MIDI MAYHEM!: sBACH's Glitchy Debut

May 16, 2012 (Updated May 16, 2012)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Nintendo-inspired and electronics-heavy tunage packed with nifty melodies, harmonics, and rhythms

Cons:Many tracks are quite similar to one another and there's little variation on basic themes

The Bottom Line: While the album nearly overstays its welcome, sBACH is a fun listen for the listener accustomed to the worlds of math or noise rock and/or familiar with NES music.

One really has to hand it to multi-instrumentalist Spencer Seim.  The man can play just about anything he gets his hands on, and he clearly knows what kind of sounds that he likes to produce, namely glitchy electronics-heavy tunes that seem to mimic the music of old NES games.  Aside from being in the art/math-rock monster that is the band Hella, Seim also plays in The Advantage, a band that takes Seim's musical interests to their logical conclusion: The Advantage plays covers of music from actual NES games.  Over the course of Hella's numerous releases, all of which unanimously feature drummer Zach Hill going absolutely bananas while Seim plays simple but rhythmically dynamic melodies on the guitar or tinkers with some keyboard or with MIDI sounds, perhaps the one disc that really stuck out was Chirpin' Hard / Church Gone Wild, a two-disc album that featured one CD a piece by each of the band's two members.  While Hill's disc was art rock at its most obnoxious and "out there," Seim's half, Chirpin' Hard, was driven mostly by MIDI instrumentations and complex rhythms, ending up probably more listenable than one might expect.

Enter sBACH, Seim's newest musical outlet, a solo effort in which he plays all the instruments as well as puts together electronics programming.  As with Chirpin' Hard, sBACH sounds as if Seim is attempting to create the best NES music that never was made.  Using primitive MIDI sounds in conjunction with guitar melodies, the occasional deep bass groove, and assault-like drumming that seems to attempt to fill every space on the disc with some sort of a drum hit, Seim's effort is much more pleasing to the ear than most of Hella's output, yet remains grounded in a particular type of sound.  There's very little variation to the general sound here, and while some tracks have a more melodic feel and others tend to regress to a more noise-oriented one, I suspect that some listeners would find the disc to be a chore to sit through.  While the individual pieces are neat and cleverly constructed, placing twelve unnamed tracks of mostly identical pieces back to back wouldn’t make for the most tolerable listening experience for some people.

Having said all that, sBACH would probably be very much appreciated by listeners already familiar with Seim's musical projects.  The discs starts off with an almost Slint-esque bit of mathy indie rock, before abruptly switching gears into a glitchy, arrhythmic piece with a gnarly, supremely heavy and deep bass line, whining electronics noise and swirling guitar lines.  Soon after, Seim's aggressive and violent drums are introduced, which basically set up the various pieces here.  As with Hella, it seems like the drum beats have been laid down first, and then instrumental parts were constructed to line up with the syncopated, crazy rhythms of the drums.  After the first track ends with a noisy coda, track two begins with  MIDI tones that seem to be ripped right out of Legend of Zelda or the like.

One of my favorite things to do while listening to Seim's music is to try to imagine the NES game and level type that the music came from, and track two with its slightly middle-eastern sounding melody lines actually kind of reminds me of the music from the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade game.  The sad thing is, I can name the damn game the music reminds me of.  Yikes.

Anyways, the disc continues with track three, that again picks up a feel similar to the mathy indie/post-rock of Slint, with a honky bass line, and ultra-clean melodic guitar parts.  Electronic strings and busy drums complete the track, with track four being one of the more groove-oriented songs on the disc.  It's combination of distortion-heavy guitar licks and MIDI melodies eventually giving way to a second section with whirring guitar noise, a triumphant sounding guitar/MIDI melody combination, with the track sounding like the ending victory music of a platform game.  The remaining tracks on the disc continues in much the same way (the aborted opening of the disc eventually finding its way into track 8, which is another more rock-like track that leaves many of the electronic effects behind), seeming to alternate between more electronics driven tracks and ones that feature guitar and bass, finally closing with a noise-oriented finale in which the tempo changes on a dime.  Throughout, the constant seems to be Seim's drumming; while not as completely bonkers as Zach Hill's, Seim definitely knows how to get around the kit, frequently showering empty bars with a quick assault of tom hits or a snare fill.

Seim's musical ability is one thing that one could never question while listening to this or any other record he's involved in; the man simply is extremely proficient at every instrument he picks up.  His guitar playing is incredibly crisp and clear, even when picking incredibly complex melodies.  His utilization of various electronic equipment, from MIDI production software (which seems to perfectly replicate the sounds produced by the Nintendo Entertainment System) or effects pedals that seem to provide just the right flavors of sound to his guitar tones, is also similarly excellent.  The main problem with Seim's music is that it all seems quite similar and doesn't really change up the basic formula, a fact which is quite noticeable on the sBACH record.  While I definitely enjoy this music and the nostalgic feeling that it instantly conjures up while listening to it, the lack of any tracks that shake up the basic sound of the album started to wear on me by the end of the disc. 

Fortunately, Seim seems to recognize this fact as well, as the album clocks in at 32 minutes, with most of its tracks existing in the two minute range.  None of the individual tracks seem to really outlast their welcome, and Seim frequently throws in radical changes to the sound at some point during the pieces.  Seim's melodies and harmonies are quite fascinating to listen to in their complexities and colors, and the consistently active drum parts create an interesting base over which the additional instrumental parts operate. 

While the overall feel of sBACH’s debut remains the same throughout, I can’t really say the album, released on the Suicide Squeeze label, was boring. It just seems like it borders on being too much of a good thing, as if the disc contains a few two many instances of the recommended serving size. Those who don’t enjoy or appreciate the more experimental, glitchy, and repetitive side of music would be wise to steer clear of this disc as well as Seim’s projects in general. I can safely say, however, that the disc would be right up the alley of those familiar with Hella, or who harken back to the days when the coolest music going were those tunes produced by the lovable yet unreliable NES system. It seems Spencer Seim’s goal in life is to try and make the best tunes the NES never did, and I have to say that he’s pretty good at it.

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