Six years after their breakout album, the Brooklyn chiptune veterans turn inward and re-assess their hedonism.
Six years ago, Brooklyn chiptune band Anamanaguchi—beloved for their blend of guitars and low-bit video game sounds—crowdfunded $277,399 in support of their second album, Endless Fantasy. Newly flush with cash, they set to work sending pizza to space. Footage of the lonely cosmic slice eventually made its way into a music video, but it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the whole scenario: Four men in their mid-20s convince their extremely logged-on fans to give them a quarter of a million and proceed to blow it on a dollar slice in the name of art. Yet, goofy as the space pizza was, the stunt netted Anamanaguchi a level of press coverage they’d never seen before. It landed them a slot on Fallon, a landmark moment for chiptune devotees. The album itself was a riotous genre masterpiece full of cutesy cat sounds, Weezer-esque turbo-punk, and square-wave synth-pop.
But no fantasy is endless. In 2014, as the band announced that their next album would be titled [USA], the country’s reality began to visibly splinter. That same year, the reactionary ideology behind Gamergate sent shockwaves through the gaming community and laid out a blueprint for the online culture wars. Amid all of this, Anamanaguchi began to look inward, troubled by the “indulgent” daydreaming of their 75-minute double album. “When people ask why it was so sugar-coated before, it’s because things were more sugar-coated,” guitarist Ary Warnaar recently said. “I wasn’t losing friends that were dying when I was younger. I am now.”
Five years in the making, [USA] addresses these “unavoidable realities” for the first time. Neither Warnaar nor co-leader Peter Berkman, who share songwriting duties, sing on the album. Instead, they recruit a handful of female vocalists—former tourmate and virtual Japanese Vocaloid pop star Hatsune Miku among them—to lend their voices on certain tracks. Still, with the exception of Grimes collaborator HANA’s star turn on the blown-out synth-pop anthem “On My Own,” the vocal features are inessential. It falls to Berkman and Warnaar to compose intentional arrangements that demonstrate just how Anamanaguchi’s perspective has shifted.
Endless Fantasy was predicated on a slapdash marriage of power-pop and vintage video game palettes, and while the premise remains, [USA] feels more purposeful and less hedonistic. The previous album’s neon-soaked aesthetic is replaced by a more refined synthesis of those same musical influences, capable of capturing anxiety as well as joy. No longer simply mining the nostalgia archives for inspirational SoundFonts, Anamanaguchi are now interrogating what it means to be the most prominent representatives of chiptune, a niche genre predicated on recontextualizing the escapist magic of an entirely separate artistic medium.
Like some of the most celebrated games in recent memory, [USA] uses breaks in the fourth wall to subvert expectations. For every anthemic breakdown, there’s a jab of melancholia, a taste of the real world. The jagged synthesizer cliffs of “Tear,” the album’s emotional centerpiece, fall away at the beginning of “We Die,” replaced by a cascade of non sequiturs: flashes of acoustic guitar, synthesized vocal fragments, muted handclaps. “Speak to You [Memory Messengers]” is an innocuous interlude until it abruptly cuts off with the digital equivalent of a guitar cable jiggling in its socket. The video for another highlight, “Air On Line,” opens with a 3-D rendering of the space pizza from 2013, before the camera pans out to reveal an entire field of space debris floating in Earth’s orbit. The message is clear: It doesn’t matter how sheltered you want to be. You can’t hide forever.
Nowhere is this more direct than on the opening title track, where dreamy NES peals are interrupted by a murky, vocoded chorus reciting the well-worn patriotic chant now more commonly associated with nationalist rallies: “U-S-A. U-S-A. U-S-A.” As the voices grow louder, the eight-bit plucks glitch and fade, leaving a harsh grind of textures against a barren, warped soundscape. When the chant returns later on “Tear,” this time voiced by a text-to-speech bot, it feels like a pointed reminder: In this life, ugliness and beauty will always exist in equal measure. But the band is quick to clarify that the title [USA] is not actually about the United States of America; it’s more of a shorthand for working through their own identities, “American” included. “It’s about being from somewhere and having like a label attached to you, your personal relationship to it, and your personal relationship with any assumption,” Warnaar has said. “We could’ve called the album [Chiptune], because it’s a genre that’s always attached to us from the beginning.”
They also could have also gone with [Gamer]—after all, it was in this decade that “gamer” really coalesced into an identity. It was gamers behind the targeted harassment campaigns of Gamergate, and it’s also gamers who recently gathered to protest the censorship of a professional esports athlete who spoke out in favor of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. Games, sports, fashion—none of the trifling leisures of modern life can feign political neutrality anymore. In the attempt to find themselves, Anamanaguchi have made their most emotionally grounded record, one that speaks to the fragmented state of their environment. [USA] may rarely achieve the melodically overstuffed giddiness of Endless Fantasy, but it reveals more humanity than first meets the eye.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork may earn a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)Source link