Astralwerks Label Compilations

[8-Bit Operators sleeve]"8-Bit Operators" (Compilation album, 2007) !DSO Recommended!


The album sleeve carries a descriptive subtitle: "The Music of Kraftwerk - performed on vintage 8-bit video game systems" - and this does exactly what it says on the tin. When I stumbled across this, I momentarily wondered if someone was playing an elaborate joke on me, pausing to look over my shoulder half expecting a bunch of friends to be giggling and pointing in my direction. For the Kraftmeisters and 80s computer technology are two things about as synonymous with the inner workings of my quirky (or is that geeky?) brain as you can uncover. Realising this wasn't a bizarre prank at my expense, and only just managing to compose myself rapidly enough to stop drooling over the cellophane-wrapped techno porn in my hands, I couldn't have handed over my cash any quicker.

I was aware of the chip tune/8-bit movement but didn't know a great deal about it. 8-Bit Operators has now corrected that, serving up the perfect entry sampler, especially tailored for those keen on the German electronic pioneers. (The liner notes about each of the contributing artists with URLs to their respective websites are particularly useful to newbies.) Some contributions add more melodies or harmonious voices, whilst others take the vocals down to a much lower resolution than found on the originals. A high standard is maintained throughout but it is often some of the lesser-known album tracks that surprise and delight the most. So whilst (Nullsleep's) The Model is a tad disappointing, (Oliver Wittchow's) Kristallo (from the band's 1973 third album Ralf und Florian) is perhaps the most convincing conversion to 80s video game soundtrack.

The female vocals on Showroom Dummies, courtesy of Role Model, are as if Maria from Metropolis has been inspired to sing by watching too many Marlene Deitrich movies and was voice coached by Isabella Rosselini speaking English. firestARTer's superb take on Computer World retains all the antique elegance of Kraftwerk and involuntarily prompts memories of the BBC's The Computer Programme from the early 80s (which used the song as its theme music).

What strikes me most about this album (and the movement it champions) is how credible those dated sounds can be in the right context and how talented some of the musicians are. I guess I had expected most to be bedroom retro computer geeks more obsessed with their 80s circuitry than demonstrating any special talent for composition. Okay, they didn't write any of these songs but the arrangements and interpretations are as creative as you could possibly hope for. 'Gimmick' of the 8-Bit technology aside, it seems almost ironic that 8-Bit Operators is by some way the highest quality Kraftwerk covers album I've heard to date.

The whole concept behind the 8-bit music scene seems as much an intellectual and artistic challenge as it is about just making music. Here, the technical limitations of the source equipment force the musicians to apply their ingenious hardware and software expertise (and, one imagines, some potentially detailed mathematics) to mimic or even accurately reproduce Kraftwerk's famous repertoire. This is a collection of some achievement.

It takes a brave man (or two) to risk rewriting Kraftwerk's lyrics, but by the time we get to the end of the astonishing live version of The Man Machine, that closes the proceedings, by gwEm and Counter Reset, featuring a truly inspired geek rap by Counter Reset whose lyrics aspire for him and gwEm to be included in one of Channel 4's list programmes listing the Top 100 micromusic artists, wherein Jimmy Carr introduces the duo, you're left in no doubt that this movement goes beyond gimmick and fad to be a thrilling (if undeniably nerdy) musical genre in its own right. Stick this on your stereogram, watch Tron on a CRT TV and prepare to enter nirvana. Shimmering brilliance on a silver platter. 8/10

Rob Dyer (December, 2008)