Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Princess in Another Castle

The Descendants of Erdrick
Genuine Joe Coffeehouse, 5/22

When I listened to the But Thou Must EP, I pegged Descendants of Erdrick as a "traditionalist" video game cover band -- that is to say, one where the rock instruments follow the melodies from the original 8- and 16-bit compositions very closely. The artistry in these interpretations stemmed from the way the guitarists brought their own tone and style, and the way the quintet knit separate pieces from a given game into their own medleys.

As a live band, they go a little further afield, and that's nice to see. As they've filled out a setlist they've obviously grown more comfortable with what they sound like as a band, and they've given guitarist Mike Villalobos plenty of spotlights for his awe-inspiring technical playing. Their approach to the music from Street Fighter goes beyond the metal influence on the original Japanese game and puts a smashing western groove under it. With precisely stacked, harmonizing figures coming from flute and two guitars, they reconnect the dots between conservatory classical, modern pop, and film music that golden age video game composers drew so boldly.

I don't think we'll ever see a rock band dedicated to covering the music of video games past the early 90's. Descendants of Erdrick don't go past the Super NES era. Several factors combined to make the old style uniquely impactful on a generation of indoor children. The limited voices available on the primitive Nintendo synthesizer chip forced the composers to be very creative, and the small amount of memory on each game cartridge led to many kids hearing the same melodies for hundreds of hours, sometimes the same one for almost a whole day at a time. (Or more, if you were a really obsessive type and your parents were too occupied to make you take breaks.) People don't play games in the same way any longer, and titles come out in digital formats that allow CD-quality audio or better of proper studio-recorded orchestras. Much more money and time is invested in game soundtracks nowadays... and yet, with all of the full-motion video and spoken dialogue and headsets to chat with competitors online, no one listens quite the way we did back in the day. There's a particular sense memory associated with hearing the same droning yet ingratiating theme over and over again for weeks, sleep-deprived and doggedly performing repetitive simple tasks... like choosing "ATTACK SLIME" from a text menu.

It's a little early to begin mourning the death of classic video game music, however, as you might be able to tell from the sizable and diverse crowd out on a Saturday afternoon to see Descendants of Erdrick. An important step that many otherwise exemplary musicians skip is assuring that there's an audience for the music they want to make, and then making that audience aware of their existence. For a brand-new band, D of E have crowds full of people wearing their T-shirts, after a fashion -- lots of people at the Genuine Joe show elected to attend in their favorite NES-themed garb. The group needs to avoid making the same obvious jokes at every show -- the laughter was polite, but forced, since everyone in this crowd has heard and repeated these same one-liners hundreds of times. But as the middle school-aged kid talking animatedly to bassist Chris Taylor after the show made clear, you don't have to remember playing Super Mario Brothers in 1985 to know this music. The best game music has entered the pop culture lexicon in an inexorable way. The Legend of Zelda, Mario Brothers, and Final Fantasy series all have certain motifs that have been used in every new sequel since I was the age that kid is now.

All right, enough about game music. Since I seek mostly to cover original songwriting emerging out of Austin, what makes Descendants of Erdrick relevant to my blog's self-appointed mission? They might be very good musicians and a super cool show to see, but they're still a cover band. I'll tell you why I think they set a good example for people who really want to get their own songs heard. It's all about finding an audience! D of E may be playing others' compositions for a crowd that's interested in the material more so than the musicians, but they have made a choice of project that sets them apart from the hordes of weekend warriors mangling "Pride and Joy" and "Feelin' Alright" up and down 6th Street. The Descendants have picked a cover project that exhibits their musicianship with universally recognizable songs that still present a very high degree of difficulty. They've recognized a niche existing in Austin that they can fill -- despite being a cluster for gaming and tech industry, the Live Music Capital lacked a proper video game tribute band before now. And rather than copy the approach of bands that have done the same thing in other cities, they've used their talents to create a sound that's already won them a booking at the Classic Gaming Convention in Las Vegas this summer.

Hopefully at least a few of the pale folk they will wow in Vegas will ask after the bandmates' other projects, as I did. Guitarist Amanda Lepre, as I have before written, is a sharp songwriter who links the modal melodies of her video game influences to similar elements from folk, metal, and prog rock. And bassist Taylor, as I am just now learning, is a restless soul who gave me a list of no less than six other bands with which he is currently active. Also a blogger, Taylor plays in Lepre's band plus seemingly any other that will have him. Of most interest to me was the simple guitar-bass-and-vocal demos on his solo site, which show a smart musician and good lyricist heavily influenced by the Mountain Goats gradually developing an original style. Chris's rhythms and chord changes are instantly recognizable ones, but he knows this and adds wrinkles by writing words that undermine or contradict the emotions we associate from memory with the simple, bright music. Listen to "Robots Are Great," which sounds rather a mash-up between "Every Sperm Is Sacred" and Flight of the Conchords. "Five Songs," which namechecks MySpace gratuitously, might be a little too meta for its own good (and it's dated, too -- it needs a sequel about Soundcloud) but at least it evidences a songwriter who has dedicated real thought to the question of writing lyrics that will be of interest to anyone besides himself.

Going forward I think what I will appreciate most about Descendants of Erdrick is how they introduced me to the musical world of Taylor (who makes me feel like a slacker for only playing in two bands) and increased my appreciation for the writing of Amanda Lepre. I imagine that's what the band members hope for most -- although making a lot of scratch selling merch to rapturous engineers should help forward their individual passion projects as well. Other ambitious Austin musicians weighing the idea of starting a "money-spinning" band should observe their example. Will it demonstrate your strengths as a player and a performer? Will it attract fans who might conceivably be interested in your original music as well? Most importantly, does it fill a demand that's not already being met in this city of 10,001 bands? I need to do some more legwork, obviously, before I put together my Genesis tribute.

1 comment:

  1. Every band member has to be genius, and the music exactly matching that level, to make it in Austin. This band is that and more--the genius is that they took a one-and-only route to prove it. They are fun, exciting and nostalgic. I believe all members of this band will do well in whatever they endeavor to do.