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The Atari Underground

| January 30, 2008

Atari Returns!
Dance Dance Reinvention

Before video game consoles could play Blu-ray movies, display Web sites, boot Linux, or offer unlimited headset smack talk, they were good for one thing and one thing only: video gaming. When the 1.19 MHz Atari 2600 console was first released in 1977, it had two main settings: “b&w” and “color”; and its sound was monaural, with two channels of limited audio effects. The system’s strength was bundled in the form of Combat, a hyper-violent A/V overhaul of the age-old cops-and-robbers game.

Suddenly, dens and basements everywhere pulsed with the noise of electric war. Tiny 2D tanks exploded. Biplanes spun out of control. Play became sedentary. For a while, Atari was fun.

Of course, that party is over. The video-game industry now grosses more than the film industry, but Atari limps along as a software publisher in name alone, having changed hands several times since founder Nolan Bushnell bolted in 1978. Worse, the company has begun to suspend game development amid layoff and financing concerns, according to a November 2007 Gamespot story. The news should come as no surprise: 3D polygonal design has almost entirely taken the place of 2D sprites (Atari’s one-time video forte); and video-game soundtracks since the inclusion of the optical drive have favored pop music over blips (Atari’s one-time audio forte). In this real-life version of Combat, Atari is down 10-1, with seconds left on the clock.

On a different channel, a small army of music-minded video gamers raised on the Atari 2600 and other early systems are turning old consoles into new musical instruments. To these performers of self-described “chiptune” music (or more broadly, video game music), it doesn’t matter what happens to the company: Atari’s renaissance is in the hands of hackers, not Infogrames — industry be damned. Throughout Chicagoland, repurposed gaming systems are living and breathing in music as varied as the concrete, “anti-IDM” retro rally of William Sides Atari Party, the happy breakcore of Saskrotch, and the sinister, sleepless lurch of Environmental Sound Collapse. Game over? Hardly.

sides

“The idea was to just make a really bottom-of-the-barrel, lowest-common-denominator dance music record,” says William Sides, creator of William Sides Atari Party and owner of No Sides Records. “It was also to do it with the simplest piece of video-game music technology, which is the Atari Synthcart. Because unless you know how to, you can’t make your own music with the Synthcart. You’re playing someone else’s music.”

The Synthcart, developed in 2002 by Dallas multimedia artist Paul Slocum, is a cartridge that taps into a small bounty of crash-and-burn sound effects on 2600-compatible systems (for Sides, it’s an Atari 7800). With it, users signal beats and loops on one controller, and notes on another. Telephone-style pads originally designed for use with relics such as Star Raiders and BASIC Programming are worked instead of joysticks. In less determined hands, the mix could sound like Space Invaders landing on a 15-page dot matrix print job. Or noise, an association Sides is trying to avoid. (It better describes Pommel, his experimental electronics band.)

“I definitely want to make it clear: I’m certainly making music [as William Sides Atari Party]. This is very much, for me, music. I’m absolutely doing dance music,” he says, not balking at a potential “neo-rave” genre tag. “I’m trying to prove it to this one rave promoter here in Chicago actually right now. Man, I’ve been hawking on him constantly to include me on one of his little rave things that he’s putting together.”

On William Sides Atari Party’s new 3-inch CD EP, Southern Cross (Give Daddy The Knife), Sides’ experimental alter ego is given about three minutes of trebly collage (“Intro”) before turning it over to the side striving to make people happy and cute girls dance. “Get Yer Ju-On 2!” re-spins a heavy-rail button-masher from 2005’s All Aboard For Mrs. Rifkind’s House, boasting newly playful between-beat glitch and aptly remeasured low end. “Outro” is a high-score pinball send-off, throttled with *Pole Position gas, demonized by squelch. If he gets the rave gig, “Outro” could be his “leave now, it’s 10 a.m.” closer.

Sides was a key figure in Chicago’s no wave scene throughout the mid-’90s, working for Skin Graft Records, performing as The Torture(d) Machine, and starting No Sides Records in 1997. When CD sales started to erode — due in part to his obscure catalog and the rise of file sharing — he made a conscious effort to shift his label’s emphasis from the arcane (Miss High Heel, Exzoskeleton, Malade De Souci) to the slightly accessible (Terror At The Opera, No Doctors).

“I [started to] put out records that I thought had more of a commercial stake or a commercial possibility than the kind of music that I actually really listened to and genuinely liked,” he says, “which maybe kind of sounds really shitty and skeezy, now that I think about it.” The shift crested in 2004, the year he put out Terror At The Opera’s Snake Bird Blue, an anti-folk sing-along that leaned too much on whimsy. “I mean, I would not listen to that music,” he acknowledges, “even though I certainly thought they were a really good band.” When they broke up after the release, Sides was back where he started: sitting on unsold music.

He created William Sides Atari Party in 2005, diving into the video-game music scene he had documented two years earlier with the sprawling VGM Mix Tape #8 compilation (which captured Minibosses and Nullsleep, among many others). The absolute fringe nature of No Sides Records’ early years isn’t obvious in the current stable of releases (a recent Pommel split with Cock E.S.P. proves the exception). No wave and noise do live “aesthetically in all the little pocket scenes,” he explains, “and I guess a little bit in the video game music scene, which obviously I’m very much a part of. And I certainly try to bring those aesthetics to my music, because I’m certainly not a professional musician.”

As Sides continues the label, he’s adopting unconventional methods to combat file sharing: “I would like to do vinyl or cassettes, because that’s the hardest stuff for people to just rip and put online for free. If you notice on my Web site, all the free MP3s that I put up are not songs from the actual records. This is stuff that I actually consciously think out.”

Repurposing cassettes as a tool to combat piracy? In the hacked-up world of video-game music, anything is possible.

— Mike Meyer

Category: Features, Monthly

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Comments (15)

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  1. ernest healy says:

    Yeah! More video game dance music playing at the parties would be awesome.

  2. icky says:

    Chiptunes are pretty much the bottom of the barrel from a creativity standpoint. It’s greatest asset being that any 15 year old girl or non-musician can create what they think of as ” music ” for about $ 1.99.

  3. icky is a little off on the whole of chip music culture…yes, you can write the same song everyone else has very easily, but it does have a lot of capabilites that most never use….so yeah, most people can make something “passable” with little effort…takes more to make something good or different….and it costs way more than $1.99 (just try to get the sequencer carts LSDJ or nanoloop for under $100)..and wouldn’t the bottom of the barrel creatively be tribute bands…you know, technically?
    oh, and its not all dance music, either :)

  4. Damn Icky, if Chiptunes only cost 1.99 I would have at least 10 DMG’s and both a copy of Nanoloop and LSDJ for each one. Hell, I would have started making music YEARS ago if my cousin only had to pay 1.99 for FL Studio.

    Oh and also if you equate the amount of money spent making music with its quality, I GREATLY fear your taste.

  5. tenfold says:

    Which version of synthcart is he using? I have v1.53 so it has the other people’s music playback disabled. Maybe he needs to to upgrade his software or maybe he just doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

  6. icky says:

    Okay, perhaps my initial post was a bit jaded, and no disrespect was intended to E.S.C. However, I had just listened to the William Sides Synthcart release, and then was subjected to the 17th ” new track ” from Sir Vixx in the last four days. Now you can well imagine where the 15 year old girl comment derived from.

  7. for the record, Sir.Vixx doesn’t record that many new songs, just posts a handfull of bulletins each time he posts a new song..probably just enthusiasm :)

  8. icky says:

    What an intriguing and innovative definition of the word ” enthusiasm “, you have provided.

  9. Sir.Vixx says:

    Who is icky anyway? 17th time huh that is fucking funny.

  10. Sir.Vixx says:

    Icky sounds like a real winner.

  11. icky says:

    Yup, I’m a whiner, Ms. Vixx. Have you placed 37 bulletins on MySpace yet today ?

  12. icky says:

    Ms. Vixx., I once had the distinct displeasure of trying to watch you put on a live performance. Of special note was the way in which you whipped your nappy dredlocks around, like an eighteen year old in a ” Girls Gone Wild “, video. It took me but a moment to realize that you were doing this in a feable attempt to distract the audience, as your entire set was pre-mixed, and you were actually doing nothing up there on stage.

  13. Reggie says:

    If being a winner is remixing prerecorded beats you download for free on the internet, call them “new” songs, and then walk around in life thinking of themselves as a credible artist… then Sir Vixx is a real WINNER!

  14. Sir.Vixx says:

    Yeah what the f–k ever I use ableton6 with many lanes and vsts Why don’t U b–hes say this to my face oh I forgot U are to much of b—es to say anything to my face. As for my music I write it all in reason 3.0 with an axiom midi controler. My music is legit F–k You Motherf—rs. Who are U people anyway my real name is Joe I am not afraid to give my identity. Do U make music at all? Cuz I would like to hear what a real artist is all about. Keep Hatin I’m Reloading!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Icky when did U look @ my screen 2 see what was going on Cuz if U did U would see it is on the fly what show was this? Oh by the way I don’t have dreds any more – get with the program. Just a Big Midwest F–k You to you both.

  15. Sir.Vixx says:

    by the way moderator censorship is wrong.