8-Bit Rally Soundtrack, poisoncut, 2011
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, if you look at the reactions to the title of retro racer 8-Bit Rally. This homage to the straightforward arcade racing action of games like the Lotus and Top Gear franchises was generally well-received. But there was some confusion in online forums. Those screenshots didn’t really suggest an 8-bit game, more something from the following generation of consoles and computers. And while it was understandable that 8-Bit Rally’s developers wanted to reference yesteryear’s racing game classics, the Lotus series really only spawned a single 8-bit title – all other Lotus and Top Gear games appeared on 16-bit platforms. On the other hand, would ‘16-Bit Rally’ have tickled gamers’ nostalgia bone remotely as much as ‘8-Bit Rally’? Nostalgic fondness isn’t really an exact science, so maybe some leeway needs to be given to marketing departments.
Listeners should keep in mind then that this is not one of the many retro exercises in NES-style chiptune. Instead, composer poisoncut’s work here makes full use of contemporary sounds and production techniques. At the same time, he subtly alludes to the music of the games that inspired 8-Bit Rally. In a way, poisoncut is in a favourable situation. The Lotus and Top Gear soundtracks never really developed an unmistakable signature sound, despite some recurring stylistic features. This means that poisoncut doesn’t need to mimic particular musical gestures and is free to work in his own style of melodic, high-octane electronic music – which is enough to maintain consistency with 8-Bit Rally’s musical inspirations. It is somewhat telling that bonus track “Cockpit View (8-Bit Rally Version)” – the album’s most consciously retro-styled cue – is also its least interesting (if still worthwhile) creation.
Most obviously, the 8-Bit Rally soundtrack differs from the Lotus and Top Gear scores in its melody-driven nature. One listen to opening track “Renegade Racer” confirms that poisoncut is much readier to hit listeners hard and fast with catchy melody hooks than Barry Leitch and Patrick Phelan were. Combine this tendency with heavier beats and 8-Bit Rally’s music is deliciously in-your-face and fuss-free. poisoncut’s melodic chops are evident throughout the album, as he serves up both memorable hooks and more long-winded melodies alike. The latter are also introduced on “Renegade Racer”, as a measured synth melody powerfully unfolds on top of pumping beats. It’s a perfectly judged combination of contrasts. Insistent, beefy beats deliver the necessary speed rush, while the determined, controlled melodies tell players that they are still in control of the frantic racing action around them, ready to capture first place.
It’s a strategy that poisoncut deploys throughout the album to predictable but always great effect. Just take second track “Midnight Diversion”. The Lotus and Top Gear franchises have always excelled at this sort of nocturnal racing music – take Lotus Turbo Challenge 2’s “Night” or “Las Vegas” from Top Gear, maybe the franchise’s defining moment. What poisoncut delivers is just as fantastic, his chrome-polished, sleek melody an irresistible stadium filler ready for 1980s chart action. His pop acumen manifests itself also in the self-assured way in which he presents his melodies. Always given enough room to breath and make their mark through repetition, they never outstay their welcome either, each track moving seamlessly onwards. It’s never a monotonous rush either, as cues rise and fall in intensity with pinpoint precision and to maximum effect.
Apart from its melodic one-two punches, what makes the 8-Bit Rally soundtrack so supremely entertaining is its variety. Without fail, poisoncut responds to each location’s character – not always in surprising terms, but always with verve and enthusiasm. It’s here that 8-Bit Rally surpasses its musical progenitors, more responsive to its locations than the Top Gear games and more developed than the short racing cues of the Lotus franchise.
“Space Drive”’s opening arpeggios hint at rather than expose a melody (unlike previous cues), preparing the track’s more ethereal nature. Once the lead melody comes in – bubbly and even a bit dreamy – “Space Drive” becomes unexpectedly and delightfully playful. Starry-eyed wispyness is of course expected from a track called “Space Drive”. However, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s all about broad brushstrokes – there’s still plenty of fine musical detail to discover. Listen to the lead melody’s echoing notes, which trigger small, unpredictable cascades of shooting stars.
The 8-Bit Rally soundtrack knows how to pace itself and so “Space Drive”’s levity segues into “Phantom of the Road”’s grimy bass beats. Fuzzy around the edges and disappearing in the haze, the track’s rhythmic foundation adds to the music’s eerie mood. A nagging synth pulse attacks an expectedly thin, lonely lead – and then, the album’s most melancholic melody turns the self-confidence of previously heard melody lines inwards, but still maintains their head-nodding, catchy progression. It’s moments like this that showcase poisoncut’s ability to manipulate moods while still keeping the overall product musically coherent.
That even applies to the moment when “Phantom of the Road” gives way to “Distant Journey”’s irresistible sugar rush. Taking a cue from 90s techno – in the best possible way – “Distant Journey” hammers home its Major-key enthusiasm with the album’s most memorable melodic idea. It’s the perfect, carefree environment to introduce 8-Bit Rally’s first chiptune elements, a joyful shout-out to classic game music. And then the music reaches for the stars as “Distant Journey” soars even higher, its euphoria exploding and rushing through the solar system at warp speed.
It’s for the end of the 8-Bit Rally soundtrack that poisoncut reserves his most creative concoction. “Miles of Funk” is a fascinating track, both retro-inspired and futuristic in its take on funk music. Opening with a down-and-dirty, strutting bounce, “Miles of Funk” heads to the party after the race with some wild, temperamental chiptune soli. At the same time, its confidently grooving rhythms and more traditional melodic material anchor it in funk’s classic, effortless cool. Not to mention that “Miles of Funk” is just as supremely danceable as the rest of the album. It’s the perfect close to an album that builds on past musical eras rather than trying to mimic them.
Purchase on Bandcamp.