"You guys might need some earplugs."
–Nullsleep, Blip Fest 2012
Blip Festival 2012, which took place this past Memorial Day weekend, was many things.
It was the greatest assemblage of 8-bit musicians from across the globe and on a single stage, for the sixth year running. It was a bunch of kids moshing and crowd surfing to sounds produced by Game Boys, or at least trying to. And it was a chance for a half naked guy wearing nothing but wolf ears and a cape to spend most of his time fiddling around with a SNES/Super Game Boy/Game Boy Camera in front of a (completely baffled) audience.
Every year has someone stating that Blip has "officially made it", and the same holds true for its 2k12 installment in many ways. This time around, organizers teamed up with Live Nation, the nationwide concert promoting behemoth, to help run the show. According to Mike Rosenthal, key member of The Tank, the NYC-based non-profit arts presenter that produces the festival alongside chiptunes label 8bitpeoples, it was Live Nation who approached Blip Fest, due to their interest in infiltrating such a scene.
And instead of some art space that isn't necessarily equipped for a weekend-long music festival, this year's Blip took place at a "legit" music hall, the Gramercy Theatre. Unfortunately, sexy upgrades often bring along some pleasant annoyances, like criminally overpriced alcohol and obnoxious crowd wranglers; the stuff you find at "real" concerts. But when you get down to it, this year's Blip was like all others: an eye opening/mind blowing/booty shaking experience that will be talked among chiptune advocates and aficionados for quite some time.
The first evening of Blip 2k12 was, as expected, a great mix of local artists, plus those from a little across the way, and someone from halfway across the globe. Among those representing New York City was exileFaker, who kicked off Blip real proper like, with good old fashioned, NES-like tunes. The kind of audio that many people new to chiptune expect and hope for when tasting such music for the first time. Along with Zen Albatross, whose jagged yet funky Game Boy driven beats blew away his 2k11 set, which was exemplarily to being with.
One early highlight was minusbaby, who has long been at the forefront of pushing the very definition of what chiptunes can and wants to be. His Blip apperances are either legendary or infamous, depending on whom you talk to, and this year's did not disappoint. In addition to the aforementioned dude in the cape and wolf ears, minusbaby was accompanied by his "8-Hit Combo." Turns out, the flute is an excellent instrument to accentuate bass-heavy chip sounds.
We addressed NYC's heaviest hitter, and Blip Fest co-founder, Nullsleep already in our day one micro report. Along with the not-quite local talent who calls himself Shitbird; it's unfortunate his video highlight does not include his hardcore covers of Dig Dug and the theme from Konami's Goonies game. Chipocrite (http://www.chipocrite.com/) is another out of towner, from Philly to be exact, and does the guitar plus Game Boy thing. In addition to an intense mix of rock and dance, his New Order cover was the sing along hit of the night.
Kodek had been touted beforehand by Blip organizers as someone to keep an eye on, and the Latvian native lived up to the hype. Not just his bizarre, Euro-trashy take on late 80s hip-hop fashion sensibilities, or the fact that he humped his mixing board quite a bit; his chiptunes were also quite boss. And the evening ended on the highest note possible, with everyone's favorite, George & Jonathan. Words cannot properly describe the jubilation that rippled through the crowd when the duo turned on their multicolored, LED driven sweatbands.
Though night one also had its missteps. The opening of Blip is always known for technical difficulties, but the fact that many performances were not very loud was perplexing, given the venue this year. Another major issue was how the crowd was not allowed to be up close to the stage, and were instead held back via barricades, per the venue's rules one must assume. Given how certain artists draw energy from the crowd, who thusly gives it back, the end result lest some performers frustrated by the lack of feedback, as was the case with Nullsleep.
A little less than 24 hours later, some of the kinks had been worked out. The barricades were still present, but at least the acts were closer to the edge of the stage. Unfortunately, sound levels were still an issue somewhat.
First you had :| kREW. The outfit is made of multiple members, including Starpause, a prolific San Franciscan in the scene, and their performance is definitely one of the more difficult to surmise. Imagine a bunch of people on stage: some semi-naked, some drinking Four Lokos, some playing didgeridoos. Yet all very chiptunes nonetheless. Then there was Wizwars, from LA, whose music sounded like Game Boys having heart attacks at certain moments, while chill and funky during others.
In the case of Pulselooper, hailing from Brazil, never before have I seen a guy who seemed so quiet, so unassuming onstage, making such ear piercing and spine tingling audio with simple video game handhelds. Another artist that many in the known was ecstatic to witness firsthand was the Japanese phenom known as Omodaka. If you haven't seen his magic in action, please do so this very moment and come right back. And don't forget the epitome of Chiptunes 101, Bit Shifter.
"It was the moment I could finally say 'This is it, this is finally Blip Festival.'"
Rounding out the later portion of the evening was Graffiti Monsters, Blip's token hardcore punk band band, who also has the distinction of the being the first honest to goodness deafening act of the entire weekend up till that point. And last but not least was Radlib, from Connecticut. Saturday night is when the show stealers are brought out around the 11-midnight mark, so being the final performer, around 1-2 in the morning is normally not an enviable position.
Yet one of the main reasons why Blip is held with such regard is the quality of the curation, and Radlib's smooth moves gave everyone who decided to stick around till the very end their money's worth. Also helping were his guest stars, Beavis & Butthead! Well, cardboard cut outs of the duo at least.
Now, going by the day two micro report alone, many might assume that Omodaka and Bit Shifter had conquered night two. But for many, the true highlight was Kris Keyser's soul stirring performance. The guy could be best described as the Bruce Springsteen of chiptunes, and not because they're both from New Jersey. His rock-solid, work-man like Game Boy beats tore the roof down, and most importantly, the lit the fire under the asses of attendees in a manner that everyone else before him was not able to do.
For some it was even an emotional experience. As was the case of noted chiptunes photographer Marjorie Becker, who was moved to tears by Keyser's performance. When asked why afterwards:
"I was balling! [laughs] Why? I was very removed on Friday; I've gone through such a journey for the past almost year, putting together my book together, which just finally came out. We were also in this new big, scary space, which seemed like the real world. Also, the crowd was a little sleepy that night.
So when I saw Kris get up there… whom I've seen perform and photograph so many times… and was so honest, and raw, and beautiful… he gave EVERYTHING. It was the moment I could finally say 'This is it, this is finally Blip Festival.' It was such a relief, being able to make another emotional connection to a Blip Festival."
As for Keyser himself, when asked what it means to play at Blip, not just himself but for all chip musician:
"I think… and I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth… but I believe it's acceptance on a global stage. This is the one event that takes the entire global chip scene and condenses into one location and certain amount of time. This year, this is the 24 or 32 acts that says 'we want to share with the world.' So to make that short list is mind-blowing."
The third and final night of any music fest is often a Herculean task, but again, Blips's organizers and performers manage to sustain the energy level with a deft selection of performers, with varying styles and attitudes, to bring things to a logical and appropriate conclusion.
Such as Burnkit2600, a trio from Connecticut that fuses contemporary chip music sensibilities and old school analog music gear with good old-fashioned circuit bending. Of all the acts, they were the ones I was the most out of the dark about. In the audience was a friend of mine, from Burnkit2600's hometown of Danbury, and was therefore very familiar with what he saw. His reaction, to seeing them on the Blip stage? "I'm just happy to finally see them amongst people who get and appreciate what they're doing."
Much like with Pulselooper from the night before, the body language of Ontario's own deadbeatblast was filled with quiet stoicism, which was betrayed by his blaring Game Boy audio. Immediately afterward was FlashHeart, a four-piece rock band who looked as if they were there more for Ed Sullivan than Blip Festival, and kinda acted like it too.
Perhaps it was the opening song, "Your Video Games Suck!" Or the one much later about women not needing to shave themselves down there (which was opened up by lead singer Natty Adams reciting a poem, spoken in a Scottish accent)? Maybe it was their parting sentiment to the audience, "Good night nerds!" Polarizing doesn't even big to sum the reaction that FlashHeart ellicted. I heard someone ask "Is that chiptunes?" Which one might argue was the very point of having them on stage in the first place. The answer, for the record, is yes. Though once again, due to the less than stellar audio set-up, it was hard to hear the PSP produced beeps and boops among the keyboard, guitars, and drums. But I liked them at least.
Another highlight was Danimal Cannon, from update New York, and who without question is one of the most criminally underrated chitpuners in the business of making 8-bit music today. As another individual who has mastered the art of mixing Game Boys and guitars, Danimal Cannon's set also helped to fully illustrated how feeble and asinine the venue's anti- crowd surfing policies truly were.
Additional highlights include the Blip debut of Monodeer, from the Netherlands, who could easily be considered the next big thing; every vet of the chip scene was beyond impressed, and every lady in house was in love. You also had the band formerly known as Starscream, Infinity Shred, Blip's token chiptune boy band, a Sunday night tradition it feels like. Though compared to any other gaggle of heartthrobs that plays music, you'll find none that has, I dunno, actual talent? Not bad for a bunch of skater punks.
In The End
Was Blip Festival 2012 another success? For the most part, yes. Granted, the new venue got in the way of attendees' attempts at having a great time. A lot unfortunately. Aside from the absurdly expensive drink prices was their policy of not letting anyone exit or re-enter a premise. Which, for a festival spanning many days and performers, seemed pretty ridiculous, especially since the venue was not equipped to supply food and refreshments to a nowhere near competent degree.
But those, as they say, are growing pains. And the most important part, the music, was as strong as ever. Hopefully Blip 2k13 will be at a better venue. But will there be one another in the first place? It's a question that is asked every year. Skeptics go in thinking they've seen and heard it all, and each yeah they stand corrected. Despite the aforementioned growing pains, Blip manages to persevere and stay the course, almost without fault. How does this happen?
That question as posed to Chris Burke, who as glomag was part of Blip's earliest days. In recent years, Burke has put his Game Boys aside for 360 controllers and Dual Shock 3s (to creative game maps that act as musical instruments, with collaborator Tamara Yadao as foci + loci). But he still goes to every Blip and had this to say:
"There's always potential for something like this to lose its footing and becoming something it was never intended to be. To become too crass, too commercial. There's many pitfalls for an event like this, so it's amazing that a steady influx of new, enthusiastic people has kept it on coarse. It's almost like Blip Festival self regulates.
Not to take anything away from Josh, Jeremiah, Mike, Jenn, and all the other people who put such hard work into running Blip, but there is a certain amount that is guided by the sheer enthusiasm of the fans. There's enough of a core contingent that shares the same train of thought, who all want to have a really great time, but also show the artists respect, that we all appreciate what they do."
Blip does an amazing job of showing the world the wide range of possibilities that chiptunes encapsulates, and its job is far from over. Here's looking to Blip Festival 2013.