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GURNETT: Bit Brigade offers unique nostalgia for video game fans

If you’re of a certain age and had a youth filled with Nintendo games like I did, there’s a certain something about hearing the theme music from those games again. For those who aren’t gamers, think the theme from the original Jurassic Park. If you were a kid when that movie came out, that theme can give you goosebumps. That’s how I feel about Nintendo-era chiptune music. And last Sunday, April 15th at the Evening Star, a roomful of nostalgia-seekers re-lived classic Nintendo themes thanks to Danimal Cannon’s sweet chiptune sounds and Bit Brigade’s heavy prog-rock interpretation of the music from The Legend of Zelda series.

Film House opened the evening. They play straightforward rock with a little bit of blues and garage rock thrown in. The first thing that grabs you about Film House is vocalist/guitarist Dominic Hannon’s beautiful voice. He has a huge set of pipes with great accuracy in his notes. With reverb added through the sound system, his enthusiastic, soulful voice sounded like he was preaching to a large congregation.

Hannon and second guitarist Aidan Krombach worked well together, creating alternative rock riffs that sounded like they could come off a Pearl Jam album. Drummer Drew Colosimo did a great job handling some pretty tight, quick, precise fills. A lesser drummer would have fumbled the sticks or screwed up the tempo, but Colosimo stayed on point and was the glue that held the band together. Bassist Kyle Schneider plugged away like Dee Dee Ramone, often supplying quick and steady eighth notes. Unfortunately, the low end felt a bit muddled during their set, so it was hard to hear the individual notes being played on bass above the general low bass throb generated between Schneider and Colosimo.

Film House also had some jammy, spacey sections, which can sometimes be a problem, but they never meandered so far as to lose the audience’s attention. They also threw in a few covers, including The Raconteurs “Steady As She Goes.” It was a good set highlighted by Hannon’s fantastic voice.

The Wolves of Tomorrow played second. Their music is a unique mix of 90’s alternative rock and late 70’s/early 80’s punk rock. I could definitely hear some Dead Kennedys and Dead Milkmen influences in their music. Unfortunately, their set was difficult to sit through.

Let’s start with the vocals. Having two singers is fine. Having two singers harmonize is fine. But you can’t have two singers singing the exact same note. Unless both can hit that note perfectly, they will both end up sounding wrong. Now, if you can get two singers to hit a note perfectly, you can get a little extra emphasis on it, but it’s not worth the risk and generally doesn’t work. It doesn’t really add depth to the music, just volume -- and the sound guy can add volume.

The guitars did something similar, with both guitarists playing the same riff. Again, it didn’t add any depth, it just made it easier to sound like someone was playing a wrong note or rhythm. It also made the set sound at times like it lacked in treble since two guitars were playing the same lower-register riffs. The whole reason you want a second guitar is to add depth, but this interactivity just seemed to muddy their sound.

A couple songs didn’t end as much as they seemed to randomly stopped. Tempos shifted wildly, which is either a performance issue or poor songwriting. These guys can definitely play, but I think they need to spend more time arranging their music and honing their songwriting skills.

Danimal Cannon (a.k.a. Daniel Behrens) brought his show to the stage third. He performed by himself on guitar with the aid of a laptop, a pair Gameboys and some other fun toys, creating an experience that can be best described as Joe Satriani playing while you left your Nintendo on in the corner of the room. This might not sound like a compliment, but it is. Behrens’ stage show was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard up  close.

The music, which falls under the little-know chiptune genre, sailed through many different genres, from speedy, metal-y, shred-y material (which Behrens described as Boss Music) to some lighter, more relaxing fare (described as End Credit Music). Regardless of genre, the music proved to be dancier than one would think, with a lot of bobbing heads in the crowd. As Behrens played over the chiptune sounds, you could hear little blips and bloops that brought me back to sitting on the floor in front of my Nintendo, playing games like Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda and Contra.

The composition of Behrens’ music is one of the things that makes him so impressive and kept the set from sounding repetitive or boring. He is a professional composer of video game music, having worked on at least two dozen titles, most notably 2016’s Mighty No. 9.

His guitarwork was beyond impressive. He is a virtuoso who seamlessly switches between lead and rhythm parts. Even if he didn’t have this cool chiptune sound, if he was a guy just playing a guitar by himself, he’d still be a thrill to watch play live.

Behrens interacted and had fun with the crowd between tracks. He talked about some of the different songs before playing them. Someone who has done TED Talks in the past, he clearly feels at ease onstage. My lasting memory of Danimal Cannon’s set will be Behrens wailing away, posing and rocking out with a big smile on his face.

It’s not new for artists to be their own opening act, but it is uncommon, and that is what Double Ferrari accomplishes. The band, playing fourth, features most of the members of Bit Brigade, sans The Gamer (more on that later) and with a different drummer (Ryan Houchens). Where Danimal Cannon’s set featured lots of chiptune sounds, Double Ferrari (and Bit Brigade) take the classic sound of chiptune composition and translate it into some badass progressive rock.

While Bit Brigade headlined playing the music of Zelda, Double Ferrari plays Nintendo-like music that was all original compositions. They put on an energetic stage show. Guitarists Bryant Williamson and Jace Bartlett play amazing, intricate harmonizing guitar parts while bassist Luke Fields (one of the best live bassists I’ve seen in awhile) played cool progressive bass licks between runs of blistering eighth notes. They engaged with the crowd between songs, making sure everyone was having a fun time.

In addition to their obvious chiptune influences, I could hear bits and pieces of artists from Van Halen to The Stray Cats to Hum. Drummer Ryan Houchens kept the tempo tight, made great use of a smaller drum kit and played some pretty complicated parts with crazy syncopations and off-beats.

These guys are brilliant musicians, but between 45 minutes of Danimal Cannon’s chiptune music and the ensuing Bit Brigade set, it felt like overkill. I think there’s a limit to the amount of instrumental music the common music fan can listen to before they get a little bored, and it felt like Double Ferrari fell into that rut at times.

Following the Double Ferrari set, the excitement in the crowd remained palpable, despite Bit Brigade’s 30-minute setup time. What followed was something unlike anything I’ve ever seen -- it was, quite frankly, remarkable. Had the band only played the music of The Legend of Zelda, it would have been a fun time. But do so while a speedrunner plays through the original Legend of Zelda live, is a great example of how you can use mixed media to create an original experience.

Most of what Bit Brigade played was the music from the original Legend of Zelda, but they also threw in a few tracks from other games in the series, including Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time.

While the Double Ferrari set was energetic, the guys turned it up a notch for the Bit Brigade set. The band changed songs based on the Zelda action happening on a large projection screen behind them, while speedrunner Noah McCarthy played on a small monitor in front of them. After each Triforce was collected and the band played the “Dungeon Complete” theme, they were met with applause from the crowd. The band took a backseat to the game, playing with lower lights to help highlight the action going on behind them.

For me, listening to this music I’ve known by heart my entire life, while watching someone play through the same game I played through a hundred times as a kid, was entrancing. In a way, I’d compare it to my experience reviewing Pocket Vinyl. Listening to cool music, performed by gifted musicians, while watching something interesting you wouldn’t generally see, engages the crowd in a way that’s difficult to do with only one medium. Any band can write and perform songs, but creating a truly original experience is something special.

I review a lot of concerts, but this one will stick with me. This was something special, and not just because of The Legend of Zelda speedrun. The guys in Bit Brigade are remarkable musicians, playing music that wasn’t designed to be played on the instruments they played it on. If you’re a child of the 80’s and 90’s, a fan of hard, progressive rock, or just someone looking to see something different, make a point to check out Bit Brigade the next time they come to town.

Ryan Gurnett has a B.S. in Music Industry from The College of St Rose. He has worked as a studio engineer, live sound engineer, producer and sound editor and has been a musician for 25 years. He is currently the co-host of The Struggle is Real Buffalo Music Podcast and bassist for The Lady, or the Tiger?. Email him at SirWilliamIdol@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @SirWilliamIdol.