It's a difficult task, finding a link among Kraftwerk, Muse, Daft Punk, and Miles Davis. However, the burgeoning phenomenon of 8-bit "chiptunes" music has created a connection across these genre icons. Each of these artists has been paid tribute to with music that sounds like it came from '70s and '80s videogames. In these 8-bit compilations, musicians use the synthy sonic palettes found on now-archaic systems to make freshly retro tracks. Weezer was the latest act to receive this nostalgic honor through July's The 8-bit Album, a 14-song collection released for free by online label Pterodactyl Squad.
"Traditional rock band tribute records certainly have a place, but I think that their existence is less justified," says Pterodactyl Squad co-owner Ross Murdoch of the 8-bit idea. "Weezer have already played the songs as a rock band. We know what that sounds like, so why not try something a bit different?"
While Weezer is no stranger to tributes (three have been released before, including classical- and punk-themed takes), The 8-bit Album taps into a side that lovingly emphasizes the geek in the band's geek rock. Produced by Murdoch and featuring contributions from a bevy of 8-bit musicians with dissimilar styles, the project was inspired by necessity. "I was suddenly hit with the fear that it would eventually be done badly by someone else," he says. "Weezer writes amazing pop songs, and I knew that the simplicity of their melodies would sound great when reinterpreted using 8-bit sound chips."
The challenge of the 8-bit cover lies in making something listenable with a limited arsenal. "Chip music is all about working within the constraints of bygone technology," says Murdoch, whose version of "I Do" is on the album under his alias of arcadecoma. "There is something very comforting in the 8-bit sound, and I love that it hasn't been left in the past."
What makes the Weezer release distinct from similar-minded concept albums is the care Murdoch put into its development. "Open-submission compilations are regularly thrown together with haste in forums," he says. "It bothers me that they often lack quality control or any feeling of pride in presenting a polished product." He says most releases follow a similar pattern: Someone has an 8-bit idea, rushes through a deadline, cobbles artwork together, and throws the "whole unmastered mess" up on a file storage site as a .zip file. "It was only a matter of time before someone thought of sullying Weezer in this way," he says. "So I decided I had to beat them to it, and, most importantly, do it right."
With a cover image that replaces Weezer members with a Commodore 64 keyboard, a Nintendo Entertainment System, a Game Boy, and a Casio keyboard, The 8-bit Album samples broadly from the band's discography to largely positive effect. The tracks that downplay Weezer's kinetic tendencies don't work well: videogame orchestra's version of "Island in the Sun" feels woozy and tepid, while :( turns "You Gave Your Love to Me Softly" into flatly delivered angst. Yet, when this comp gets going, it's great: nordloef's rich incarnation of "Buddy Holly" is an explosion captured in fast-forward. "Why Bother" by I Fight Dragons mixes synth with a full band to craft a tune strong enough to stand outside the 8-bit box. PDF Format's twinkling "You Won't Get with Me Tonight" actually trumps the Weezer B-side it riffs off.
While there's no doubting the compilation's kitsch value (half of the fun comes from imagining what antiquated cartridge could suit each song), the inventive gusto poured into The 8-Bit Album is reason enough for even nongamers to give the experiment a listen.