Where chiptunes rule: Blipfest 2012

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You may think you know what chiptune music is. The basic idea is simple: musicians hack and dismember old game console soundboards in order to turn them into musical instruments. It's an opportunity to bring back those simple and catchy noises from the 80s and 90s and do something new with them. The limitations stop there, though, and nowhere was that more clear than at NYC's Blip Festival 2012.

Over 30 bands gathered for a three day chiptune event at Manhattan's Gramercy Theater. With a screen blasting an endless stream of brain-washing, pixellated nonsense, bands took the stage for rapid-fire half-hour-long sets. With a riotous crowd, a powerful sound system, and a stunning variety of artists, Blipfest is quite possibly the only way to truly learn what chiptunes music is.

Chiptune music is typically considered an electronic music subgenre, but after Blip that label rings a bit false. An artist like Pulselooper expertly sticks to the script, crafting heavy, pulse-pounding dance beats. Bit Shifter, on the other hand, belts out lyrics over the 8-bit equivalent of a punk-rock set. The oddly named “:| kREW” incorporated didgeridoos into their experimental beats and maniacal screams. The popular Anamanaguchi missed this year's fest, but their integration of an NES as their fifth band member in what is otherwise an indie rock group only solidifies the insane variety of sound possible in this supposed “genre”.

Whatever label you give to chiptune music, the distinct bleeps and boops of old dismantled game consoles are always prevalent. It's hard to pinpoint the exact reason for it, but the sound is undeniably catchy. Maybe it's just nostalgia talking—after all, the vast majority of the genre's fans grew up on these simplistic noises. Then again, many of these bands carry sounds that are far removed from the innocent loops of the NES days.

You also probably never heard your 8-bit childhood memories blasting through a bass-heavy sound system. Despite the electronic origins of chiptune music, it is best appreciated as live music. Aided by trippy visuals projected onto a screen behind the band, it's easy to get lost in the noise and atmosphere of Blipfest. Combined with the sheer variety of styles from one band to the next, it plays out like an all-you-can-eat buffet of danceable noise. 

When Wizwars took the stage, chiptunes newcomers were again introduced to something completely different. His relentless, machine gun assault of noise made heavy use of the more distorted sounds your old NES games typically saved for explosions. He even brought out a friend, Optimus Chad, to layer some metal growls into the mix. The result is something Wizwars calls chipthrash, a sub-genre of chiptunes, already itself a sub-genre. How far down the rabbit hole are we now?

Bit Shifter, a.k.a. Joshua Davis, is one of the founders and curators of Blipfest. He's a mainstay not just in the New York festival, which has run since 2006, but at the show's Europe and Tokyo offshoots. Bit Shifter's set was a highlight of the festival's second night, bringing enormously catchy tunes to a crowd that was already fired up from a evening of great music.

When you're at Blipfest it's hard to imagine this style of music sticking to its niche. Chiptunes have already found their way into pop songs (Ke$ha's Tik Tok represents probably the most unfortunate but popular example) and it's only a matter of time before one of the genre's core players is discovered. A dubstep-esque surge of popularity seems like the only destiny for the versatile chiptune genre.

This year's Blipfest may have reached its end only a few days ago, but it's absolutely an event worth waiting for. If 2012's line-up was anything to go by, then 2013 will be a fest to keep your eye on. From insane experimental noise to poppy radio-worthy tunes, Blip had it all, blasting out of tiny, hacked Gameboys no less.

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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