Various - SID Chip Sounds: Music of the Commodore 64
Niche is a term often over used in music writing, used to describe simply marginally alternative styles, yet with SID Chip Sounds: Music of the Commodore 64 bleeping away through my speakers I can think of no better word. This is a collection of remastered songs entirely comprised of tunes written for games on the infamous eighties computer system. There are certainly some classics to be found within these oscillating waves: the theme tune for the Last Ninja, Gauntlet, even the early arcade breakout clone Arkanoid.
Yet these are still games that were sold to a market in its infancy, when selling even 100,000 copies would be considered a run-away success, meaning that the demand for their music 25 years later must be a tiny, niche, market. Yet that is not to say that these tunes should be ignored by a wider audience: hidden within these quirky, appegiated melodies are the origins of genres more popular in today’s world. Arguments could be made that without these early chip tune pioneers then the modern soundscapes of dance music, post-rock, even power metal would be very different, if in existence at all. Perhaps it is for these reasons that this album can still find relevance today.
When the Commodore 64 was released in the 1982 its hardware included one of the most advanced audio chips of its generation. The SID (Sound Interface Device) featured three separate channels allowing for three voices to be played simultaneously. At the time this was an impressive leap in gaming audio technology, yet in retrospect the device was still a huge challenge when it came to creating music. Take simple chords as an example: having only three voices meant that they had to be artificially created using accelerated arpeggios. This meant that the composers (such as Ben Dalglish, Chris Hulsbeck and Ron Hubbard found on this album) were often more technical wizards than melodic masterminds, and it is this idea that frames the entire album.
And so we move on to the music. The disjointed, bleeping tone is planted at the very beginning with two tracks from the Last Ninja – one of the biggest selling games on the system. Dark, heavy and powerful they set the general pace for the whole album. With the exception of the bizarre, quirky and upbeat fourth track (the theme from the Giana Sisters - a dubious Mario clone that was quickly removed from the shelves after a legal dispute with Nintendo), the whole album feels like it could sit comfortably between the dance and post-rock albums on the shelf.
Yet, at the same time it is really nothing like either, an ancestor perhaps. And this is possibly the greatest problem for the album. Listening to these synthetic grooves is more of an education than an enjoyable audio experience. Throughout the 18 tracks, I found myself lost in a haze of academia, constantly picking out styles and themes that have risen to popularity in modern times instead of being entertained by the music itself. The songs do not help themselves either, often fading out at the end with a feeling incompleteness, due to the fact that they were originally loops to be played over a title screen. That is not to say that the experience is not worthwhile, especially for anyone with an interest in the subject, it is just not the expected auditory reaction when an album is set to play.
Aside from the education, the only other obvious reason one would listen to this album is the nostalgia element. This is something that can only apply if you were fortunate to have been alive and gaming in the 1980s. Personally I found sheer memorable delight in some of these synthesised tones. The theme tune for Commando by Ron Hubbard for example, while it was written just months after my birth, still rings those reminiscing bells. A sign, perhaps, of a misspent childhood spent shooting pixels. I imagine that there are many others with similar memories ready to be unlocked by this album and while YouTube often solves those nostalgic urges, there will be those that will appreciate the quality of these remastered tracks. It is for you, that niche market, that I can recommend this album.
Review by @GamingDigitalFix's Edd Harwood