Late on a Sunday night, there’s a stark contrast between the cold, deserted DC streets and the cave of 8-bit fantasy I’ve emerged from. Anamanaguchi assaulted the packed Backstage at the Black Cat with strobe lights, pixellated animation, and their unique brand of electronic power-pop.
The last time I caught Anamanaguchi (for the 8-bit Alliance Tour last summer), the room wasn’t even at half capacity. However, the band has clearly gotten some buzz lately from their work on the soundtrack for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. I found the Backstage nearly full when I arrived, which is a rarity for any Sunday night. The young, slightly geeky crowd was ready to rock out to video-game-inspired bleeps and bloops.
But first, the sole opening band, DC locals Club Scout, played an adequate set of pop-punk. I couldn’t get into the lyrical content of the songs, which seemed trapped in high-school cliches (Holden Caulfield, Joseph Heller, sleeping with your teachers). Plus, I felt like they weren’t really bringing anything new to pop-punk that wasn’t done in the 90s. That being said I liked the singer’s wavering, emo-ish delivery of the lyrics and the guitars sounded bright, catchy, and loud as hell. Their positive, fun-loving style made them a good match as an opener, despite their lack of electronics.
“Chiptune” is a relatively new genre of electronic music. In the early ’00s, a few synthesizer and sequencer cartridges for the Gameboy, like LittleSoundDJ and Nanoloop, started popping up. These programs gave complete freedom to create any possible Gameboy sound but were difficult to use, leaving only dedicated tinkerers to try their hands at writing chiptunes. Early chiptunes artists experimented in many different genres, like J-pop, post-rock, and noise. Eventually, programs like these expanded to other video game systems, and were turned into easier-to-use plug-ins for use on home computers. Now you can even get an 8-bit synth on your iPhone!
As Anamanaguchi prepared for their set, we were treated to some weird vamp music – MIDI versions of songs by Radiohead and Snoop Dogg. The band’s first live song started powerfully, but crashed somewhere in the middle as the Nintendo bleeps disappeared. After a minute or two of equipment-fixing (and shouts of “blow on the cartridge!”), they launched into another song and proceeded to assault us for the next hour with electro-noise and visual effects.
Their set consisted mostly of bright, optimistic tracks that mixed the aesthetic of 80s video games with a modern power-pop energy. Each song was a constant assault on the senses, and it really transported me, making me feel like I was in some cartoon-land. I recognized the opening theme to the game Bit.trip Runner – awesome! Slightly less nerdy – my friend recognized their cover of M83’s “Don’t Save Us From the Flames.” The only reprieve from their assault was their banter between songs. At times I was kind of annoyed with the chatty audience, but this is because I’m a jerk – clearly the band’s singer was having a great time talking to (and with) the audience, and I liked his awkward sense of humor.
Just to show off the diversity of their chiptune songwriting, they threw in a couple tracks that were more dance oriented; like the club banger “Mess” and the drum-and-bass track “Felix Nebula”. These were some of my favorite tracks of the night, as was their encore track “Mermaid”, a six-minute epic that fit perfectly as their boss-defeating, game-winning, credit-rolling theme.
I was really impressed with their set overall. They didn’t make a huge impression on me last year, but this time their energy and style was undeniable. They’ve been working hard recently, and it shows. If one band is going to lead chiptunes into the mainstream, I hope it’s these guys.