Point of Departure: Kind of Bloop

Point of Departure: Kind of Bloop
Originally, Pong didn't have sound. When Allan Alcorn first designed it as an exercise for Atari founder Nolan Bushnell told him he wanted it to have realistic sound effects, including a roaring crowd and booing when a player lost a point. But Alcorn was running out of room on the circuit board and furthermore, didn't know how to even begin to generate those kind of sounds. So instead we got the now-iconic minimalist ping and pong sounds. And so does restriction lead to inspiration; the net, after all, makes the game possible.

When Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue in 1959, by way of contrast, he was looking for a way out of the straitjacket harmonies of bebop. He'd begun this work with modal compositions on Milestones and 1958 Miles (or '58 Miles as listeners in the CD age came to know it from the new cover art), but for Kind of Blue he came into the studio with nothing but sketches--scales or melody lines for the improvisers to use. The results were, of course, legendary.

And now here is Kind of Bloop, an album that re-imagines Davis' album as the soundtrack for a vintage Nintendo or Sega videogame. If that simple description doesn't already give you a clear picture, you should probably just head over to kindofbloop.com, where you can listen to samples and also buy the album.

Point of Departure: Kind of Bloop

Created by five different musicians with names that sound like end-level bosses (Ast0r, Virt, Sergeeo, Shnabubala, and Disasterpeace), Kind of Bloop has an immediate sonic and kitsch appeal. If you're a fan of jazz, electronic music, and old school video games like me, it's most likely going to rub a very specific spot in your brain. It's easy enough to imagine these 8-bit renditions of standards like "So What" being played by blocky sprite versions of Coltrane and Bill Evans in the bar in Sierra's "Police Quest" circa 1989.

But once the novelty wears off, is there something more going on here?

The short answer is no. Many of the tunes here are remarkably faithful: "So What" can even be synced up to the original recording and played side by side. It's that close. And so the thrill of improvisation is lost a bit, and even when the soloing steps out of the box, as it does on "Freddie Freeloader," it risks verging into the territory occupied by the Tenessee stage on the Sega Genesis classic "Road Rash." There's also little shot of squelch-y, blippy drums approaching the touch and feel of the real live Jimmy Cobb, especially when it comes to the cymbals. On "Freddie Freeloader," Virt opts for a wash of static in place of Cobb's lightly pinging ride and the results are harsh.

In fact, most of Kind of Bloop is a bit on the harsh side, but what do you expect from chips designed for video games? That's part of the long answer to the above question, because Kind of Bloop is, in its own way, as obsessed with tone and mood as Kind of Blue. By seeking to transmute the open-ended explorations of Davis and co. into postmodern video game soundtracks, the musicians working here are taking on limitations that force them into creative solutions and ones that are rich with humor as well as the occasional moment of genuine beauty.

For instance, it seems reasonable to assume going in that "Blue in Green" would be the track to fall hardest on its face. Pianist Bill Evans imbued it with such otherworldy tenderness that there seems to be no way to approach it in this format. But against the odds, Sergeeo makes it one of the record's highlights. The burbling sequencers in the background are shimmery and lovely, the whole thing lit with neon pinks and hot blues but still tinged with sadness. One imagines that if androids do dream of electric sheep, then this is the soundtrack for those dreams.

"All Blues" is the most adventurous reworking here and that daring also makes it the most successful. The rumbling piano chords of the original have been replaced by percolating synths, and their lines constantly break forth against the melody creating a manic counterpoint for the stately theme to battle, like Samus looking for Mother Brain's weakness. Shnabubla injects a good bit of cheek into the tune's head, running roughshod over double time rhythms and even cueing the solo with the original GameBoy power on sound at 2:13. Rather than give space for each solo, Shanbubula piles them on top of each other and the effect is more akin to the kind of group improvisation of early Kansas City jazz and Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens. The sounds clash and rise and fall in loopily avant-garde fashion.

Sure there are missteps, and plenty of abuse of the pitchbender, on Kind of Bloop, but as an exploration of a jazz masterpiece through the lens of chiptuning it's a success that merits more than just a few casual listens. At the very least, it got me to haul out Kind of Blue and listen to it with fresh ears, which not even the most recent deluxe re-issue by Columbia could do.

If you find yourself digging this kind of experimentation with chiptuning, there's a lot more available at 8bitcollective's website, and you may want to investigate the Twin Cities' own Mystery Palace, who play around with circuit bending instead of chiptuning, but nonetheless make crazy analog synth sounds.

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