In 2017, Jeff made it his New Year’s Resolution to discover lots of new music! In his new “Year of Music” column, Jeff gives his first impressions of bands and artists he’s never heard before.
Recently, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on Bandcamp, trying to find something that catches my eye.
Today, as I was looking through the “Jazz” section, an album with a cover reminiscent of Tintin did just that.
The album was The Black Box, by aivi & surasshu, a duo which proclaims to consist of Aivi Tran (an archaeologist) on piano, and surasshu (an ancient robot) on chiptune. Every download even comes with a short comic to explain the backstory of how the two met.
Musically, The Black Box is a love letter to video game composers, drawing clear influence from the likes of Nobuo Uematsu and Hip Tanaka. Album-openers “Nucleus” and “Shapeshifter” sounded like tracks ripped straight out of Final Fantasy and Mother. I actually had to double-check that they weren’t after hearing the third song, a cover of the Katamari Damacy track “Lonely Rolling Star”.
At the surface, The Black Box is simply an excellent collection of video-game music without the game. However, the best part of the album comes from the interplay of aivi & surasshu’s different styles. surasshu’s chiptune elements perfectly capture the essence and feel of retro and retro-inspired MIDI soundtracks, while aivi’s piano style is reminiscent of modern game composers with access to full orchestration. Despite the differences, the duo deftly combines the two styles in a way that each compliments the other. “Diamond Dove” is one of the best examples of this, with the two alternating lead and harmony parts. During surasshu’s lead parts, Aivi’s piano complement flows so organically I kept forgetting the result would be impossible to reproduce on an NES.
Similarly, follow-up track “Here’s How!”, single-handedly answers the question of why this album was grouped under “Jazz”. From the start, “Here’s How!” uses chiptune effects to create a club atmosphere, which Aivi’s piano then fills in with a foot-tapping swing tune. Without losing anything, both artists are allowed multiple solos in a unique effort that easily stands alongside the best electro-swing songs.
With The Black Box, piano-chiptune duo aivi & surasshu take two wildly different instruments with two wildly different musical styles, and merge them into a transformative experience far greater than the sum of its parts. Whether you’re a fan of video games, instrumental music, both, or neither, I highly recommend you give this archaeologist and her robot a few minutes of your time.
Interested in checking out aivi & surasshu? You can get The Black Box straight from the artists on bandcamp!