nerd music

This time I’m here to write about other nerds’ nerd music rather than my own.

My general opinion of cover songs is: don’t.

Unless by covering the music, you’re creating something new and uniquely worth listening to — a version that can stand alone or can hold its own beside the original. Too many covers are just an uninspired rehashing, lacking both in energy and in understanding of what made the original good.

Stemage’s PRIORITY ONE: The Music of TRON definitely is justified.

Wendy Carlos’ score for the 1982 TRON was a unique composition, with lots of unusual intervals and time signatures, performed by the London Philharmonic as well as Carlos on Minmoog and the Crumar GDS digital synthesizer. The orchestra was actually an imposition by Disney because they were afraid production would take too long without it — but Carlos wasn’t happy with their performance in places and replaced them with her own recordings. The score was mostly mixed at very low levels in the actual movie, so the album is by far the best way to experience it.

And then along came Stemage, guitarist and electronic musician who’s covered and composed video game music and contributed to Steven Universe. On Priority One he turns the score into a prog rock extravaganza, with a much more expressive and dramatic performance than the original score. His version is frankly much better at feeling like storytelling, even if you don’t know the story. It’s been one of my favorite albums for a couple of years now and I swear it gets better with every listen.

Chiptune duo 8 Bit Weapon has also covered two parts of the TRON score in an EP, using a Commodore 64, NES, GameBoy, Apple II and Atari 2600. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their version is a bit more reminiscent of the 1982 arcade game — but even their retro hardware is far beyond the dual AY-3-8910 sound chips the game used. Those AYs produced only pure squarewaves with rather poor pitch quantization, or digital noise, with 3-bit amplitude control. But TRON was the first video game with stereo sound — simply by dedicated one sound chip per channel — and so it sounded pretty lush, though it only played snippets of the score. I liked it better than 8BW’s tribute though, and to me both TRON and Marble Madness — which introduced FM synthesis to arcade game music, with some fantastic composition — are memorable for their sound as much as their gameplay.