Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: Shael Riley and the Double Ice Backfire, Songs from the Pit

Eight songs, one hundred cassettes, thousands of hearts.

So go the statistics for Shael Riley and the Double Ice Backfire's album Songs from the Pit. An album of eight songs, released in a limited-edition set of a hundred cassettes, and put up in digital form on thesixtyone.com where the songs reached a few thousand hearts--each.

"Hold on," you're saying, "am I reading this right? They released an album, in the year 2009, as a cassette?"

Sure--why not? The original explanation I heard was that chiptune music sounds best on tape, and the band wanted the novelty of a unique format. I can't remember the last time I bought an actual cassette tape before this (if ever), but it has a distinct, very real feel to it. It's not just sounds and pictures in your iPod; it's something tangible. Also, my car has no CD player, so it works well enough there.

When I first decided to review the album, I didn't know the first thing about nerdcore. And, well, I still don't. I am in no way an expert in video games, as my experience with them started to get hazy after 1996 or so. (Tetris is still popular, right? Right?) But I first stumbled upon Shael Riley through his project The Grammar Club, and though the musical style has shifted a bit this time arouns, he and his band don't disappoint.

This is an attitude-driven album of love, video games, and kicky melodies. Perhaps the one thing you should keep in mind is that chiptune is woven into the soundtrack, and for those not in the know, that means it sounds a bit like an old NES video game. The album is peppered with references to movies, video games, and general pop culture. It's sassy and irreverent and epic, as it should be.

The first track, the incredibly energetic "Publishing Rights," featuring Schaffer the Darklord, sets the tone right away: this band means business. But it leads into the softer song "The Other Side of Memphis," which is sweet and rather elegant. "How to Fire a Gun" may well be the star of the album, and most of us can identify with the speaker: he longs for independence, and maybe the ability to leave a mark on the world.

"Asian Kids Have all the Best Moves" is a rather fun and touching tale about friendship and trying to assimilate another's (much cooler) culture. "Hipster Hoax" revolves around the catchy hook "It's just a joke, it's a ... hipster hoax that I'm not cool enough to understand," while "Chinese Ninja Warrior" is a cover of The Immortals' theme song for a character for Mortal Kombat. (Yes, I had to Google that.) But the power chords make this song pretty awesome, and the chiptune is trippy.

As for catchy tunes, it doesn't get better than "tip eht fo mottob," a rockin' song that also references Mortal Kombat. The album's outro is a solo piano-backed reprise of "Asian Kids Have All The Best Moves." It's quite pretty, and the stripped-down format lets the lyrics ring out.

Altogether, it makes for a great and intriguing listening experience. The cassette album is currently sold out, but many of the songs are available for listening and purchase on thesixtyone.com.

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