MAGFest 13: Maryland, January 2015
The amount of things one can do at MAGFest is seemingly limitless; nevertheless the concerts tend to be its biggest draw. After all, what’s a music and gaming festival without a chiptune artist or band blasting us with loud videogame music?
MAGFest 13 ran from Jan. 23 – 26 this year, attracting a record-breaking 17,000+ videogame music fans from all around the globe. Since 2012, the festival has been held annually at the Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, boasting an abundance of several videogame music cover acts, chiptune artists, guest composers and more. There’s an incredibly vast amount of genres that these artists cover, spanning metal, rap, chiptune, jazz and even folk. Guest composers this year included Yuu Miyake and Yoshihito Yano (Katamari Damacy), Alexander Brandon (Deus Ex) and Jake “virt” Kaufman (Shovel Knight).
The best advice I could give to anyone attending MAGFest is to let your curiosity get the best of you. If there’s a band playing that you’ve never heard of, you’d best attend their show, lest you miss out on a pleasant surprise. Not to mention, an immediate trip to their merch booth after their set. While I couldn’t possibly attend every single concert this year, I did experience a decent chunk of them; enough to present to you several bite-sized reviews of the acts I had the chance to dance, fist-pump and bang my head to.
Triforce Quartet consists of a traditional quartet featuring two violins, a viola and cello. The group opened up Friday night’s concerts with utmost style. They paid homage to their namesake with a Zelda medley that spanned everything from the NES original to Skyward Sword, but that wasn’t all. They also played music from Sonic the Hedgehog, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and performed a stupendous Final Fantasy medley consisting of boss themes from IV, VI, VII and VIII. The sheer technical demand in playing those dramatic Uematsu pieces was enough to make my mouth drop.
It’d be a strange MAGFest without one of the kings of nerdcore hip-hop representing, and Mega Ran put on a wonderful show with accompanying artists BitForce, K-Murdock and Storyville. Together they performed tunes like “The Ruler’s Back” (“Edgar and Sabin” from Final Fantasy VI), “Splash Woman” (Mega Man 9) and an obligatory freestyle. This freestyle would turn out to be the most meaningful one he’s ever done. In an emotional highlight of the festival, Mega Ran invited his girlfriend to the stage during his freestyle, went down on one knee, and proposed to her. Kudos to the man for being able to continue the show after pulling that off.
The LA-based On Being Human label themselves as an “adventure rock” band, providing a very heavy, synth-laden sound backed by some incredible vocals. This was readily apparent in their rendition of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” from the Pokémon anime TV show, which was accompanied by several blow-up pokéballs being thrown into the crowd. The ball-throwing was a good bit of fun initially, but got old fast as I found it distracting. Nevertheless, the band pulled off a great show, playing a stand-out Goldeneye 007 medley, featuring some of composer Grant Kirkhope’s most metal-inspired tracks.
“Take DEVO, Rammstein, Dimmu Borgir, Type O Negative and a 1985 Nintendo. Mix them in a blender. Then blast them into outer space! Wow! Sounds like URIZEN.” That’s the band’s perfect summation of their sound, but it doesn’t fully describe their stage antics, which are a sight to behold. You can go into a URIZEN show and expect to see the nefarious mad scientist Dr. Fritz Von Schmekenhammer frequently appear on stage as he attempts to foil the band in a number of wacky ways. This includes hooking the band up to electrifying thinking caps, assaulting them in a mech suit, and pelting them with tennis balls in a cardboard tank. This is followed up by an encounter with a blow-up eye goo monster, which the band fends off with the help of an automatic toilet paper gun and a giant robot. All of this happens as they play some really heavy, synth-laden heavy metal. I was smiling the whole time.
Although I had constantly heard of the band at past MAGFests, I never found the time to witness Rare Candy perform live. I’m glad I finally did, because they are a very talented group notable for their use of two keyboardists. The band kicked things off with Ayako Mori’s classic BGM from Ghosts ‘n Goblins before exploring many stand-out Koji Kondo and Yasunori Mitsuda tracks. I never in my wildest dreams would have expected the words “this next one is from Xenogears” to come out of keyboardist Dominic Cerquetti‘s mouth. “Dark World” from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and “Undersea Palace” from Chrono Trigger were nice surprises that riled up show goers. The band wrapped things up with “Sub Castle BGM” from Super Mario World. This was followed by a brief rendition of “Castle & Fortress” from Yoshi’s Island, which I delightfully sashayed to in tandem with the rest of the band and the audience.
Professor Shyguy kicked off MAGFest 13’s “MAGprom,” where attendees were encouraged to dress in fancy clothing and bring their significant others to enjoy a “romantically” nerdy, tongue-in-cheek show. While I may have been decked out in a full suit and 8-bit tie for the occasion, I only had my Link-themed flask to keep me company. Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with a majority of Shyguy’s set, which featured chiptune versions of some 80s tracks like “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead or Alive, but he had a great stage presence and rightfully played up the “prom” factor of the night.
The Protomen. Do they even need an introduction? The Mega Man-inspired rock opera was granted two sets on separate days at MAGFest this year, and they delivered wholeheartedly in both. Their Friday MAGprom set was comprised of nothing but 80s covers taken primarily from their newly-released “The Cover Up” album. They kicked things off with Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” and proceeded to rock everything from Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love,” Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” and even Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Towards the end of their set, they injected me with a googolplex of nostalgia by recreating Back to the Future’s “Enchantment Under the Sea Dance,” playing “Earth Angel” followed by an energetic version of “Johnny B. Goode” sung by Turbo Lover.
The Protomen’s knack for the tongue-in-cheek was felt even at their Sunday show, which contained far more comedic elements than what I’m used to. This included a hilarious exchange that involved singer Raul Panther’s Mega Man persona “stabbing” Kilroy’s poncho-wearing Proto Man. “I just got stabbed by a goddamn keytar,” Kilroy remarked. “I’m going to go die now…happy!” To top things off, the band introduced a new track from the long-awaited “Act III,” which contained an onslaught of heavy guitar riffs.
For my first Saturday show, I was introduced to Dethlehem. The band hails from the biblical town of Ghorusalem (aka Pittsburgh, PA), bringing melodic fantasy death metal to the masses. They mix in original content with their covers of Metroid, Castlevania and Mega Man 2, all while rocking out in medieval armor. Their death metal growling and mosh-heavy audience may not be for everyone, but you can’t deny they’re an entertaining sight to behold.
LONELYROLLINGSTARS debuted at last year’s MAGFest, and kicked things up in the humor department this year. This included a background display running psychedelic visuals, sensual Scott Bakula close-ups, Too Many Cooks references and obligatory Katamari Damacy artwork. In addition to tunes from Carnivortex like Mario Kart Double Dash’s “Rainbow Road” and their Quantum Leap/Back to the Future/Dr. Who medley, the band debuted several new tracks. These included pop culture hits like the Powerpuff Girls theme and more obscure tunes like the NES’ Treasure Master, Persona 4’s “Reach Out to the Truth” and an instrumental medley of all the vocal themes from Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon.
The band unfortunately experienced a few hiccups. To the consternation of some MAGFest event staff, they accidentally went over their allotted time (not an issue for me, personally) and bassist/Chapman Stick player Norg experienced a malfunction with his instrument. This forced him to play the band’s cover of Chris Huelsbeck’s Turrican 2 on his knees. Guitarists MegaBeardo and Ailsean, in a great show of class, followed suit, crouching down next to him.
What ultimately made the show for me was their finale, where they invited Katamari Damacy co-composer Yoshihito Yano onto the stage for “Lonely Rolling Star.” Yano proceeded to play the Katamari diddy on the keyboard, threw beach balls into the crowd and helped guitarist MegaBeardo with a finger-tapping solo. In other words, it was pure joy.
While not actually brothers (only bros), the Super Guitar Bros. strummed up an incredible storm on their acoustic guitars. Their set included a delightful “Mii Channel” performance and a varied medley of Castlevania III tunes. My only gripe lay with the audience, who kept chattering throughout their set. After a few jams, they invited several VGM performers up on stage for a rendition of Yasunori Mitsuda’s “Guardia Millennial Fair” from Chrono Trigger. The invited stage guests made the festive tune complete by chiming in with a choral “HA!” at the appropriate intervals. This served as the perfect precursor to Spectrum of Mana organizer Nathan Horsfall’s big announcement: a wide-scale tribute compilation for Chrono Trigger.
While The Protomen may have pioneered the whole “Mega Man rock opera” idea, The Megas stick a little closer to the source material, crafting lyrics that directly reference the stories to classic Mega Man games while also incorporating those familiar tunes into interesting rock arrangements. The Megas decided to change it up this time around, however, surprising the crowd with covers of Yoko Shimomura’s “Guile’s Theme,” “Balrog’s Theme” and “Ken’s Theme” from Street Fighter II, and a synthy cover of “Bloody Tears” from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. I hope they continue pulling these sort of surprises at future shows.
Take Manowar and add a heavy mix of videogame and 90s cartoon show music, and you’ve essentially forged PowerGlove. The band amassed an incredible crowd of 4,800 when they played, reportedly hitting the hotel ballroom’s maximum capacity. They used this to their advantage by having the crowd assemble into shoulder-to-shoulder Russian dance lines for their energetic version of “Tetris Theme A.” They even invited a fan up to the stage to sing the Pokémon TV show’s “Gotta Catch ‘Em All.” While the fan fumbled through the song’s lyrics and frequently dropped off tempo, PowerGlove frontman Nick Avila nonetheless thanked him and demanded a round of applause from the energetic crowd. A class act, for sure.
Bit Brigade doesn’t just settle for hard rock covers of classic game music. They take things to the next degree with their pal Noah McCarthy, who does a live speedrun of a specific game onstage while the band performs the music to it, changing things up as needed. At MAGFest 13 they played through the entirety of Metroid on NES, completing it in a mind-bending 40 minutes. Given the game’s limited soundtrack, the band eventually began playing exceptionally great covers of music from other games in the series, including Metroid II: The Return of Samus and Super Metroid.
The run wasn’t without its dramatic moments; Noah ran into some issues with gaining access to out-of-reach platforms using repeated morph ball bomb jumps. The most dramatic moment was when he fell into the lava during the Mother Brain fight, which made his comeback that much more satisfying. There was also something cathartic about the band interrupting a tune to play the game’s “Item Jingle” whenever Noah nabbed a power up. This was always followed by joyous applause and rejoicing from the crowd.
Yuu Miyake may have been seen as the “Katamari Damacy sound director” to every MAG attendee, but at his late-night DJ event, he became “eutron,” dropping bass-heavy beats to hundreds of dancing fans. Miyake won the hearts of the crowd from the get-go, remixing everything from Pac-Man bleeps to Katamari favorites like “The Moon and the Prince,” “Katamari on the Rocks” and “Everlasting Love.” Eventually he asked the crowd how they would feel about remixes of his work on Ridge Racer and Tekken, which was met with a grandiose roar of approval.
Having never seen Sammus perform before, I came away feeling incredibly enlightened. Sammus hails from upstate New York, rapping to original mixes and videogame chiptunes inspired by her favorite videogame heroine, Samus Aran. Her lyrics are incredibly deep, often reflecting on her personal life as a minority. She also drops lyrical bombshells on social issues within media, including the under-representation of female superheroes and people of color in fiction.
The talented bunch of progressive metal musicians within Descendants of Erdrick played a killer show this year. Hot off the release of their new album “Advent,” (read Game Music Online’s review here) the group knocked their JRPG-laden set out of the park. This included intricate arrangements of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario RPG, Dragon Quest and ActRaiser. You have to admire their rampant enthusiasm as they perform; it’s incredibly infectious.
I almost didn’t stay for Do a Barrel Roll! until they roped me in with a sound check of Nobuo Uematsu’s “Still More Fighting” from Final Fantasy VII. They kicked off their set with Final Fantasy V’s “Ahead on our Way” and “Battle 1” and officially won me over. Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the seven-piece band adds a diverse range of instruments to your typical rock set, including synths, trumpet and electric violin. Together, they tackled a vast array of Nintendo favorites, including an Earthbound medley that I may have gotten a little emotional over, Diddy Kong Racing and naturally, Star Fox 64.
After witnessing their jazzy take on “Your Name, Please” from Earthbound’s soundtrack on YouTube, I knew I had to see Super Soul Bros. live somehow. I’m thankful MAGFest 13 gave me that opportunity. The jazz fusion extravaganza brought its groove to the festival with a number of enjoyable tunes, including a creative “Chemical Plant Zone” cover from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 filled to the brim with trade-offs from each player. During “Rainbow Road” from Mario Kart 64, the band’s manager parted the crowd to form a “soul train” where show goers were free to bust a move to the music.
Don’t mistake Danimal Cannon’s look and his exceptional guitar skills for Joe Satriani. Likenesses aside, Dan Behrens (also the frontman of Armcannon) is easily one of the most impressive guitarists in the videogame music scene. He also happens to be a great chiptune artist, utilizing a Game Boy that runs homebrew software to produce his intensely pulsating chiptunes. This year, Danimal decided to start the show off with a double dose of flair by kicking off immediately after The Protomen. The band’s hype man, Kilroy, ran from one stage across to the opposite end, leading the crowd to Danimal’s performance with an American flag in hand. It was a creative segue, to say the least.
MAGFest’s last batch of concerts was sent off by a final assault of chip-related performances. And what better man for the job than modern-day game composer/maestro Jake “virt” Kaufman? His DJ set for the night included a trifecta of Shovel Knight tracks interwoven with synth-laden solos, a humorous, quote-heavy Duke Nukem remix and a few performances by special guest Jessie Seely. The vocalist came onto the stage a few times to lend her astonishing voice to a few tracks, including Double Dragon Neon’s “City Streets 2 (Mango Tango – Neon Jungle).” Kaufman and Seely also premiered a tune from their upcoming Kickstarter project – an Oculus Rift/music hybrid entitled “NUREN.”
It’s insane to think that attending over 20 acts at MAGFest means only seeing half of all the performances. It was humanly impossible for me to witness everything. Because of this, I present you relevant links to the artists I missed out on this year. I better see you rocking out at MAGFest 2016 next year. Be sure to check out MAGFest’s Twitch channel for archived video footage of all of these shows.
Images courtesy of DamKul Photography.
Chiptunes = WIN Chipspace Kickoff Concert:
Mainstage Chiptune Showcase #1:
The Video Game DJ Battle
Mainstage Chiptune Showcase #2: Dance Party
Posted on February 20, 2015 by Patrick Kulikowski. Last modified on February 20, 2015.