SuperByte 2012: Dubmood/Henry Homesweet/DeadBeatBlast/SuperPowerless/chipzel/HarleyLikesMusic/B-Type/_ensnare_/Fragile Chaos!/X Critical Strike X/Skin Walker

Antwerp Mansion, Rusholme, Manchester – 1 September 2012

"Festivals dedicated to chiptunes are few and far between. This was a rare opportunity."

I think my first real live experience of chiptune, micromusic, 8-bit music, call it whatever you will, was seeing Random supporting Komputer at the short-lived Club Robot in 2008. I was blown away and haven't stopped delving since. In retrospect, I now realise how fortunate I was it was Random I saw because as I've explored the genre in more depth since I find that Random remains one of my favourite chiptune artists. 

Festivals dedicated to chiptune are few and far between. This was a rare opportunity. As far as I know, SuperByte was the first of its kind on this scale in the UK. The two most well-known festivals internationally are probably Blip Festival (based in the USA) and EINDBAAS (in the Netherlands). Having gone from strength to strength culminating with a version of the festival in Tokyo this month, the organisers behind Blip recently announced they are shutting up shop - at least for the foreseeable future. So, even on a global level, the chance to attend an entire event dedicated to the low tech style is getting more difficult. So hearing about this one-day, UK-based micromusic festival via a friend on Facebook I took to be a clear sign from the universe that if I wanted to see some of this stuff live I should strike when the opportunity arose. A quick check of dates confirmed the 1st September was free meaning I'd booked my first trip up to Manchester for the first time in about fifteen years.

The main creative force behind SuperByte is one Adrian Thompson who also runs the MegaByte chip club night in Manchester. Tucked away in a dilapidated mansion, down a back street in the Rusholme district, a stone's throw from Manchester's famous 'curry mile' (where dinner was duly acquired), a ground-breaking micromusic festival was taking place. One of those slightly surreal situations. If you didn't know it was happening, you'd walk past without even knowing it. Doors opened at 1:30pm, first band at 2pm. Last band scheduled to finish at 11pm with aftershow party through to 1:30am. In parallel, upstairs, there was a room showing rolling game-themed movies (think Sonic The Hedgehog) a small dealers market trading all sorts, from homemade Pac-Man flapjacks to old games consoles, and a panoply of vintage game systems free to play throughout.

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It fell to local lad Skin Walker to press the 'Start' button on the first ever SuperByte festival. His set was both fat and crunchy, as well as very loud. I enjoyed his deadpan commentary between tracks. He said something about messing up one song not that most (if anyone) noticed and his last song, a cover of fellow Mancunians the Stone Roses' Sally Cinnamon went down well with the partisan crowd. Gear of choice: Game Boy, Kaos Pad, Little Sound DJ tracking software

Skin Walker setlist: Chipped, Debt, Versus, Vermin, Sally Cinnamon (cover)

Middlesborough's own Critical Strike, seemingly always branded as X Critical Strike X, showed exuberance beyond compare. His set was dominated by retro game soundtrack style music, with a sprinkling of tracks from his 2011 debut album Starfighter, this year's I Love Chiptune plus previews of new material. He'd also included a couple of covers - Star Ships by Nicki Minaj and Winter Wrap Up from the My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic animated TV show - as you do. The Minaj number was particularly choice as the gathering crowds were clearly dominated by the no-holds-barred, uninhibited ravers rather than bespectacled geeks salivating over the hardware choices. My favourite track was Glitterbug because it came across to me like Grand Theft Auto meets Frogger. Would be nice though if he touched his equipment even half as much as he danced on stage. Gear of choice: various body parts+Nintendo DS.

X Critical Strike X setlist: Pink Princess, Mass Affection, I Love Chiptune, Star Ships (Nicki Minaj cover), Glitterbug, If Hugs Were A Currency, Silver Skies, Sparkley Night Owl, Winter Wrap Up (cover), Be A Happy Moth, All Good Things Come To An End

Fragile Chaos! is the stage name of Edinburgh-based Ben Glasgow. Yep, that's not a play on words or some ill-advised PR nonsense - he is a Scotsman, whose real name is Ben Glasgow and he is from Edinburgh. This young man may have been a tad nervous (apparently he hadn't played live in ages) but to compensate he's got piles of natural gift meaning as soon as he stared his thing any inhibitions disappeared and the crowd went crazy. Mixing all the best bits of his favourite electronic genres into high-energy, 8-bit-inspired tracks, his ebbulient, inventive, unpredictable, mash-up style took the chip to a different dimension altogether. The standout rising talent of the day and a really nice bloke to boot when we got chatting later. Gear of choice: laptop, Novation Launchpad, blonde mop.

Fragile Chaos! setlist: created largely on the fly but opened with Ocean Bliss and finished with Questionable Times (Frankmusik cover).

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Photos: L-R: Skin Walker, X Critical Strike X, Fragile Chaos!, B-Type

Self proclaimed nerdcore rapper B-Type may have taken some of his inspiration from bigger scene name gwEm. Tonight he was joined on stage by an arm waving, finger-pointing SuperPowerless (who was also due later on the bill). As an exponent of rap there wasn't much he could have done to win me over. His introduction made me smile: "Hello, my name is B-Type. I used to live in space. I moved back from space because it was cold. And I moved to Sunderland because I'm an idiot". The list of rappers (chip or otherwise) that I admire is a very select few, so it is no slight against B-Type that I went away from his set not completely satisfied. Others though lapped it up - which is understandable, as his passion for perfoming live and for audience participation was very much in evidence, with the sweat of brow quickly pouring off him. He was maybe sweating too vigourously as by the last song of his set his equipment clapped out - ironic as that last track was entited Plugged Inn. Gear of choice: laptop+da mic.

B-Type setlist: Back From Space, Yey Internet/Nerdcore HipHop (MC Frontalot cover), Lavender Town, Too Many Giant Robots, Not Enough Pilots, Martha is a Metal Fan, Gargoyle, Plugged Inn

_ensnare_ (aka Leamington's Paul Taylor) delivered a rolling set of hybrid house/dance which was perhaps the least 'chippy' so far. Smiling a lot, he was obviously having fun, as were us geeks. A large, young crowd had now assembled. Their youth a bit of a surprise to a 45 year older like me who grew up in an age before a lot of the hardware being deployed here wasn't even invented. _ensnare_ is perhaps best known for his soundtrack to the award-winning indie computer game Frozen Synapse. His last track was a drum n bass number that, having just followed B-Type, and with cheers of approval still coming from the floor, proved this audience were open-minded and up for whatever genre would next be pulled out of the performance bag. Gear of choice: laptop+joystick MIDI controller.

_ensnare_ setlist: An unidentifed selection of tracks from his albums Binary Opposition and Impeccable Micro

Having 'aided' B-Type earlier, Leeds singer-songwriter Oliver Hindle/SuperPowerless now took to the stage in his own right, but was soon joined by B-Type. Perhaps to assist him. Perhaps as an act of revenge? Hindle confessed to being 'a bit drunk', so it came as no surprise that this wasn't what you'd call the 'tightest' performance of the day. His style, a mixture of rock and pop made with real and virtual synths and dusty vintage home video game systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System and Commodre 64. It was novel seeing the first guitar - a third the way into the festival - but his set didn't do much for me. Still, that shouldn't trouble him as SuperPowerless was winner of the MTV/Vodafone Fast Track competition a couple of years back. Gear of choice: guitar+Game Boy Advances.

HarleyLikesMusic is the performance name of one Harley Raine. Hailing from that well-spring of electronic music creativity - Sheffield, Harley asked the festival goers to bounce up and down and they promptly did so. Not just to be polite, but because HarleyLikesMusic's pounding beats, catchy hooks and bass-heavy electro make it somewhat difficult to do anything else. I wanted to like HLM just from reading his song titles before hearing them: Wobbletron, Thunder Shock, Bass Cake - they all promised so much! Thankfully they delivered. There were also three eclectic covers, of songs by Swedish House Mafia, Rage Against the Machine and some hip hop fella called Kid Cudi. By now the festival felt like it was really getting into its stride and HLM had drawn the biggest crowd of the day so far. Very enjoyable. Gear of choice: Nintendo DS+red baseball cap.

HarleyLikesMusic setlist: Radio, Day and Night (Kid Cudi cover), Wobbletron, Thunder Shock, Bass Cake, Enderman, Bounce Back, One (Swedish House Mafia cover), Migraine, Scream, Killing in the Name (Rage Against the Machine cover)

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Photos: L-R: _ensnare_, SuperPowerless, HarleyLikesMusic, chipzel

Today being the first opportunity I'd had to mingle with fellow chip enthusiasts in public, I kinda assumed that most micromusic fans would be those old enough to recall the heydays when owning an 8-bit home computer was the holy grail for cash-strapped schoolboys (and the odd girl). Encouragingly, it seems you just substitute the Ataris (my hardware of choice), Commodores, and Sinclairs with Game Boys and DS's and the like, and the next generation are just as enamoured with totally rethinking their capabilities and purpose. SuperByte was proving to be both entertainment and education.

If HarleyLikesMusic got us into fifth gear, then chipzel took us into overdrive. chipzel is the alias of Niamh Houston, the festival's only female solo chip-musician, from Strabane in Northern Ireland, who indulges in the use of Game Boys to create energetic, melodic dance tracks.  It's not surprising that she has performed at the legendary Blip Festival in New York (among many others). Picking up where HarveyLikesMusic left off, chipzel was an irrepressible mad bouncy thing around the stage and her unfettered passion, skip dancing and air punching rapidly spilled over into the audience ensuring she received a raptuous response. Doing a bonkers remix of Lady Gaga's Just Dance was especially nice. Gear of choice: Game Boy+denim shorts.

chipzel setlist: To The Sky, Something Beautiful, Venice, OtisJust Dance Remix, Engage, Veteran, Can't Stop Us, Super Boy of Little Powers

DeadBeatBlast's cut-up style was the most glitchy set yet. His hard tunes are serious stuff - there was nothing fluffy about this. Whilst he clearly had fans in the audience, there were some who still had some catching up to do. Chants of "USA!, USA!" in one of the song breaks were met with a "I'm from Canada - asshole" from the stage. Toronto's DeadBeat Jake describes his style a manic blend of chiptune/D&B/industrial. Gear of choice: multiple Game Boys.

Henry Homesweet's approach was more DJ than live performer and his relentless set of full-on dance tunes took no prisoners. Home for our Henry is Norwich - the heart of sleepy Norfolk on the east coast of England. But there was nothing sedate about his set. His mission is to utilise archaic technology to capture the raw waveforms of the 80's in a bid to resurface creativity through limitation. An admirable objecive and a principle that lies at the heart of many a standout chiptune in my view. He has performed at parties worldwide with his eclectic live sets, replacing DJ decks with Nintendo Game Boy's, delivering lo-fi synchronized techno and electro fresh from the chips. Gear of choice: Game Boy+drum machine

Up to this point the festival could perhaps be best summed up in one word as 'fun'. From the moment Dubmood stepped on stage this was 'art'. The stylish France-based outfit won the cool-looking band race hands down. Then again, they were the only 'band' of the entire festival. Sporting a hyper-hip look of long haired dude with laptop, full drum kit and petite female vocalist wearing a vest top, leather flying helmet and huge goggles, looking like they might have stepped off the pages of a Mœbius comic book. Said laptop dude is actually a Swedish chip music producer and remixer (via Data Airlines) with roots in the pre-internet software piracy scene who has relocated to Marseilles. Active since 1996, Dubmood is justifiably considered a style-originator.

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Photos: L-R: DeadBeatBlast, Henry Homesweet, Dubmood, Dubmood

Since 2011, to cope with the new sound of his Badlands EP trilogy, Dubmood has expanded the line-up and is now performing live together with Maskinoperatör (drums) and Gem Tos (guitar/vocals). Dubmood's music can be described as a dance floor-friendly fusion of 80s computer game music, IDM, Electro House with a lot of indie-rock references. As I was already a little familiar with their sound I figured this shouldn't be style over substance. It wasn't. They deserved top-billing. Drummer Maskinoperatör was so exhausted he had to sit out part of the encore in order to gather his breath and some measure of strength back in his arms to return for the final song. A thrillingly original combination of styles resulting in a quality end to the proceedings. Gear of choice: laptop, drums, guitar, leather flying helmet, goggles.

Dubmood setlist: Badlands 2, Sollitude, Monologue, Rez Cracktro 4, Io Stesso, Grazie, Silent Shout (Dubmood Remix), Mi Anderoid, Zabutoms Space Journey, Haschkaka, Traverse de RN85, Petite Planete, Sei Vecchi, The Courier, YM2149, Toffelskater, Ma Version

As a first festival the organisers deserve every praise. The line-up was broad, attracting some established oversees names whilst at the same time serving up the ideal exposure platform to homegrown talent (through a mixture of established names and newcomers) from various corners of the UK. Great to see this music bringing together such a diverse crowd too.

Politely, the venue was at least in keeping with much of the sub-culture that goes with this scene. Meaning grungy and shabby, in a skate kid kinda way, was perfectly acceptable to most. Though I did actually put my foot through a hole in the floor on the first floor which was a bit alarming. The only real drawback of the extensive programme was that there were perhaps just too many bands crammed into the schedule - eleven acts in just nine hours. With only fifteen minutes between acts and no catering on-site, nipping out for sustenance and not missing anything was impossible. If it is possible for the organisers to over-deliver then these guys did it here. A nice problem to have I guess. There are already plans for SuperByte 2013 extended into a two-day event (so that in itself may solve the 'crammed' issue). With this inaugural event an absolute success it's hard not to conclude a bigger and even better sequel is more than deserved and achievable.

This was billed as Manchester's Micromusic Festival. That's way too modest. This was big enough and good enough for SuperByte to justifiably be called the UK's Micromusic Festival, comfortably earning its place alongside its established international counterparts. 7/10

Rob Dyer

Live footage on the dsoaudio YouTube channel