MAGfest 2016: National Harbor, February 2016
Processing MAGfest after the event – particularly for a first-time attendee – is not easy. I had a rather naïve plan to take notes at the end of each day so I could properly document everything as it happened, but in actuality the sheer volume of events really only gave me the option of attending yet another event or simply collapsing in the hotel room (which really isn’t an option at all). At MAGfest, there is no time for sitting and processing. That being said, the MAGfest exhaustion is the best kind, infused with both the satisfaction of having done a hundred things in a single day, and bright energy that somehow jump-starts you to do a hundred more.
The performing guest artist lineup this year included FamilyJules7x, The World is Square, Super Soul Bros., Metroid Metal, DiscoCactus, The OneUps, Chipzel, among many others. One of my favorite groups to hear live was The World is Square, who I’ve loved since I heard their album Square Love last year. The attitude or mood of the group is probably best explained with a quote from the concert, during which the lead guitarist proudly announced, “We started out as a Final Fantasy band, and in today’s setlist we only have one f****** Final Fantasy song – and you’re not even gonna recognize it!” The quote was then followed with a rendition of Final Fantasy IX‘s “Foolproof Love Letter Scheme” which, while one of the big tracks on their latest album, was quite a treat to hear live. They also played a couple tracks from Breath of Fire – before the first track, they invited former VGMO writer Patrick Kuliowski on stage to join in on a drum. I did not know the tracks myself, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the band’s (and Patrick’s) infectious enthusiasm.
A highlight concert to many retro fans was the Mega Man Zero concert. One attendee, Mai Yishan, said of the performance: “The Mega Man Zero concert was a standout moment to me because the Zero series has some really, really good music, but oddly enough it’s quite rare to find remixes [or] covers of the songs, especially when you compare them to the sheer bounty of Classic Mega Man and X series covers. I’d all but given up hope of seeing them actually performed live. To see these tunes finally get their turn to shine on stage – and done by the people who made the music themselves, no less – was really special.” In fact, the entire Inti Creates sound team showed up to perform a Lumen Super Live concert and a separate Inti Creates 20th anniversary concert attracted fans of the various series Inti has worked on over the past two decades.
Disco Cactus also had a noteworthy performance on stage that attracted a laughing audience due to the mix of off-beat humor and musical talent they bring to their concerts. Performer Doug Perry spoke with me about his experience playing with not one, but three separate bands at the festival. “Performing at MAGFest is a really special experience. This year, I performed with three groups–V-Jams, Super Smash Opera, and my own band DiscoCactus. As a musician by trade, I am very used to performing for casually disinterested audiences. The audiences at MAGFest are anything but this. The folks who come to these shows are some of the most supportive, enthusiastic people I’ve ever had the privilege to perform for. When I perform at MAGFest, I don’t experience any sort of stage fright or anxiety. The audience is so full of excitement and appreciation–it’s one of the only performance opportunities I’ve ever had where I feel like I can truly be myself on stage.“
While MAGfest has generally been supplemented by unofficial artists performing during the festival- whether in the “jam pods” lining the halls of the convention center, or in larger unused rooms, this year was the first time that “MAG Underground” came into official existence, an event that documented the setlist of artists performing in the larger rooms. In fact, MAG Underground was essentially a day-long event this year, with a list of performers and times posted on a few social media sites, inviting listeners to come and hear bands that they may have wanted to hear. Performers here included Super Guitar Bros., Steel Saurai, Gimmick!, and Bit Brigade, who also had a concert on the main stage.
Because I spent most of my time at the panels and Q&As, I was not able to see much of the Underground performances. That was remedied, however, by the fact that MAGfest streamed most of the performances on Twitch TV, and several are being archived and uploaded to their YouTube channel. Lauren the Flute, founder of the game music cover band The Returners, described her experience with MAG Underground this year:
“I think that the official MAGFest music team wanted to expand beyond what we think of as VGM, so they brought in a variety of non-VGM and non-“nerdy” music on main stage this year. For people who missed the VGM bands of previous years, the folks at the Shizz put together an all-day Saturday showcase called “MAG Underground.” I couldn’t catch all the acts, but for me, this was a great addition because I love the genre and I love the bands. The location was hard to find and not ideal in layout, but the idea made up for it.
“I caught the Super Guitar Bros, who are always a treat. There are a lot of acoustic guitar arrangements of game tracks out there, but SGB puts a unique spin that I can’t quite define. Admittedly, I’m biased because they pulled me on stage to join them for Millennial Fair from Chrono Trigger, but I hadn’t been expecting that and I really loved the performance outside of that. A chill, comfortable show put on by two excellent guitarists with laid-back stage presence and great chemistry.
“For me, Prime Legion was one of the biggest reasons why I came to MAGFest this year. CarboHydroM has been one of my favorite VGM arrangers for years, and his original game-inspired album Prime Legacy skyrocketed to the top of my 2014 list. I was beyond excited at the thought of seeing some of those tracks performed live, and CHM and his friends did not disappoint. They all had so much energy and I could not stop grinning like a maniac. I spoke to CHM about some of the arrangement work he had to do to make the tracks playable by a live band, but as someone who has listened to the original album too many times to count, I can say that any changes he made only enhanced what he’d written before. Good music, a solid performance, and lots of energy.
“The final act I caught was Gimmick! Video Game Rock Band. Once again, for the sake of full disclosure, this band is made of some of my best friends, including two of my own bandmates [from The Returners]. But Gimmick! is always a fun show. Their frontman Chris [Taylor] has a wonderful rapport with nerdy audiences, and the Shizz are his people, so there was a sort of feedback effect of energy between the band and the audience that kept ramping up throughout the night and finally culminated in the audience rushing the stage and dancing around the band members during the final track, the ultimate crowd-pleaser, Bubble Bobble. (If you don’t understand how scores of nerds could dance with frantic enthusiasm to the Bubble Bobble theme, you’ve obviously never been to a Gimmick! concert. You should remedy that. I don’t think you’ll regret it.) Gimmick! is weird, wacky, fun, technical, and as energetic as you could possibly want.”
Even missing the main events and the Underground didn’t negate opportunities to play and draw audiences. The Triforce Quartet showed up for an impromptu concert, tweeting about the concert moments before they began playing. Several people rushed out of the panel I was currently sitting in, and I had to check my phone out to see what was going on. When I finally made it out, a massive crowd gave away the location of the performance, and the quartet, with a substituted violinist, was finishing up their last piece amid wild cheers.
MAGfest moves quickly – there is no way around it. Autographs run out – the Ninja Sex Party autograph session became the largest source of complaints after the fact, as only two hundred people earned the autographs, out of a crowd of several hundreds. The speakers at the Q&As were swarmed after the panels, and those who wanted a spare moment with their favorite composer or voice actor had to rush to the stage as soon as the relevant panel ended.
One of the big highlights of the festival was the world premiere of Journey Live, which featured Austin Wintory’s acclaimed score to the small but popular game from Santa Monica Studios and thatgamecompany. After a wildly successful Kickstarter for the project which received over 1000% of the initial asking amount, Austin Wintory conducted the world premiere of the concert. The score to Journey was performed by The Fifth House Ensemble in front of a live playing of the game. The gamers had actually been selected from a panel of players the day before, who each demo’ed a section in front of the game.
While the concert was hosted in a room that generally held about 1400, Wintory would have been extremely happy with audience of about 600-700 listeners, sitting and watching the game while listening to the live performance accompany it. The concert was a straight rendition of the score, complete with some extended silences while the player rustled her way through the sands that made the impact of the first note in the following section all the more impactful. However, according to the final audience count by the MAGfest volunteers, over 2,000 people attended the concert.
The experience of the entire concert was surreal – I had not seen anything like it. The closest I have come was The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses concert, or the Lord of the Rings symphony, which are both performed to pre-made videos. In cases like those, the conductor has a clicktrack that guides their performances, so that each note takes place at the exact predetermined time in the video. Journey was different mainly because of the fact that it was a live play-through, which meant that Wintory had to be continuously monitoring the performance to see where the player was. This led to some surprises – most notably, we were joined by another player (as Journey allows for faintest of online interactions between players) from somewhere else in the world. Afterwards, one of the topic discussions I heard more than once was whether that second player knew which particular playthrough he or she had come across.
The audience itself was great- everybody sat on the floor, staring rapt at the performance. Whereas it’s not uncommon for the audience to pull out cell phones, a DS, or…well, mostly the DS, the field of listeners during this concert was mostly dark, with the occasional screen light flickering on and quickly off again. The other wonderful aspect of the audience was their cheers – when the trophy notifications popped up, when the Traveler reached certain areas, and of course at the end, the audience was not hesitant in letting out huge cheers.
Another first involved this year’s Super Smash Opera, which premiered last year but came this year with the addition of a live orchestra, conducted by Ben Wallace. The Opera featured a slew of characters from Super Smash Bros. in a comedy concert that pokes fun at the various characters in the game. Each character sang a popular opera song with new lyrics to represent their personalities. Zelda sang (quite impressively!) an altered Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” while transforming to Sheik, and Wagner made a few appearances here and there. Perhaps the most amusing moment was Star Fox’s basso continuo solo that used its Baroque origins as an excuse for its closing line: “Hearken what the fox hath spoken.”
The singers, who work with composer and sound designer Bonnie Bogovich, gave away their professional status by the quality at which they sang. The accompanying orchestra, with music arranged by Sebastian Wolff and Ben Wallace, played out their parts impressively, particularly given the fact that these performers had not even met before MAGfest, and their first rehearsal was the day before the concert. The morning of the concert, they woke up early for a final dress rehearsal, and practiced for the second – and last – time before the concert. The panel was completely packed, and I was grateful for the lyrics on the screens because the audience was laughing uproariously at so many of the lines.
Lastly, and where I spent the most of my time, the event was filled with panels for the guest composers. As our focus of the MAGfest 2016 coverage, I attended each of these panels and received interviews with each composer, as well as some of the artists present at MAGfest. Over the next few weeks, VGMO will be posting the results of our eight exclusive interviews that we received while attending the festival with composers and cover artists Alexander Brandon, Grant Henry “Stemage”, Grant Kirkhope, Manami Matsumae, Austin Wintory, the Triforce Quartet, Chipzel, and Bear McCreary. Until then, stop by our comments section and let us know about your experience at MAGfest 2016!
Posted on February 25, 2016 by Emily McMillan. Last modified on December 2, 2016.