's NYC correspondent. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]