Solemnly Dinky High-Camp Bleepy: Chiptune Radio’s ‘Undertale’

Gliding and burbling, ringing and spattering and glitching, a lyrical escapism animates an album whose loveliness and silliness are inextricable.

Chiptune Radio is a remix organization (producer? DJ? group? cottage industry?) that for at least a few years now has been releasing compilations of known music reconfigured on vintage-sounding 8-bit video game synthesizers. No clue as to the intended audience—product lines like Power Music Workout indicate a market of personal trainers and anyone else who would want to sync their favorite songs to workout speed, but if there exists a community of aesthetes who appreciate hearing, say, Madonna songs reimagined as Nintendo soundtracks just for kicks, I’d love to find it. Those who value momentousness, expression, and auteurship won’t consider this music art. Too bad they’ll miss Undertale (8-bit Versions), one of 2016’s best albums.

Chiptune Radio’s Undertale, the remixed soundtrack to the critically acclaimed role-playing video game designed by Toby Fox (one I’ve never played), is deliriously catchy; it tickles your ears and diddles your dopamine receptors. I won’t defend my decision to subject such a transparently faceless piece of product to critical evaluation except to say that all popular music sold on the market is received as product and that anything sold on the market is hence fair game, especially if replayability and use value take precedence over meaning and beauty. Anyway, the record generates plenty of beauty, and the transposition of living, breathing, three-dimensional music into an antiquated form of synthesizer (or more likely a modern, digital approximation thereof) entails artfully unpredictable choices for pitch, texture, and counterpoint strategy. Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, and the Chainsmokers wouldn’t sell records if there weren’t something inherently amusing about computer noises. You needn’t have played arcade games as a child to savor the chiptune synthesizer, which independent artists to this day still play (seek out ComputeHer’s Bliptastic! [2016] for an excellent recent example). Chiptune’s thick, chintzy, modular crunch snaps into place with dissonance in the lower end, as if two adjacent notes are playing at once; the technology’s simplicity reassures. As mere sound, chiptune posits a mechanized robotic future that’s friendly and reliable but not efficient enough for inhuman slickness, inhabiting an aesthetic closer to R2-D2 than an iPad. Whistles and bleeps project a shiny surface that reflects charm.

Pop aesthetes who think continual Top 40 exposure has immunized them to the earworm should listen to video game soundtracks. There’s a science to it, whereby the game’s addictive qualities and the music’s addictive qualities produce a feedback loop and before you know it you’ve been playing for an hour listening to the same tune over and over again. How themes are composed to the contours of gameplay depends on algorithms I’m not privy to, but frequently the music survives out of context; to hear Pokemon Heartgold & Soulsilver’s title screen music or Super Smash Bros. Melee’s “Dreamland” theme, even once, is to sear the music’s every detail onto your amygdala forever. Undertale’s “Megalovania” and “Battle Against a True Hero” exist at this rarefied level of hummability. While I enjoy the game’s original soundtrack album, composed entirely by Toby Fox and played on a greater range of instruments, Fox’s Undertale Soundtrack exhausts in its completism and willingness to include every little ten-second interlude. Chiptune Radio’s version picks and elaborates on select greatest hits in a parsable sequence. Plus, 8-bit synthesizers suit the playful simplicity of Fox’s melodies; two forms of cuteness complement each other. Behold also two forms of escapism: certain songs (“Ruins,” “Snowdin Town”) named after game settings capture feelings evocative of their titles. Often music functions as a travelogue, conjuring pretty vistas reassuring in their respite from daily life and breathtaking in their nonexistence. Video games literalize this tendency, and video game music is explicitly designed for it — imagine a series of interactive digital landscape paintings inspired by Brian Eno’s environmental sketchpieces (“In Dark Trees,” “Fullness of Wind”). Undertale’s “Ruins” and “Snowdin Town” achieve similarly simulatory wonder through childlike lyricism.

Gliding and burbling, ringing and spattering and glitching, that lyricism animates an album whose loveliness and silliness are inextricable. To giggle at the placid pitterpatter of “Snowdin Town,” or the frantic, crackling swagger of “Bonetrousle,” or the nursery-rhyme bells of “Your Best Friend (Flowey’s Theme),” played four times, each time a little slower and lower in pitch, is to feel a twinge in the heart, moments later, at how wonderful it is to have assembled before you so many giggleworthy textures and tunelets in one place. Sequencing matters with a travelogue, and the record moves from alarm to tranquility back to a flashy climax before ending with non-closural melancholy. “Megalovania,” whose solemnly dinky high-camp urgency sums up the record, stacks no less than four distinct hooks in chintzy percussive-synth mode on top of each other to produce an obscenely catchy concoction. Title track “Undertale” loops a set of hushed chimes around a spiraling, contemplative tune and becomes a thing of bent fragility. “Another Medium” twitches around, dodging melodic resolution as high keyboard arpeggios waver in reaction to the chord progression’s nervous shift. “Battle Against a True Hero” goes over the top with a confluence of jittery hooks that recall a sped-up, harmonically plainer bastardization of 19th-century classical kitsch, played on instruments whose textural range includes crunchy, bleepy, glittery, and vaporous. Finally, the pensive “It’s Raining Somewhere Else” soothes the nerves with purring keyboard figures that indeed evoke rainfall. Undertale’s sonic unity is a pleasure; so too is its melodic immediacy. It clicks and lingers in the mind. It coheres into a twisted, friendly, aurally amusing shape.

The cartoon qualities of Chiptune Radio’s Undertale aren’t for everyone — garish sound and obvious tunes can irritate even within the confines of a childlike aesthetic. I find such qualities apt, exactly suited to the album’s particular flavor of escapism. No matter how grotesque the enemy or even the self, video games comfort by constructing an alternate universe where you can win. If the alternate universe happens to be lovely and adorable, the existence of such a potential world also comforts, and musical soundscape works like that too. Undertale’s catchiness and chintziness appear in neither the pumped-up power balladry of commercial EDM nor the atmospheric indulgence of arty indie-electronica. That such wondrous music gushes from such an obscure non-canonical hole in the internet is a joy; it suggests that there’s more music to listen to and more categories to explore than anyone knows. Discard the intentional fallacy and discover so much beauty in the world.

Undertale (8-bit Versions)(2016) and Undertale Soundtrack (2016) are available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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