88bit Music

Rob Kovacs is a classically trained musician from Cleveland, Ohio who works to arrange, perform and preserve the music from NES games of the 1980s on piano. His work can be seen on his YouTube channel 88bit. The version of Bloody Tears from Castlevania II that he discusses here has since been released. As he was leaving the interview, and we were bemoaning the lack of information about the original composers, my mind drifted to the old delta blues singers of the 1930s. Legendary artists like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt were mostly forgotten until the folk revival of the 1960s, when they were coaxed back into studios to make the documents of their music that continue to inspire to this day. Will video game music composers be viewed by subsequent generations with the same reverence? Rob thinks so, and he gets specific on the techniques he uses to produce his arrangements, as well as his personal history and connection to video game music.

T: How did you start playing video games?
R: I actually started because my family, my Dad, acquired ten arcade games: Super Pac-Man, Donkey Kong Jr., Popeye, Centipede, Space Invaders, Asteroid, a game called Star Castle, which we don’t have anymore. I don’t know how long ago it was, but I talked to my dad, and he doesn’t even remember that we had it. My Mom does sort of, my sister does, but there’s a debate of whether or not we had this tenth game.

T: Have you replayed them?
R: I was at my parents recently, about a month ago, and I thought “I’m going to replay Centipede.” And the cool thing about Centipede is that it saves your top scores. It’s the only one we had that did it. So we had top scores for twenty years. Me and my brother-in-law would battle who would get the top score. So we would keep trying to get each other’s name off. I eventually had all the top scores. I thought, “I’m going to to play again,” and I ended up playing for almost an hour trying to beat my top score. My gosh, I might beat it. My nephew who is thirteen started watching. I got so amped trying to get my top score. I surpassed my top score which had been up for fifteen years. 

T: Was this an introduction to home console, with longer games
R The only thing my sister had was an Atari. I think I was five or six, I got the nintendo for Christmas. Most amazing Christmas ever. I got Karate Kid, Golf, Mario Bros was in the box. 

T: Mario had distinctive music. And you were a music kid too, right? So you’ve been playing music as long as you’ve been playing video games?
R Yeah, that’s accurate. When I was three, I would tinker around the piano, and my sister played piano, she’s twelve years older. She’s pretty decent. I loved when she played, so I would try to copy her. I started making up my own little tunes. Real little, started taking lessons.

T: The two things are linked, your family’s connection to video games and your family’s connection to music?
R: They’ve been a part of my life from the very beginning. 

T: Which became more important to you? When did one over take the other?
R: When I was 14, music became more important. I sold almost all my Nintendo games. I had about 40 at that point. In a way, that was so I could focus more on music. I sold them all with the box and everything for $2 a piece. And now I’m a collector. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I didn’t get rid of all of them. I didn’t fully give up on video games. I kept the multiplayer ones that I could play with my friends. And I kept the Super Nintendo. And still played computer games. The newest system I’ve ever owned to this day is a Super Nintendo. 

T: So the two are definitely linked. What do your parents and sister think about the 88bit thing?
R: My sister thinks its cool. She’s always been super supportive. My parents saw me, I got to play at Severance Hall, at the smaller hall, I can’t think of the name, for make music day. I did a short 20-minute set on a huge Steinway piano. My parents wanted to come to that. It was the first time they’d seen it live and they were curious. 

T: Do they understand that nostalgic connection for you? 
R: I’m sure they do. The songs I play are the less known ones. That’s what I played at the concert. I didn’t think they’d be into it or really get it, but they do like classical music and piano music so I asked what they thought. And my Dad said, “It’s like classical music. I’m really impressed. It’s really good,” and I was really glad for that. That’s what I’m going for. I’m trying to take this music out of the toy realm and present it to people who might have never listened to it. Or if they did, they’re older than me and it’s just kids playing it and it’s obnoxious sounds.

T: When did you start thinking it was music? 
R: I was in high school and my friend who was pretty internet savvy found a transcription of the Mario Bros theme, with all three voices. And he played some of it on piano. I thought, “This is so cool” and I had my band do an arrangement for the High School Rock Off 2000. We did an arrangement of Super Mario Brothers. In the US, I have to imagine, it had to be one of the earliest video game covers, live. At least that I’m aware of. It was a blast. It was at the Odeon. It was packed. People started crowd surfing as soon as we played that song. 

T: Was it a rocking arrangement?
R: Yeah. We blended the first and second level. We added the pause button. Everyone would stop and pick it back up.

T: I know that you went to conservatory and really started focusing on contemporary classical music . You did your thesis on Steve Reich. Where was video game music in your head for you at that time?
R: Pretty non-existent. When I first started there, I did that arrangement of the Mario Bros theme that the band did. But I wasn’t thinking about video game music during college. No one else was.

T: Did you play games to relax? 
R: I didn’t play much. I played some during the summer, computer games.

T: So you did classical music, and then you had a pop band, Return of Simple. What made you come back to video game music after your experience in pop and classical?
R: I was living in New York and I can’t remember exactly why, but I wanted to make an arrangement of Airman Theme from Mega Man II. Even before then, me and Gary Thobaben who was the bass player in Return of Simple, we played some games at home. He was living with me and once talked about doing a vocal arrangement with our then drummer who could sing. I don’t know if there are any vocal arrangements of Mega Man. That would be pretty insane. But that was just talk. Then I moved from New York, and decided the arrangement for Airman. It took a ton of work to arrange it and practice it and play it up to speed. But I finally made the video and it did really well. It has about 10,000 views pretty quick. It got a small interview by Game Informer and a couple other blogs. It did well, and I wanted to do the whole game, but I never got around to it. I never finished another video.

It wasn’t until a several years ago when I was teaching. I had a student who wanted to learn Bloody Tears from Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. I figured out a simple version for her, and I thought I could do a really cool version. So I started arranging, and fleshed out a very classical sounding but very true to the original, just putting it on piano and adding octaves. It sounded badass, and I thought I should do as many Nintendo games as I can. This sounds sweet. The challenge is really high and I love it. One day, I had this idea to arrange music for video games, specifically NES games . I love the limitations that it has just the three sounds and the noise channel.

T: I know next to nothing about the technical process by which music was created. How is that music being played on the NES? What’s going on?
R: People think it’s a recording that’s being played, and that’s not the case. It’s a sound chip which produces the sound, like synthesizer. It’s an 8 bit sound chip. I’m not a computer guy, so I’ll explain it as best I can understand it. So the sound chip is making the sounds and it gets told to make the sounds by a code that’s already been written. So when you play the game, it will cue the codes. Plus the sound effects are when you get a mushroom and it cues that. Or it shoots a fireball. So all these sounds are technically being performed by the game. 

T: But there’s not much variation? It’s not like if you play a piece on a violin or a different violin over there?
R: Yeah, they all sound the same, and the part will be on a loop and will sound exactly the same every time. 

T: You mentioned they work on a loop. How do you think of taking a looped thing and arranging it into a piece that has an arc?
R: Sometimes I will just loop it, if it’s short. But as I’m arranging it and learning it, just get several ideas. Hmmm… I can expand it? Just like composing, you start off with an idea and think how can I do more with this? Same kind of idea with these small video game pieces. Not all of them. I try to expand them, give a little bit of shape, a beginning, a middle and an end.

T: You’ve played Final Fantasy, and I love that game because, and this won’t surprise you at all, is because it’s so narrative. You have to get your levels up and have some action, but ultimately you’re watching a story. When you play pieces from Final Fantasy, it seemed like you were pretty keyed into the game. How do you add the other emotional content of the game into the song?
R: Stuff from Final Fantasy is so well-written. It’s clear that Nobuo Uematsu is on different level. I recently transcribed the battle theme from the original Final Fantasy, and I barely had to do anything with it, other than solve a few of the limitations of the sound chip itself, moving a few notes up and down the octaves, where they should have been.

T: What’s the register of the chip?
R: The chip is actually pretty wide, but as you get further away you have different problems. You also have the limitations of the TV that they’re probably hearing the music on. They don’t have subwoofers. Nintendo is mono anyway. Fixing some of those, it came out really easy. I didn’t have to do anything with it. Some of the other pieces, more rare games, there’s this game called Arkista’s Ring, it has a couple looping songs and there’s a lot room to make it grow. Those are the games I have more fun with. 

T: Do you think that comes from your experience in minimalism, where you’re often presented a theme with subtle changes? Is it hitting that button in your brain?
R: I wonder that. I think there’s a lot of crossover between minimalism and video game music, especially early video game music, because video game music was so short. The themes are not long, they’re looped. But they’re not minimalistic in the way Philip Glass or Steve Reich is. They’re not small bits of information. There’s usually a melody. But I think there is some crossover. 

T: But the skill in general. Jazz improv is different from the mutations of a minimalist piece, which is different from a noise artist. Where do you see the additions you’ve made?
R: I guess more closer to minimalist, because I’m not going full classical romantic. Some people do and they sound great. Martin Leung, the video game pianist, he does great stuff and it’s very flourish-y. I try to stay away from that. I try to stay true to the feeling of the game. Just trying to get all the notes is super difficult, but if I can add to it, that also enhances the feeling the music is trying to convey, not a lot, maybe some harmony, maybe some octaves, maybe some percussion somehow. 

T: You mentioned the sound chip has an effects channel. Do you do the coin blip from Mario to add grace to it?
R: Yeah, so you touch on two things. There are five channels on the NES. One is sound samples, sometimes you’ll have voice over, it’s usually pretty poor, crushed voice sample. Sometimes they use it for drums. Mario 3, for instance has a sampled bongo in it, these Jamaican-sounding drums, and those are samples. They sound great. That’s a rarely used channel. The other channel is a noise channel that doesn’t have any pitch, just white noise. A lot of times that was used for drums. Now you have three left, and those were your tones. You can have up to three notes happening at the same time. Those were your limitations of the NES. Sound effects also used the music channels. Like in Mario, when you jump, that takes away one of the music channels. The music drops out. You don’t notice it. They usually pick the counter voice or the middle voice and that’s gone every time there’s a sound effect. Sometimes, yeah, I will try to throw in different elements. Like in Marble Madness, I’ll try to throw in the death sound. When you beat the level, there’s a little victory theme. 

T: What do you draw on when working this? Do you record it and play it back and try to figure it out? Or do you try to extract it from the cartridge and digitally transfer it?
R: From what I’ve researched, there isn’t a good way to rip it from the rom and put it into notation. What I end up doing is, there are NSF files that are the music files, and I’ll put them through another program called Famitracker NSF Import, which will import the sounds and play it and show all the notes being played. That also allows me to isolate every channel. So I use that and then transcribe them into a notation program, Sibelius, and write out each voice, all three, and sometime the sound channel as well. So once I have the notes all transcribed, then I try to play them and to figure out a way to combine all three voices. 

T: When you transcribe in that fashion, that’s not like what you would hear when you play the game?
R: First is just figuring out what the notes are and the rhythms and then writing them out in three different lines, like if you had three singers or three violins. Then I have to arrange and combine them into two staffs for a piano. Where to put the third voice is usually the hardest part. Because it’s usually some sort of mix of both hands. 

T: In most piano music, there’s a bass and treble. Do most video games operate on a similar principle?
R: A lot of times on piano, there’s a lot of chord action and you can’t do that. Because a chord is three notes, and it would take up all three notes and there would be no melody. So a lot of time you have melody and the bass and for the chord, they’ll arpeggiate it. So that middle voice is moving a lot.

T: It can’t actually play a chord, but it suggests it.
R: I try to play it like it is, that’s the challenge. It’s harder. It’s more similar to Bach or baroque music where you have three or more voices happening at once and there weren’t a lot of chords there. It was single voices that, when they line up, they create a chord. In that way it’s very similar, except it’s a lot more rhythmic, super syncopated and super fast, especially Mega Man, very high bpm. A lot of stuff is 150-180, and that middle voice they’re just making a counter melody and it’s super busy and funky.

T: A lot of Bach music was played on harpsichord which has difficulty forming chords. So the synthesizer chips were unable to play chords?
R: You could, but it would block it out. You could only play up to three notes at once.

T: Could you change the timbre?
R: You had two triangle waves and one pulse wave. Maybe I have that backwards. From there, you could vary the shape a little bit. Especially the square wave.

T: But your piano is going to have a piano sound. You make your best guess as to what fits where?
R: Sometimes all the voices will be in the same octave, in the same register. Mega Man, I keep going back to Mega Man because it’s great, all three voices for Metalman are all right around Middle C, so I have to pick what’s supposed to be the bass, and they do that by changing the timbre. Even though it’s not actually lower than the other pitches, it’s more woofer sounding, I’ll drop that down and the melody is higher and clearer sounding.

T: And then you spread that out to make it playable on a piano.
R: Yeah. The chord thing is interesting. Composers get around that by programming a chord in one of the voices, and it would oscillate through the notes super fast, arpeggiate through the notes.

T: So if you’ve got three voices, one goes 1-3-5, the second does 3-5-1 and the third 5-3-1?
R: You could do that. That happens that sometimes when they’re doing a delay effect. Even just the one voice alone. One voice was bass, one voice was melody, and then one voice would sometimes do a chord by cycling through the notes super fast.
There’s a guy named Tim Follin, who does amazing stuff. If you listen to his work with the game for Silver Surfer, for solstice. You’ll hear that. You’ll hear these glistening sounds, and its one of these voices being a chord.

T: This brings up another equally interesting question. What do you know about the composers who worked on this?
R: I know very little. It’s hard to find and I want to know more. I recently watched a cool documentary called Digging in the Carts which explores the composers of video music, especially early on. They interview the guy who did the music for Gimmick and he just works on a rice paddy and doesn’t do music any more. The game wasn’t released in the US, but the music is great. They interviewed him and he talked about how much effort and work went into it and how much pride he had, but he never got any feedback because all the people playing it are kids. They’re toys. So recently he found out the band The Advantage did a cover of it. He was so thrilled and so happy to hear that his music was staying alive.

T: A lot of these people are still alive, right? If you were a 20-something composer for hire in the ’80s, you’re only in your fifties now.
R: I know two of the people who worked on Sonic the Hedgehog live in Cleveland. One I know really well, Leonard Dicosimo.

T: You’ve joked about using this as an excuse to rebuild your video game collection. What are you working on next?
R: It justifies me having over 300 video games. As far as the music I’m working on, I’m working on Star Tropics. Working on more Final Fantasy. Bunch of Megaman 2 stuff, Castlevania 2. I just recorded Bloody Tears recently—I’ve had that for a while—I’m going to release that soon. 

T: Is the goal to have an album based on one video game or one composer?
R: Yes, I d love to do an album based on one composer or group of games. Or by publisher. I’ve got to figure out the copyrights.

T: You’ve also talked about publishing the arrangements as sheet music. Who gets paid there?
R: Probably the companies that released the game. I know it’s up in the air. At one point, it wasn’t even considered copywritten music because it wasn’t recorded, it was performed by the chip. A lot of big games have been re-released, and that music is clearly copyrighted, but a lot of the rarer games.

T: I’ve heard the term abandonware, because everyone associated with it is gone from the industry.
R: I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I want people to play it. Part of the reason I’m doing this is to help preserve and keep this music alive. Music needs to be performed to stay alive. I don’t want to be the only one performing it. I want to make arrangements that other pianists can program in their own concerts.

T: What do you know about who else is out there?
R: Martin Leung is really popular. He went to CIM actually. He’s not from here, but he went to school here. He does more romantic style. When you think of big romantic piano pieces, that’s his style. He’s done hundreds of games. His first video was him blindfolded playing all Mario Brothers in the early 2000s. One of the early viral YouTube videos. He’s had a career now playing video game music. There’s tons of band that play and make arrangements. Descendents of Erdrick, Bitforce, the Marcado Brothers.

T: What other types of performances would you like to do with it?
R: I’d love to put on concerts, like classical concerts. An hour and a half with an intermission of just video game music on Steinway piano. Some ensemble stuff as well. In addition to that, I’ve started playing video game conventions. I was in Austin recently for the classic games fest.

T: How much do you think people need to know video games in order to get it? Or do you think it stands up on it own?
R: I think it stands on its own. I think if you played anybody the raw sounds from the video game, the 8 bit sounds, not everyone is going to like that sound. In fact, anyone who didn’t grow up with that is not going to like that sound. My parents do not like that sound, for example. It sounds annoying. But when you take it off that sound and put it on real instruments , it gives it a more human quality and the music can speak for itself. My parents didn’t recognize the music, but they enjoyed it. My parents are biased, so that’s a bad example. But I played at neosonic fest here in Cleveland, it’s a new music festival, contemporary classical, I did a 45-minute set of video game music, and I had a lot of people in their 50s-60s who have never heard any of this stuff. They were like “I’ve never heard any of this stuff. That was fantastic. This is from a video game?” I was so happy to have that response because that is what I was going for.

T: Was that due to its similarity to classical music or on it’s own merit?
R: I think it sounds new. It has a fresh sound to it. It sounds like nothing else you would hear on a piano. 

T: What’s your plan for the future of this? How do you want people to hear this?
R: The YouTube channel is a lot of people’s first exposure to it.  That’s generating requests and bookings for live performance. I’d love to do a full evening classical concert.  But I’m definitely going to keep doing YouTube.

T: And publishing the transcriptions?
R:  I don’t publish them commercially.  I offer a PDF download as an award to my Patreon subscribers.  I don’t think we talked about Patreon at all. I’ve had it from the very beginning when I posted my first video.  I sent out a mass email and some social media posts and a handful of friends jumped on. It adds a huge motivation for me.  I get some monetary support and just knowing people care enough about what I’m doing really makes a difference. 

You can see more videos via Rob’s YouTube and support him via Patreon

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Mickey Avalon Rips Off Diane Coffee

What’s the old saying? “A good artist creates, a great artist steals.” Well if that’s true, Mickey Avalon has just made an attempt at greatness by copying the artwork of Diane Coffee‘s 2013 album My Friend Fish right down to the font. 

Diane Coffee’s own Shaun Fleming posted the side-by-side image on his social media with the comment: “Didn’t know the cover art for My Friend Fish was so iconic 😏. Is @mickey_avalon a fan? The artwork for his new album would certainly suggest so.” 

Mickey Avalon copies Diane Coffee artwork
Mickey Avalon’s new album copies artwork of Diane Coffee’s 2013 album My Friend Fish to a T

 

The photograph for Diane Coffee’s album was shot by Audim Culver, and artwork designed by Jared Bell with input from Fleming, his manager, and Melinda Danielson who also did the makeup. 

Meanwhile on Avalon’s Instagram, the post for his new album only credited photographer Mike Azria. Azria also had the image posted on his page (which he has since deleted). 

Diane Coffee fans took to Avalon’s IG, chastising him for stealing without giving credit. After about seven hours, Avalon finally responded, “I’m obviously a fan. And it was obviously an homage. And it was so obvious, that I obviously didn’t need to explain myself.” But fans weren’t satisfied. 

seabeekay@evndmngo wrote, “Since when do artists steal LITERALLY SOMEONES ENTIRE ALBUM COVER and try to play it off as their own? And then act like it isn’t a big deal/they were inspired by the original artist (while giving 0 credit to the artist they ripped off and only acknowledging the situation until called out 100x) 🤔”

We asked Fleming what he thinks of the situation and he said, “I think it’s pretty silly. It’s also offensive. I woke up to a tweet from a guy named Scott Cooper with a photo that said, ‘I feel old, but who’s Mickey Avalon? His new album art reminds me of something.'” Turns out Cooper had been online when the two albums popped up next to each other. 

“It was just straight plagiarism,” said Fleming. “The exact definition of homage is, ‘a special honor or respect shpown publicly.’ There was nothing honorable or respectful about this. If you are doing it as an homage to an artist, you need to at the very least credit said artist. Or ask me. For him to 100% just copy and paste my artwork, it’s the most disrespectful thing you can do. It’s the first thing they teach you in school is to cite your sources, don’t plagiarize. He should know, being in the business, that this is not cool.” 

“I was really taken aback by the response and all the love and support, not only from my fans but from Mickey Avalon fans. It was both a disturbing day and a really heartwarming day,” said Fleming.  

In response, Fleming has released a Diane Coffee song called Animal along with a photo of himself with hand-drawn tattoos pasted onto the album artwork for Avalon’s 2006 release, along with the comment: “Ok Mickey, two can play at that game! 
Been looking for a reason to show y’all this punk demo (Link in Bio). Album art inspired by Mickey Avalon. 😉” Animal will be released on all platforms by October 18. 

Diane Coffee responds by releasing a new song, Animal, using artwork from Avalon’s 2006 release

We were not able to reach Avalon directly for comment.

 

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Photo Recap: Toad The Wet Sprocket at Kent Stage

The threatening skies over Kent held off just long enough to have a clear evening leading up to show time. The downtown area surrounding The Kent Stage was already abuzz with early fans waiting to see Toad the Wet Sprocket in their original glory. In the years since their prominence in the ’90s, the enduring foursome have continued to periodically travel and pack venues to maximum capacity, and tonight is no exception. 

Megan Slankard by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Megan Slankard by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Megan Slankard by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Megan Slankard by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

The sold-out crowd was first greeted by the impressionable talents of Megan Slankard, joined on stage by Adam Nash on slide/rhythm guitar and percussion. The San Francisco duo brightened early concert-goers with friendly and inviting banter and an acoustic guitar style that combined the flair of modern Nashville with radio-friendly folk rock. Her powerful voice blended country soul with distinct clarity that gave each song a certain strength and personal touch.

Megan Slankard and Adam Nash by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Megan Slankard & Adam Nash by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Adam Nash by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Adam Nash by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

In a touching moment, Megan and Adam paid special tribute to Aretha Franklin and celebrated her legacy by performing an intimate rendition of I Say a Little Prayer. The Toad fans in the audience really appreciated her expressive and energetic style, and were brought to their feet several times during her set to praise her outstanding gifts. Megan’s performance captured the attention of the crowd and provided the necessary shot of energy in preparation for the coming of Toad.

Adam Nash by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Adam Nash by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Megan Slankard by Akron rock photographer Photography Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Megan Slankard by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

After a moving audio tribute to The Queen of Soul on an empty stage, Toad the Wet Sprocket stepped out to bring the same love to the capacity crowd.  Joining lead vocalist Glen Philips at the front stage mics was Todd Nichols on guitar and Dean Dinning on bass. Atop the back risers was long-standing support from Jonathan Kingham on keyboards, mandolin, and lap steel guitar (you may remember him from our coverage of Glen’s solo show last year at Cleveland’s Music Box) and a talented stand-in drummer Josh Daubin, who looks like a more handsome, better-coiffed Bo Burnham. 

Glen Phillips Toad the Wet Sprocket by Cleveland rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Glen Phillips, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

Glen — with his trademark bare feet — remarked that he and the band were glad to be back in Kent again. Even though it’s been about seven years since the last time the full band was in town, Glen mentioned he’d usually visit during his solo tours in the winter, with the cold snow and no one walking around. But now, in the summer, “it’s a different place, it’s green, there are people. You tricked me!”

Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Todd Nichols, Glen Phillips, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Todd Nichols, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Todd Nichols, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

Toad started their set with This Moment from their latest release, New Constellation, a great example of the modern approach to their classic style, with signature harmonizing and an upbeat and catchy chorus. From there, they rolled into a trio of songs through their decorated ’90s catalog: endearing Crowing from DulcineaWhatever I Fear, the energetic opener from Coil; and then a crowd-rising sing along of their breakout hit from Fear, All I Want. They even featured a duo of their more memorable songs from In Light Syrup: Good Intentions, the irresistible tale of poor choices and bad experiences, and the uplifting and heartfelt Brother. Before long, the entire crowd finally got out of their seats and started rocking out on their feet.

Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Jonathan Kingham, Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Jonathan Kingham, Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Jonathan Kingham, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Jonathan Kingham, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

The bulk of their set list covered their current sound from the New Constellation and Architect of the Ruin releases, including Architect of the Ruin, Golden Age, Enough, and their ode to the west coast, California Wasted. They still capture the chemistry that makes their songs connect so well with their fans. Their sound keeps the core elements of inspired and emotional songwriting, infectious pop phrasing, and harmonic depth, but now with a modern polish and process.

Glen Phillips, Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Glen Phillips, Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

They also offered a large selection from their standout albums from the ’90s, Fear and Dulcinea. Within the first few notes of each song, the individual reaction from the die-hards in the crowd was incredible to behold. It remains their strongest musical work and is home to many fan favorites, like Windmills, Fly From Heaven, and Nightingale Song. They closed out the night with the big riff energy of Fall Down, and rewarded the cheering crowd for an encore with two of their biggest hits, Something’s Always Wrong and Walk on the Ocean.

Glen Phillips, Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com
Glen Phillips, Dean Dinning, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

But the crowd wasn’t made up completely of die-hard fans; there were some newcomers as well. Before the show began, a gentleman and his wife took their seats next to us and asked if we knew “whether the bands tonight are any good.” He admitted he’d never heard of either act, but I assured him he’d most certainly heard several Toad songs over the years. So what brought them to the show? Well, the answer will rekindle your faith in the goodness of humanity. Earlier that day, the gentleman inadvertently met Glen at a pizza shop. When Glen realized he’d forgotten his wallet, the gentleman graciously paid for him, and Glen gave him two tickets to the show in return. 

Glen Phillips, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron rock photographer Mara Robinson Photography www.MaraRobinson.com
Glen Phillips, Toad the Wet Sprocket by Akron music photographer Mara Robinson www.MaraRobinson.com

Since Toad’s reunion, they have achieved a renewed success that few could have predicted. After reclaiming songs from their early catalog with All You Want in 2011, and the vinyl reissues of Fear and Dulcinea, they released New Constellation independently as a crowdfunded project on their own label. Toad the Wet Sprocket is poised to continue bringing their stories to the world long into the foreseeable future, and we can only hope they will choose to do so.

For more details on tour dates and venues, and more news from the band, visit Toad the Wet Sprocket’s official website.

See more photos at MaraRobinson.com 

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The Hempsteadys – Séance! Séance!

THE HEMPSTEADYS
Séance! Séance!
Self-released 2018

At first, I wasn’t sold on Séance! Séance!. I don’t know why, but the record didn’t click with me when I listened to it. I had never heard of The Hempsteadys and probably wouldn’t have if one of the band members, saxophonist Cody Freedom, hadn’t reached out to me after reading my Boss Riot review. That’s not a slight against the band; that’s just the reality of living in the middle of Kansas. It’s challenging to stay current with new music when the radio only picks up country music, and the nearest decent concert venue is an hour and a half away.

I ended up coming back to the record a few days later because I felt like I needed to give it another chance. It was after the second listen that I realized that Séance! Séance! was a good record. It took a third spin to realize that it was an excellent record.

“Still Life With Woodpecker” is the first single from Séance! Séance!, kicking things off with a frenetic opening drum beat that sets the tone for the rest of the record. “When Dead Are Undead,” one of two instrumentals on the record, features Vinny Noble (The Pilfers, Suicide Machines, Bim Skala Bim) absolutely killing it on trombone. The other instrumental, “Temple of Boom,” has a two-tone sound that will make you swear that you heard that song on an older Specials record. A later track, “The Well,” sounds like what would happen if you tossed Rancid and Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle into a blender and hit puree.

The comparison to Rancid doesn’t stop there. The gravelly dragging vocal style expressed on the record will immediately call apt comparisons to Tim Armstrong. That might have been my barrier to liking this record at first, as I am not the biggest fan of Armstrong’s vocals. Musically I loved what I heard, as the band makes use of multiple genres across the record and giving each song its own identity. The sounds are wonderfully mixed, and none of the instrumentation is buried, which is a problem I have with some ska records. The horns are front and center on Séance! Séance!, but not at the expense of the rest of the band.

Séance! Séance! should be an automatic addition to your ska collection. Not only do I look forward to hearing what The Hempsteadys put out next, I look forward to discovering their back catalog as well because right now I can’t get enough of this band. The Hempsteadys will be touring Connecticut throughout the fall. You can get Séance! Séance! and their other works at thehempsteadys.com

Featured image by Mattias Lundblad. 

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Boss Riot – Lace Up Straight

BOSS RIOT
Lace Up Straight
2018 Jump Up Records

I first discovered Boss Riot when I purchased Jump Up Records’ compilation collaboration with Ska Brewing Co., Drink the Ska. The song was “Hearts and Hands,” and I was hooked. Sadly, I had to wait a few months until I could listen to the band’s first full-length record, but it was well worth the wait. The soul/ska sound promised in “Hearts and Hands” was fully delivered on Lace Up Straight.

This six-piece outfit formed in Dallas, Texas in 2015, and is comprised of Vicki Tovar on vocals and melodica, Jake Olsen on lead guitar and vocals, Ryan Reeves on rhythm guitar, Chris Casey on organ, Mike Burke on bass, and Rob Tovar on drums and percussion.

The lead track on Lace Up Straight, “Bad Man,” starts the album off with a thumping beat that’s reminiscent of Sam and Dave mixed with The Selecter. “Chisholm Trail,” a wonderfully inviting instrumental that blends ska with a little bit of the ’60s surf sound, reminded me in particular of the interstitial music played during episodes of Kids In The Hall.

(Because when I think ska, I think Canadian sketch comedy)

Kids in the Hall Blown Speakers Boss Riot
Courtesy of The Broadway Video Group, Inc.

Little Things” projects a nice Bossa Nova vibe, while the previously mentioned “Hearts and Hands” has a great old-school 2 Tone sound.

It’s difficult to talk about Boss Riot without singling out the delightfully soulful, swaggering vocals of Vicki Tovar. When mentioning female ska singers, it’s easy to make comparisons to Monique Powell of Save Ferris, Elyse Rogers and Karina Deniké, or even Gwen Stefani, though I would say that Tovar’s fantastic vocals are more in the vein of Amy Winehouse or Lisa White of the Radiation Kings.

You can stream the album and buy a digital copy at the band’s website. You can also pick up a physical copy from Jump Up Records.

Boss Riot is currently touring the west coast, with shows in CA,  NV, TX and AZ.

Featured image by Rafael Badillo. 

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