. issue IV : iii .

. artist : unicorn dream attack .
. album : out of the void .
. year : 2013 .
. label : little bit records .
. grade : a minus .


The sophomore effort from Stefan Keen’s chiptune project Unicorn Dream Attack, 2013’s Out of the Void, is just as dweebily sleek (the cover features pixelated … robotic jellyfish?) and naively precocious as the nomenclature suggests. Keen is a chiptune musician who works with the Game Boy program LSDJ. His 2008 release, Love Bits, showed talent, competence, and general underachievement: Keen is at his best when pushing limits — particular and compositional — far past adequacy, and the settled Love Bits was near-complacent. Not so Out of the Void, a 2013 release on Little Bit Records, evidently long in the oven and a mature presentation of songs “written between 2004 and 2010.” If time and thought are proportional to flawlessness, Keen’s patience shows itself paying off.

This album sparkles with the looming, pristine edges of a jeweler’s loupe, crafting the spunk and camp of familiar 8-bit sounds into a ludicrously scintillating opus, an at-the-seams rambunctious bursting of blippy arpeggios sparkling at the top of their range like so many question-marked boxes and a pulverizing beat laying out the feverish stride of Keen’s keenest ~200 bpm songs.

With an excellent, user-friendly aesthetic, relentlessly fresh mutability, and peak form in its sleekly reactive game, Out of the Void practically jitters through its best paces, and, with amiable clarity, manages to be both sophisticated and utterly guileless.

This album’s effervescent success happens where the melodic conceit is most engaging but also stimulating in its unconventionality, impugning the listener each pleasant step of the way: for example, the kitschy and strange “Blaster” succeeds where the ponderously melodic “Lollipop Kiss” and a few others cave into sedation. Out of the Void, though well-meaning in everything it does, contains five tracks that fall short by settling in with conventional melody (2, 10, 11, 13, 14), others that are ‘good’ but cannot stand on their own and fail to transcend the musical hurdles we know Keen can set (1, 3, 6, 8, 9), and then five tracks which are teeming, novel, and artful. The songs that succeed are genuinely precocious, embracing unexpected devices but bracingly carrying them all the way through. This sort of combinatorially coupling transference — where the melody is handed off, transmuted, and resurgent — is Keen’s meta-level superpower, and these five tracks truly manifest the show-don’t-tell ethos. Keen’s best work is with urgent and complex compositions that rollick through many segments with nimble velocity, utilizing the sleepy virtuosity of arpeggiated polyphonies; extensive panning; slippery glissandos; disparate timbres all competing and distinct; waggling, gamboling vibrato; and tight unisons of mismatched 8-bit bedfellows.

“The Trap” is the perkiest, cheerfulest, and danciest piece (just so) on Out of the Void. It’s suspensefully innocuous, like Kirby’s Pinball Land or Pokémon, a satisfying tradeoff of shallow emotionality for rich technicality with a sharp tang of adrenaline. Brandishing its percussive elements, “The Trap” opens with a crunchy quacky beat splatter-spray on rapid fire and relies on 8-bit snare claps and Dr. Mario-esque pill pops to close off the dance beats so effortlessly and impulsively posited throughout the song. As it is with effective dance music, the application and release of pressure is atmospherically accentuated, the melodic elements wending through and out of this crowd. The bleepy, poppy, panning counterpoint pairs smoothly modulating slurs with crooning blippy runs, ironic ornamentation (e.g. the ‘shrinking’ sound of Mario being injured — you know — slow-mo-ed melodramatically, transmuted to bass and soprano pitches, and set off with a tinny sparkle), and spunky arpeggios that curtain up and down in sixteenth-note phrases. The literal highlight of “The Trap” is the perfect 8th octave trilling at the top of the bridge, but the song’s precocity detracts from itself in the grungy finale, which is (excepting “Blaster”) as abrasive as Out of the Void gets.

The next track, “Jellyfish Serenade,” is rambunctiously manic and the most extroverted song on Out of the Void. It’s a combination of NES’ depersonalized action game Metroid and the space schmup Nemesis, evoking a euphoric, near-virtuosic compulsion for melodic lasers. Less upbeat than “The Trap,” and with the brittle strafing pace of Metroid, “Serenade” uses prodigiously mercurial riffs to give it that sugar-high effect. “Serenade” is also diverse in its sounds, combining panning fans of mid-tone static, exuberant blippy runs, striking and sprightly unisons, small blurps at odd moments (around the corner or underneath), a sirenous waily howling glissando yowl that’s ultra-Mega Man, sparkly blast offs, and tight punchy combos. Never resting, Keen always modifies the melodic line, with the result that “Jellyfish Serenade” is the technical standout and one of Out of the Void’s longest, since it carries and disperses its surprising weight so well.

“Face Plant,” (track 7 of 15 and the apropos successor to the retro “Super Hightops 1987”) is my favorite track on Out of the Void: it’s elegant, understatedly keeled, and more complex in its emotionality, motley and obtuse. “Face Plant” makes clumsy and disjointed lines work, and combines the predatorial kitsch of Killer Instinct, the clinical urgency of Dr. Mario and the slide whistle warp aplomb of Mega Man. The disjointed beginning indicates a morpher of a song — not a simply dexterous tune — and indeed, through separation and adhesive clarity, “Face Plant” is bothersomely patient (unlike “Jellyfish Serenade,” which immediately plays out lines via contortionist dexterity). If “Serenade” is Out of the Void’s most successful track, “Face Plant” is the misunderstood and tousled tail of the penny, less shiny and with a thick patina. The Dr. Mario down-to-business breakdown, a whirlpooled warp on the left hand, ‘ocarina’ [ … ] summons over rests, and rumbly basso profundo punches all make “Face Plant” an eccentric and invaluable offering.

“Battered Lighthouse,” track 12, is the masterpiece that sustains Out of the Void until the end.

With its high- and mid-tone minor-key sinisterial downturns, “Lighthouse” is vigilant, foreboding and strong, evoking the camp organ-and-clavier suspense of Shadowgate or Castlevania and the quick riffy bluster of R-Type.

Elongated polyphonies slur over crunchy bass steps on decaying 8-bit floorboards and programmatically guttering candles. Pans, glitches and drops are used to great effect, disorienting the listener but making the scare fun. A frightful glitch bridge evolves into a clappy breakdown of coinage dings and runs of arpeggiated synth keys, like a locked-room narrative device for bringing the viewer back around despite frustrated nerves. The ambient pans provide an ethereal but not harmless atmosphere to suction in the main riff before a turntabled end cycles its way out. The highlight (besides the Shadowgate sensibility) is the prominence of Dr. Mario sounds: “Lighthouse” brilliantly lets the trembling pop play out in whole notes.

Out of the Void’s closer, “Blaster,” has a clear separation between rhythm and melody — it’s more like “Jellyfish Serenade” than “Battered Lighthouse” — but very little between signal and noise. It’s easily the roughest, most unconventional composition, Out of the Void’s endearing mutt or exceptionally adapted genetic throwback. Its eccentricities — even ugliness — are its strength, and “Blaster” offers the most synth and the least blips, relying on ligatures and maybe a few bleeps. Like a combination of Final Fantasy and Contra, “Blaster” hits a point between mystical good-will and a rosy militarism. The result is an actively cabbalistic mess of untoward, erosive, even hostile sounds strangely and conflictingly comported with a deliberative oriental bearing (not unlike the Mortal Kombat theme). “Blaster” also has the most background trash-and-thrash, and the overwhelming impression is that of an 8-bit koto capsized in moshy noise. A diverse, catoptric track, “Blaster” is almost as hard to write about as it is to listen to.

Unicorn Dream Attack’s Out of the Void is a terrific chiptune release in which the listener sees Keen grow (both in comparison with the tame Love Bits and within the album itself). With “The Trap,” “Jellyfish Serenade,” “Face Plant,” “Battered Lighthouse,” and “Blaster,” Keen plays to his strengths, deploying challenging, even opulent technical precision; segmented, explorative compositions; upbeat tempos; combinatorics of disparate sounds for anempathetic moods and compelling dialectics; and the merely enjoyable bleeps and slathers of crunchy bass that is 8-bit.

This is adamantly tuneful rococo, desperately witty and agreeably fantastic, utterly accessible, but with well-crafted composition and arrangement, and, in the standout tracks, freed to utter unpredictability. There is a novelty and innocence to chiptune music, and especially with its standout tracks, Out of the Void is both exotically sophisticated and almost stupidly listenable.

The 8-bit sound is so fresh here; totally rarified and unsullied, Keen hangs his aerated sounds out to dry. Out of the Void is an exemplar for what confident chiptune work sounds like.

by Brittany Tracy