Music and video games are forms of escapism that pull their participants into alternate worlds. Good music creates an alternate universe where the best things about us can be true. Even pop music and dance music rely on this “otherworldly” feeling, providing listeners with a fantasy world in which they feel like superheroes. This is why the best selling pop music and the best selling video games feature elaborate power fantasies; gangsters, sex bombs dressed like school children, car jackers, Satan worshippers and gun toting vigilantes. Early 8-bit game designers were unwitting minimalists; their visual and sonic limitations allowed them to focus on effective and elaborate structures. Just as the imagination ran free in the story-world of MUD based computer games, the music of early video games contained narrative and structure designed to rile the emotions based on carefully modulated speed, simple rave-like beats and charmingly stripped down melodies.
In their first record, the Super Madrigal Brothers used the textures and effects of early video games to render the madrigals of Henry Purcell, King Henry VIII, Dowland, and Campion. By rendering aristocratic, classical and ornately structured music with crude 8 bit synthesizers, their 2002 LP, Shakestation, did more than just ironically compress the distinctions between high and low. Like Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach before it, it fleshed out the humor, playfulness and complexity of these pieces, and created a timeless parallel universe outside of the medieval age or the Reagan era containing meme-spliced chunks of both. The Super Madrigal Bros. consist of Oliver Cobol (AKA Adam Bruneu), who composes the songs, and Fashion Flesh (AKA John Talaga) who “reproduces” and remixes the songs, melting them into surreal acid dreams. Their second LP, Baroque in Voltage remains true to this formula, with Flesh taking over the even tracks and Oliver on the odd tracks. Baroque in Voltage is, as the title suggests, ornate and complex. It relies less on childlike wonder and naivetÃ© than its predecessor and assumes that the listener is already acquainted with the rules of their game, taking him/her into hauntingly abstracted and disarmingly amorphous castles, each room fully rendering itself and then quickly becoming intangible and nightmarish.
The CD opens with Oliver Cobol’s take on Henry Purcell’s Ah! Belinda, I Am Prest with Torment! from the opera Dido and Aeneas. This track segues into Flesh’s remix, in which the minimalist melody begins conventionally, then begins to skip, as if Purcell’s reality has a bug and is beginning to loop in on itself, flaking out into a series of low-pitched fades. The track then melts, each step slowed down and bloated. Flesh’s track starts and stops repeatedly, either as a broken, limping version of itself or as odd pong-like sound effects. Towards the end of the track the bottom completely falls out and an ambient flavored baroque composition begins, as if the castle walls have dissolved and Dido has been granted Icarus wings, thrown into a pixilated, endlessly starry night.
Other highlights include the familiar La Habanera and Chorus of the Cigarette girls from Bizet’s final opera, Carmen. In Oliver Cobol’s hands, the chorus is gleefully exaggerated, its levity and pomposity amplified by the high-pitched 8-bit synthesizers. Flesh, however, uses his turn at bat to magnify the disorienting aspects of the track, taking advantage of any shift in tone to add scattered dissolving noises. Similarly, Cobol’s Finale is a warm, elegant farewell, whereas Flesh’s version is a high-pitched tone with scattered alien-like knob tweaking, severe buzzing with frantic beeping, and finally a fading buzz. It’s the equivalent of being walked to the door, having your coat applied for you, being wished well, your tie straightened as you are patted on the back, and then being told, “By the way, the bees have eaten your legs. And how did you get this sardine can to fly, anyway?”
Structurally, both Shakestation and Baroque in Voltage take a journey through orientation and disorientation, each odd track situating the listener in a timeless avant-futurist child’s world and immediately dissolving, decaying and dismantling that world as soon as it becomes too familiar. The structure balances out because the compositions are so well known-it’s easy to understand the rules of a viciously stripped down Carmen, which depletes some of the fun. The fun really begins when the tracks collapse on themselves into lawless sonic autonomous zones. Whereas Shakestation’s chosen compositions were strangely already videogame like in tone, the compositions on Baroque in Voltage are more recognizable and ‘human’, often containing moments of emotional appeal or character revelation in famous operas. This amplifies the fun of hearing them de-humanize and alienate into faceless, abstract sculptures. Music is a technology that renders a full, 360-degree sensory experience, with the right juxtaposition of content and context providing visuals as intoxicating and cinematic as anything in a video game. By stripping music down to its barest architecture and forcing it to reproduce masterpieces, we can see how immersive and emotive sounds can be, and how playful or demented their aural environments can make us feel.
Super Madrigal Brothers
Baroque in Voltage (2005)
Record Label: FeverPitch