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.
“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
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