Monday 23 August 2021


"I wore your favourite clothes / I said the things you'd say" — the lines in James Blake's elegaic 'Life Is Not The Same' are elegant in their simplicity, evoking the everyday remembrances that sting when someone leaves. To a metronomic beat, ticking insistently as time tends to when it means the most, Blake spins his tale of woe, centred around the chorus, the central question: "So if you loved me so much, why'd you go?" Fair logic.

With co-production from Take a Daytrip, ensuring those glitching intricacies in the beat, the crashing waves (and sharing on writing duties), Blake's voice — by turns splashed with clarity or drenched with reverb or pitch-shifted — layers on itself like a feedback loop of longing: "Life is not same when you're miles if we're miles away." As his music has shown over the years, James Blake has a knack for detail and dynamic, and 'Life Is Not The Same' is another in a long line of this minimalist-meets-massive sound.

James Blake Internet Presence ☟
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Friday 20 August 2021


"I have always been fascinated by evolution," says UK-based composer Marcus Herne, and it certainly shows. 'Forms' is a track that begins as practically nothing — whispering wind with glimmers of sound like dappled light — and evolves into something momentous.

What starts as ambient haze, this fragile, pastoral scene with shimmering synthetic birdsong (almost) gradually grows into something more complex and nuanced. A twinkle of piano here, a croon of cello there; analogue synths tumble in from the distance, falling like angular rain, a hail of colorful, textured static. Finally 'Forms' gallops into life.

It's an apt title, as each formless element entering into earshot is sculpted into something recognisable — that rainy synth, for example, rolls into a galloping frenzy of melody. It also refers to the interplay of organic and artificial sounds, something that Herne is eager to blur the lines between: "My sound lives somewhere in the expanded middle," he says.

  • 🔔 'Forms' is taken from Marcus Herne's Forms EP, which is out today. Listen to it over on Spotify.

Marcus Herne Internet Presence ☟
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Tuesday 10 August 2021


Box art for Top Gear for SNES

This interview with Barry Leitch, composer behind dozens of games including Top Gear, is the inaugural feature in our EXP series, showcasing the stories behind some of the world's most iconic and interesting video game soundtracks

Top Gear was one of the first racing games to appear on the SNES in 1992. It was also one of the best racing games for the nascent console. Fans of the game often cite its simplicity: choose a car (some are faster than others); what country you want to represent; automatic or manual; and away you go.

And, though probably true for any two-dimensional racers, the way the cars whipped and screeched around corners — while in reality they were stationary in the middle of the screen — was exhilarating. It was transportive, too, whisking young gamers to places they’d barely heard of let alone visited — Bordeaux, Hiroshima, Stockholm — with the help of neat scrolling backgrounds.

But Top Gear fans also cite its music. Combining rock sensibilities with breakneck Europop, the soundtrack featured driving rhythms (no pun intended), with pulsing drums, juddering low slung bass and leads that spun sparkling, simple melodies — as well as some famously glittering arpeggios — Top Gear sounded good. Really good.

"It was decided that I would spend the week either sleeping in the office, or on some programmer’s living room floor"

Top Gear was developed by Gremlin Graphics, a now defunct studio then based in Sheffield, U.K. The game's musical maestro was Barry Leitch. Born and raised in Strathaven, a “nice wee town… full of the usual Scottish influences” just outside Glasgow, Leitch, 51, cites video games as an early creative outlet.

“Me and some of my friends who got computers around the same time simply embraced them,” he says. “I sold my first game soundtrack when I was 15 years old, just shy of my 16th birthday. That was 35 years ago.”

Seven years later, Leitch began working on Top Gear.

Was there a brief? “Fuck no! ‘Gremlin are doing a driving game, can you go down and do the music for it’ — that was the brief,” he says, adding that he had no real idea about the tracks or locations that would be involved in the game. Levels were still being made at the time Leitch joined the team.

Far from any luxurious studio endeavour, creating the music for Top Gear sounds like a much more rock-and-roll experience for the game development world.

“Gremlin were about an hour away from where I worked in Dewsbury, too far for public transport, and I was too poor to own car,” Leitch says. “So it was arranged for me to be delivered to Gremlin, and that I would spend the week either sleeping in the office, or on some programmer’s living room floor.”

In this Sheffield base, he acquainted himself with what he had to work with. The development manual was in Japanese, but one of the programmers found a source code file for the music, which Leitch started “messing around with.”

“I put in an arpeggio for my favourite chord progression (the one in the Vegas piece), just an arpeggio going up and down to test how many octaves I had, how things sounded etc. Just making sure shit worked,” he continues.

“I found the echo command [which was] amazing!” he says. “I set it to maximum and it sounded glorious.” But there were limits to the technology at the time: the echo was using all the memory, and there would literally be no game with the echo set so high. Leitch settled with minimum. “It sounded ok…” he recalls.

"I wrote a few soundtracks for games where you have to kill everyone, but it takes a personal toll. There is no upside to shooting games: It's all just death"

Aside from the new technology in synthesising music, constraints in the number of channels that could be used at any one time led to innovation in composition. The title theme, for instance, features a lead arpeggio with a secondary arpeggio playing between the gaps; what with the short notes and additional arpeggios of the bassline, the drums and lead melodies, it feels more like five or six channels, not just four. “Electronica always sounds great on sound chips that use wavetable,” Leitch notes.

Nintendo DSP-1 chip was the most widely used of all the SNES DSPs
That glittering, echo-heavy sound, prevalent throughout the Top Gear soundtrack, was quite groundbreaking at the time. “It was the first sound chip to have a built-in DSP (Digital Signal Processing) effect like this, and I totally dug it,” Leitch notes.

After the arpeggio, he extended the melody, adding drums, bassline, and more arpeggios. “By that time it was Tuesday afternoon.” He'd arrived on Monday, and that was one track.

The sheer reality of having to spend so long not only composing music, but also programming it, meant Leitch would have been spending more than a week crashing at the Gremlin Graphics. The solution was to recycle some of his previously written music.

Leitch grabbed pieces he’d composed for Lotus Turbo Challenge 1 and 2, both for the Amiga, and essentially remixed them, taking the choppy, somewhat harsh and staccato sounds of the Amiga soundtracks into the more glimmering aesthetics of Top Gear. The Top Gear title theme, for example, is the Lotus 2 completion music but remade with new, better hardware.

“I got finished in time to go home on Friday.”

The legacy of Top Gear continues today. It could be down to the gameplay, but key to any visual or motor memory is audio. It could also be down to the genre of the game itself, which is one that Leitch can get on board with.

“I like writing music for racing games,” he says. “I like a lot of powerful and energetic music, that whole melodramatic edge to things, I love that stuff, so writing a bunch of tunes that make it sound like you could win the championship any second, or go straight into a tree at 200mph is a lot of fun.”

Shooters — less so. “I wrote some game soundtracks [for games] where you had to kill everyone, and it takes a personal toll on you, because the outcome is always the same,” he says. “[You’re] killing everyone. There is no upside to that: It’s all just death.”

Specifically, Top Gear enjoys a large fanbase across South America, in particular Brazil. Leitch puts it down to price: “When the first PlayStation was released, it must have been too expensive for these markets, and as such the SNES had an extended lifespan,” he says.

The popularity and renown of Top Gear in the region has seen the game spiritually remade in the form of Horizon Chase Turbo (2018), by Brazilian developers Aquiris Game Studios, again with Leitch on music-making duties; he’s also given talks in Brazil, at Feevale University, Novo Hamburgo, to name one venue.

Being a game that’s almost 30 years old now, memories of Top Gear for many people — whether they’re from Sao Paulo, San Francisco or Surrey — come complete with nostalgia.

“You have no idea how many times people have told me heartwarming stories about how they used to play TG with their brothers, their fathers, their sisters, their mothers while they were growing up,” Leitch says.

“Those melodies have become theirs now, and when they hear them, it instantly transports them back to that time.

“It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of that.”

EXP is an interview feature series dedicated to sharing the stories behind some of the world's most iconic and interesting video game soundtracks, and showcasing the composers who created them.

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Brazilian-developed Horizon Chase Turbo is the spiritual successor to Top Gear

  • 🔔 For a split of reworked tracks taken from both Top Gear and Horizon Chase, head over to Barry Leitch's Bandcamp.

Barry Leitch Internet Presence ☟
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Wednesday 4 August 2021


Highlighting negative with glossy, unobtrusive columns of bass, Inwards aka Kristian Shelley throws handfuls of sparkling synth into the air — clean clusters of beeps, tracts of phasing fizz — for his latest track ‘Raindrops’. Throughout, amorphous vocal samples snap like elastic, burst with watery clarity, matching the track’s title.

Though lacking its techno thump, ‘Raindrops’ recalls the freestyling antics of the synth at work in the Chao Lobby theme from Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. Perhaps it’s that carefree reminiscence, or maybe it’s the sheer cartwheeling joy involved in Shelley’s soundscape, but ‘Raindrops’ is like a sonic expression of innocence.

The warm bass envelops you, the vocal samples and synth spin like toys, the percussion hopscotches along like a clapping game, then there’s that nostalgic 8-bit element. Shelley's track inches very close to being a small portal opened on an idealised, pixel art remix of your childhood home; yet at its core yawns a bristling void of detachment, an inane world-weariness.

Inwards Internet Presence ☟

Sunday 1 August 2021


There’s a cocktail of influences at work in ‘Avalanche’ by Pictureplane (aka Travis Egedy), a track as hefty as its title suggests. But aside from the macrocosmic weight of Egedy’s music — the crunchy synths, the industrial-strength drums, the clusters of metallic breakbeats — there is the microcosm of the avalanche beyond the shattered pines: the close-up of soft snow. Here be bright synth, hushed waves of ambience.

This creative contrast is an apt soundscape for tale of love and loss spun by the lyrics, sung in a caressing, guttaral whisper. These also give an easter egg-esque hint to influences at work on Egedy: “I’ve been in the garage again / listening to dungeon synth”. Accordingly, while the bridge features crushing wobbles of distortion, there is a mythic flavour, a fantastical element, infused in the music. It’s an avalanche alright, but it may not have even happened in this dimension.

  • 🔔 'Avalanche' is the opening track from Pictureplane's latest album DOPAMINE, which is out now on 100% Electronica. You may stream or purchase it on Bandcamp, if you like.

Pictureplane Internet Presence ☟
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Taking cues from Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds — and studying under Lubomyr Melnyk — ‘Fading Spaces’ by pianist Wataru Sato is inextricably gentle. It begins with meandering touches of the keys, the spaces between poised like unformed thoughts, before a voidsome chasm opens up into the heroic ostinato at the heart of ‘Fading Spaces’.

This spiralling melody is the form to the track’s introductory formlessness, and is marvellous in its ambivalence — it reaches to optimism, but remains a hair’s breadth from it, almost descends to despair, but lifts off before it falters. There are options here, different pathways as if nothing is finite.

With an exploratory volta in the middle that sees bright variations tumble out from Sato’s fingers, a fervent flash of possibility, the piece purposefully, heavily returns to where it began, a vista of decisions ahead.

  • 🔔 ‘Fading Spaces’ is taken from Sato’s Spaces EP, out now on fledging label 1magine (part of the Disk Union family). You may purchase and/or stream it from a variety of places.

Wataru Sato Internet Presence ☟


Behind the eminently evocative title of this track, Jodövade (aka Jodie Primadonna) conjures more than the simple action of deliberate social denial. The world of ‘It’s Not Ignoring You If I Turn My Phone Off’ is expansive and glacial, the bass boom providing a gloopsome contrast to the playful mundanity of the modular synth chords and melody, padding like phantomatic footsteps throughout; the wibbling, wordless vocal chops like unheeded words of someone you wish not to heed. (Why do any of us turn our phones off, right?)

An additional clatter of beats and the angularity of those synths give Jodövade’s track an excavatory feel, the twist and turn of cavernous corridors — the sonic shoulds and coulds of life.

Jodövade Internet Presence ☟