Friday, February 26, 2010

Hot Otaku-on-Otaku Action

Some things are, within the feeble confines of my mind, forever intertwined. Like peanut butter and chocolate or the classic white shirt and black tie. They are inseparable. Parts of an undeniably greater whole.

Another far more applicable example would be Karl "Ultraklystron" Olson and Rai Kamishiro. When Rai's unique blend of Japanese pop and bilingual hip-hop was first introduced to nerds at large via the original Rhyme Torrents compilations, it was done so at the behest of Ultraklystron. Since that time, Rai has stuck close to Karl, musically-speaking. As her de facto producer, his steady-handed production techniques have done almost as much to define the Rai style as the vocalist's own unique approach to songwriting.

Both Ultraklystron and Rai closed out 2009 with hot new albums. From Karl it was Romance Language 2, the direct successor to his 2007 concept album. From Rai, her long-awaited full-length. Both arrived in my mailbox from the wilds of Seattle at the same time, and I've been enjoying the two as sort of an Olson-produced matched set for months. Thus, it seemed only fitting that I present the pair to you in a similar manner.

Karl begins the second installment of the project that I still consider to be his greatest musical triumph with the chiptune-flavored "Past-Date Poetry," which pairs the drain of the daily grind with the heartache of distance. Lyrically, Karl starts things off a little pedestrian with rhymes about Starbucks and coding, but the beat is stark and haunting, which plays well into the delicate keys of "Shutter." This track shows that Ultraklystron's once again found his verbal footing with some rapid-fire braggadocio.

From there he switches gears with the Twilight-inspired "Perfect White Knight," but don't let the subject matter put you off; sure, it boasts what could be termed Karl's "default flow," but it's also a fairly astute dissection of a warped love story. "Scan Your Eyes" does it one better with an unforgettable beat, but the album doesn't hit its true lyrical stride until the wholly bizarre (and self-explanatory) "Polygonous Polygamy."

"Warmth" seemingly brings in Karl's own interpretation of the west coast funk breaks of old coupled with some clever ruminations on the pain of separation, while "Funhouse Mirror" is the audio equivalent of its titular subject matter that only disappoints when Ultraklystron is forced to stretch a syllable or goes for an easy rhyme. "Aim 4 the Top," however, sees the artist mixing his beat from a wholly different aural palette and rapping from his lower register, an unexpected combination that's sure to please.

"Distant Star" again pushes the envelope of Ultraklystron production with a harsh, glitchy hook that plays well against his sing-along chorus. "Congratulations" slows things down a bit as Karl reflects on his love... of music. It's a solid offering that scores points for clever lyricism (particularly the nod to Rai's Electric Sheep), but loses me a bit on the last verse. "On Your Six," on the other hand, is a modern love song that comes through as a real gem.

"Neverending" and "That One" show Karl's continued interest in pushing himself musically, and "Second Place" gets incredibly personal while maintaining its own unique musicality. "Sweetest" starts the album's final decent with a Tears for Fears croon and a frenetic beat – combining to make it another of Ultraklystron's best – but "The Dream Designed" sadly winds up the album-proper with a few recycled elements, both in lyrical content and melody. An interesting closer, but not an instant classic.

In true Ultraklystron style, Romance Language 2 tacks on a number of interesting bonus tracks to flesh out the release. "Feature Creep," from the special Nerdcore Rising Song Fight!, is classic Karl redefined, while the Jazzstep remix of "Sweetest" takes the track to dizzying new heights. "Perfect White Night (Goldfish Mix)," adds a little more low-end to the joint, and "The Dream Designed (Jump Up Mix)" polishes the original closer nicely.

Electric Sheep's opener, "Mayanoka TV," sees both Ultraklystron and Rai playing with the classic formula. The beat is more brassy and poppy, while the vocal stylings lean far more toward the realm of straight J-pop than skewed hip-hop. "Kakumei No Hi" brings the rap back, atop a well-layered backing that proves a great lead-in for "Mechanical World," a track that surfaced long before the album's full completion.

The vocals on "#" seem a tad flat in places, but the beat stays tight and insistent. Despite the fact that "HollowWw" recycles the beat from Rai's classic "Big Lie," it's still a stellar track, and it pairs nicely with the slightly downbeat, English-heavy "Tsundere 2x4."

"Sky Lark" wears a little thin at over 5 minutes in length, but it has a somber quality that helps to break up the album. "Goldfish," which takes a while to build, comes through as a success on all fronts, and "Sleeping Forest," another pre-album release, is smooth, sultry and funky. "Denpa-K," on the other hand, is aggressive and feels slightly rushed, especially when contrasted with well-metered follow-up "Shinjuku Holocaust."

Unlike Romance Language 2, Electric Sheep closes on a high note: the contemplative and musically mournful "Pale Cocoon." Though its effect is lessened its immediate follow-up Momento Mori Mix, which only tweaks the original's formula. "Mayanoka TV (Wubstep Mix)," however, is a far cry from the album opener, and piles on the reverb with a vengeance.

The last trio of tracks, remixes of "Goldfish," "Kakumei No Hi" and "Shinjuku Holocaust," bring in Ultraklystron himself as guest vocalist, which adds a nice additional texture to each.

I'll transition from that comment to my proper summation because of the importance of that word: texture. Ultraklystron's musical stylings have always been defined by his keen ear for texturing audio. He has a fine grasp for when to muddy up a mix and when to keep it crisp. The fact that Karl's voice itself offers the proper bedrock upon which to construct an electronic banger certainly doesn't hurt matters. Though I've always nitpicked his word choice – and Romance Language 2 is no exception to this criticism – I've likewise admired the innate quality of his voice.

The same can be said for Rai; her frantic mash of Japanese, English and girlish squeals certainly doesn't appeal to everyone, but I have long counted myself among her most fervent of fans. Both Ultraklystron's Romance Language 2 and her Electric Sheep are quite enjoyable on their own, but, as I mentioned before, they also serve as a perfectly serviceable one-two punch of nerdy musical genius.

While I'd be hard-pressed to pick my favorite of the two, I'd ultimately have to give the nod to Electric Sheep. It's Rai's first proper full-length, and thus it possesses a charm not likely to be found in any other release. Still, Romance Language 2, while not as keenly focused as its predecessor, is a must-have for the otaku set and connoisseurs of the nontraditional love song.

Thankfully, with both albums available via Bandcamp, fans and curious passers-by alike should have no problem affording both or, failing that, cherry-picking their favorite selections from each. Hell, you can sample the whole of both online and even pick up a freebie track or two, so my ultimate recommendation would be to go forth, listen and enjoy.

While neither album is pure perfection, both artists show continued growth and innovation, and both albums possess a wealth of enjoyable musical moments. And that certainly shouldn't remain unrewarded.
"I wanna be the ichiban nerdcore beat rocker."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nerd News in Brief

For readers wise enough to avoid the poison that is my Twitter feed, I will recap the events of my life over the past few weeks. It goes something like this:

Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect 2.

Mass Affect.

Wait; I mean Mass Effect 2.

So, y'know, I've been busy!

And for any current or future game designers who might stumble across this missive, let me expressly state that any game that lets you headbutt a krogan is gold. Solid gold.
  • The Hat Trick: We'll kick off this edition of Nerd News in Brief with another piece on geek chic mined from the deepest crags of the internet by our old pal Church Hates Tucker. This one's from New Zealand's Stuff and it includes talk about nerdy fashion, a reference to nerdcore and incites "geek is not nerd" bitching in the comments. All the bases are aptly covered.
  • Geek Sheik?: Church likewise dredged up this jewel, also from the land of the Kiwis. It's a puff piece on eyewear worth a cursory glance if for nothing more than the pronunciation key.
  • Only Their Hairdressers Know for Sure: On the other end of nerd culture hot button issues, Asylum takes on 4 mainstream nerd girls that might just be fronting. Oh geek chic, you are a double-edged sword!
  • OMG PWNies: My hometown homey Brooks was the first of many to point me toward this amazing piece at Boing Boing. It concerns computer scientist Christine Alvarado, and how, as a child, she was introduced to recursion by playing with her My Little Pony. For the record, her nerd cred is now and forever cemented.
  • Techdirt & Dragons: Earlier this month Mike Masnick posted an interesting piece about I Fight Dragons, the 1,000 true fans concept and middleclass musicians over at Techdirt. Though it's a bit of a moot point now with regard to IFD – and, to his credit, Mike updated the post after news of the band's signing to Atlantic surfaced – it's quite a good read, especially for the modern music maker.
  • Mazes, Monsters & Malarkey: Dungeons & Dragons, always a lightning rod for odd controversy, recently popped back into the collective consciousness when it was revealed that University of Alabama shooter Amy Bishop Anderson was "heavily involved" in the tabletop classic. Peep last week's Escapist for more info.
  • The Power of the Dark Side: As we gear up for next month's South By Southwest festival – another spectacular event that, sadly, I won't be attending – it would be wrong not to mention the event's positively geektastic film premiere: The People vs. George Lucas. This post from Sci Fi Wire is an ample intro to the project itself, and offers a look at both trailers (one of which features MC Frontalot.)
  • Radio, Radio: Church also drummed up some news of particular note to Midwestern geeks; this month SE Missouri State's student radio station launched its very own dork-centered program. "Nerd Word" airs Fridays at 2:00 PM on RAGE 103.7, and focuses on gaming, technology and pop culture.
  • Shades of Gray: Though I mentioned it was incoming a few weeks back, I neglected to announce the triumphant release of my boy Navi's new Grayscale LP. It's a free download that is as shit-hot as all that's come before from the-artist-formally-known-as-Myf. You can stay abreast of developments concerning his ongoing Beyond Grayscale mixtape when sign up for Navi's mailing list at BandCamp.
  • Fit But He Knows It: From across the pond comes word from B-Type (the former MisterB) of a pair of new projects. The first is a YouTube channel through which B will ply his nerdy rap trade, while the second is an endeavor attached to the promising moniker "Keeping Fit with B-Type."
  • Takin' it Back: With all the hubbub regarding the Goonies 25th anniversary celebration in Astoria, I thought it'd be a great time to point y'all toward Keith Doughty and Rob Dean's Goonies musical fan project. Check out the neuroticmonkey's YouTube channel to relive the childhood adventure. In verse, no less.
  • Giant Squids and Robot Armies: This, of course, can only be followed with a plug for "Super Bowl Commercials: The Musical!" featuring Jonathan Coulton and Paul & Storm. There's even a little behind-the-scenes vid, if you're into that kind of thing.
  • The Apple of Your Ear: Chiptune composers looking to put their old Apple II's to good use should take a gander at the newest product from 8 Bit Weapon. Their Digital Music Synthesizer is the only wavetable synth for the Apple //e, IIc and IIc+ computers suitable for performance use. (It doesn't require a monitor, so you've got one less piece of heavy tech to drag all the way to your gig!) The application on good ol' Apple II 5.25" disk is available for $19.95 via the 8BW store.
  • How I Roll with Control: Closing out this NNIB is a new video from otaku MC extraordinaire MAJA. It's for gamer anthem "UUDDLRL" from his classic Amalgam Project, and was directed by Johnie Lewis Tidwell Jr. Give it a look-see, and watch out for that checkout girl. She's up to something.