Concert Review: Red Bull Music Academy Presents 1UP: Cart Diggers Live

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If I had to choose a favorite music genre, “game music” would probably be in my top three. Something about the classic aesthetic combined with its frequent manic tempo triggers both the nostalgic and musical areas of my brain in just the perfect way that sends me to aural bliss.

So when I found out that Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) would be hosting a night of chiptune/game-inspired music here in Tokyo, I was rather excited. I was doubly excited when I discovered that Scottish DJ Rustie would be headlining the event, which was entitled 1UP: Cart Diggers Live (named after a documentary series about game music), playing a custom-made mix of music by legendary game composer Yuzo Koshiro. Not only that, but there would be a “performance” by the hologram vocaloid superstar Hatsune Miku, and Chip Tanaka, composer of Metroid, Ice Climbers and Dr. Mario, would be there! How could it possibly go wrong?

By the end of the night I was left asking myself; did anything go right?

Things were off to a bad start even before the night started, as Rustie decided to pull out of the gig entirely. Allegedly he’s been facing some health issues as of late, although that hasn’t stopped him from scheduling future gigs, so who knows what the hell his deal is. The audience was still treated to some Yuzo Koshiro tunes, but more on that in a bit.

The show did get off to a halfway decent start though, thanks to Rally, a Japanese DJ I know nothing about. He delivered a fun high-energy chiptune set, and even threw in a fun cover/sample of New Order’s “Blue Monday” about halfway through. Nothing really original that’s for sure, but it was upbeat and got the show off to a good start, a nice dance-friendly vibe.

It wouldn’t last.

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I don’t like these people.

His set was followed by promised Hatsune Miku set, which was billed as “Dub Russell & (*L_*) & Hatsune Miku.” I came there expecting at least a somewhat traditional Hatsune show, maybe not a live band, but at least a “live” performance by her. What I got was a abhorrent abomination that took the music of Hatsune Miku and put it through a grinder, almost literally.

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Just what everyone wants from a Hatsune Miku show, glitched out bullshit.

Apparently Dub Russell & (*L_*) are a glitch/dub act that specialize more in creating abrasive noise textures than anything that someone with half an ear might mistake as actual music. Instead of sampling, remixing or covering Hatsune Miku tracks, the pair instead took her music and tore it to shreds, slashing it up into an unrecognizable sludge of bass and distortion. Any vocals by Miku were limited to the occasional millisecond snippet.

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Fake fire, unfortunately.

And Miku “herself” didn’t even show up. Instead we were treated to a glitched distortion projection of her, displayed on a strange diamond-shaped screen that would occasionally rotate. It was a Hatsune Miku performance without Hatsune Miku or her music, replaced with the worst set of glitch I’ve ever had the extreme displeasure of being subjected to. Glitch is a difficult genre to pull off, most can’t do it, as these two clowns certainly demonstrated. The best glitch artists, Kid 606, Aphex Twin, Prefuse 73, they take something that sounds clean and crisp and then they break it down and distort it into a mess, but it’s a mess that is still recognizable at a core level as a song. Dub Russell and the idiot whose “name” I’m done trying to type just sounded like they were humping a sampler for 30 minutes.

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Chip!

Chip Tanaka was up next, coming out with what was easily the highlight of the night, a concise, tight and non-stop fun chiptune set that, while not drawing upon his game music material, was easily inspired by the 8-bit era, delivering everything I could have hope for from such a legendary artist. He was clearly having a blast too, jumping up and down, smiling, and just doing his best to get the crowd into it, who in turn were the more animated and visibly enjoying the music more than they did at any other point in the night.

Alas, Chip’s all-too-brief set quickly came to a close. Following him was one Fatima Al Qadiri, a fascinating Kuwait-born electronic artist who creates beautiful and ethereal experimental soundscapes. Her music is near ambient at times, often very quiet and frequently beatless.

So yeah, it was pretty much the worst music possible for a club show dedicated to game and game-inspired music.

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Her set was…weird.

I know that Al Qadiri is inspired by game music, I’ve read as much in articles about her, but I just don’t hear it. Furthermore, even if I did, her creations, while at times amazingly beautiful and downright haunting, are just not made for the club environment. Don’t me wrong, I love me some ambient, I love me some new age, I own 30 damn Tangerine Dream albums, but this is not the kind of music anyone goes to a club for. By the end of her set, which was primarily droning keyboard riffs with the occasional vocal sample, the majority of the audience had tuned out completely, either checking their phones or openly talking to one another. And as Japanese audiences are some of the most respectful and courteous in the world, you have to work to get them to not give a shit. Great music for sure, but horribly inappropriate for the event.

So, four sets into the event and we’re at 50%. The Hatsune Miku portion was an insult and the Al Qadiri set was a bore, but I was prepared to let it all go, just forget all about it and move on, because even though Rustie bailed, something called the Red Bull Music Academy Entertainment System was going to go ahead with an all Yuzo Koshiro set. Thiry-five minutes of Yuzo Koshiro music. Thiry-five minutes of Streets of Rage, Actraiser, Revenge Of Shinobi, and Ys! It would be impossible to screw that up, I thought.

Well, credit where credit is due – they found a way.

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These assholes.

Firstly, what was billed as a Yuzo Koshiro set was in actuality a Streets Of Rage set, drawing almost entirely from that series’ music. So no Shinobi, No Ys, no Actraiser, just Streets Of Rage.

Disappointing for sure, but the Streets of Rage series does have some of the best music in the history of video games, so that’s really not all that of a let down. I even own a Streets of Rage DJ mix by Yuzo Koshiro himself, so I know it can be done.

So that makes the monstrosity of a set I bore witness to even more insulting and mystifying.

It was remarkable, utterly remarkable, just how horrendous this mix was. Most of it was just based on loops, small snippets of music from Streets of Rage, that were then manipulated and stretched out to be as bass-heavy and repetitive as possible. I assume this was ostensibly done to create dance-friendly beats, but it lacked the energy or intensity for that to work. Instead of sounding like house music, or even modern-day EDM, it was just lethargic, a slog of a mix that was far too weighed down in heavy bass to ever get off the ground. I don’t know what pair of maroons were behind the Red Bull Music Academy Entertainment System, but judging from the pathetic display I saw, I can tell why they’re a nameless duo behind a brand name, and not headlining their own shows.

The Koshiro set was such an unmitigated disaster that I bailed early, skipping out on the final act. On my way out I walked past the lounge area of the club. In there was a pair of classic arcade cabinets, a famicom with a wide selection of games for people to play, and DJs spinning what sounded like honest-to-goodness game music remixes. It sounded like that’s where the real party was, I should’ve made that area my focus instead.

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The 16-bit inspired art was a rare high-point for the night.

I’m not willing to call this show a complete wash, as I did get to see the legendary Chip Tanaka perform after all, but that was pretty much the only real highlight. I’ve focused mainly on the music here, but it’s worth mentioning that every other aspect of the show was offensively bad as well. The venue, a well-known club in Tokyo by the name of Womb, was too small, and while it’s held several big name DJs before, I found its soundsystem to be muddled and, at times, far too quiet. The layout of the place is a mess also, making it nearly impossible to access the lounge area thanks to narrow, constantly crowded, hallways.

But worst of all was the feeling that the entire thing was a shameless cash grab by people who didn’t know shit about games or game music. The Streets Of Rage footage that was playing during the Koshiro used footage from a YouTube Retron 5 demo, as the in-game menus from the system would routinely pop up. The webpage hyping the event made bold-faced lies (Al Qadiri was playing Konami bootlegs? I don’t think so). And the merch booth was just hawking Warp Records stuff, including CDs from no-show Rustie, instead of focusing on the majority of the performers who did show up. It would have been nice to purchase some of Chip Tanaka’s music, or maybe even some game music releases. Seemed like a no-brainer to include that stuff, would have sold like crazy too I bet.

It should not be that hard to make a game music-centric dance show, it would just require a little bit of effort and a little bit of knowledge regarding games and their music. It’s just a shame that the people at RMBA have neither.

What a waste.

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