While the likes of DJ Scotch Egg and Germlin use cut and paste 8 bit noises to create their sounds, Japanese chiptune outfit YMCK go one step further, using the old game console sound chips as simple replacement for genuine instruments to create bouncy jazzy pop melodies. It’s not a scrambled remix of video game music, but more akin to traditional music that just so happens to use video game-esque equipment to produce the sound. It’s what Mario would listen to on his walkman.
What stands out is that they rarely sample the games they reference. The title of their 2004 debut album Family Music of course puts you in the frame of mind of the Famicom (Family Computer – the original Japanese Nintendo Entertainment System). But apart from the odd blip and sound effect (and a quick riff of the Super Mario Bros. theme on SOCOPOGOGO (YMCK Version)), they are pretty much all original compositions. Even Tetrominon ~From Russia with Blocks~ resists the temptation to crack out the classic Game Boy Tetris tune, but at least there’s some great lyrics:
From Russia are falling down
to make your brain messed up with mysteries
It’s hard to perceive, easy to destroy
like your life itself
The blocks from Russia are falling down
You got to put into a box
gathering and eliminating a piece of Tetrominon
And while that’s all well and good, YMCK seemed to forget to make the music in anyway interesting or stimulating.
The tracks are easy to enjoy individually and in small doses as a quirky novelty, but listening to the whole album is a tiresome feat. As you can imagine, there’s little variety with the sound and content, and with some tracks stretching beyond the four and a half minute mark, it’s hard to be patient enough to keep yourself from skipping onwards. But all that’s waiting is another sugary dose of unexciting blip music. The high-pitched hushed vocals from lady band member Midori render every track more or less identical and the tunes would have perhaps benefitted without her listless half-whisper.
It all reinforces the view that video game music is primarily designed to be listened to while playing video games (no, really?) and the only reason certain tracks can be enjoyed at any other time is for nostalgia value. There are a couple of instances where it does gel together (the tiny opening Fanfare and Interlude tracks, plus the closing Your Quest Is Over is pretty), but overall it’s somewhat lacking.
Family Music is an album in dire need of some spark and excitement. There is no doubting the technical accomplishment on display, but it all feels like a demonstration of their skills rather than a CD you want to listen to again and again. And while you may level some of these arguments against the likes of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and the Adaadat noise merchants, I’d rather have a mashed-up joywreck assualt on the ears than this. Not bad every now and again, but it’s just too much and not enough at the same time.