The nostalgia debate is an on-going and seemingly infinite one. Music fans, philosophers, and pretty much anyone who has memories of music from a past time will always ponder over how they once listened to a certain style of music, and how music nowadays seems to be cashing in on the regurgitation of past sounds and styles. Of course, what with it being a debate, there will always be detractors who demand originality and innovation with what they hear; if given the choice between a half-arsed version of a Beatles song and an actual Beatles track, listeners are very likely to pick the latter. But there’s also people who don’t have any real problems with music that reminds them of their past in some way or another; if you want a quick fix, it certainly beats trawling through boxes of old cassette tapes. And there’s a kick to be gotten from this kind of evocative music too, in that it’s interesting to hear another person’s take on the sound of an era or phase of your life. The reason I have no problems with listening to the αlpha EP by Toronto-based Nautiluss (real name Graham Zilla) is that it simply recalls a few charming memories from my younger years, and hearing them morphed into Zilla’s own brand of warbling techno, at the very least, acts as something of a curiosity.
The memory I have in mind when listening to these four tracks won’t be that uncommon (I think) to many others out there, or at least it won’t be if you ever owned a Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis). This slab of black plastic, with its 16-Bit processor (16-Bit does not mean there are 16 actual bits that make up the console, which, I confess, I thought was the case when I was younger), was a primary source of amusement for me back in the 90s. I would spend many hours staring at a TV screen, fixated by this wondrous advance in gaming, moving the protagonist in each game from left to right through the side-scrolling chasm of possibilities, hoping to reach the boss soon (and beat him too, of course). One of my favourite games was one called Streets of Rage 2, where you took your pick of four characters to clean up the streets (again), and rescue an old friend (from an old enemy, no less). And like all great and timeless games, it had a memorable soundtrack to go with it. Or rather, to be more accurate, it had a particular sound, which Zilla has managed to condense and wiggle into his music here.
Take away the house beat at the core of “Cloud City” (or, at least, turn it down a bit), and I swear you’ve got the music to go with the Baseball Stadium level of Rage. It’s a hard sound to describe, which is likely due to how particular it feels to me, but if you imagined a David Guetta track (just for a moment – it won’t hurt that much) toned down and given a sleeker edge, then you might be halfway there. For the other track which takes me back to my simple gaming days, the descriptions (unfortunately) don’t get much better. People who have played (and remember) the game will know what I mean when I say the buzzing synth on “Spidercrawl” sounds similar to the lift to the final boss in Streets 2. For a more traditional description, try the one used before, but add words like “submerged” and “jittery.”
Zilla’s other tracks here do-– it seems-– try to move beyond recalling the days when the Sega brand still meant something: “Sabbath” sees him making a bid for a big floor filler, with its anxious grime-y bass line and careful industrial clatter, while “Mixed Numbers” uses much of the same ingredients, but goes for surface detail over a deep build. Out of the two, “Sabbath” fares a lot better and feels much more worthy of repeated listens, as it manages to fit itself into a dynamic build that hits on an eerily sleek crescendo after the three minute mark. Compared to “Spidercrawl” and “Cloud City” they feel more like an advertisement for what Zilla is actually capable of, rather than what he does when channelling a particular niche sound.
There’s nothing wrong with this technique, as it indicates that Zilla can inject a bit of fun into his music, but there’s a definite longing to hear him hunker down and set his mind to something so as to attain a sharper and more concise result. “Sabbath” is appealing, but like the other three tracks, it can feel more like a stepping stone rather than somewhere to stop and stand. There’s nothing unappealing about αlpha but it never demands your attention, nor offers any real hooks to get snagged on (other than nostalgia, perhaps). This is music that sounds better when played loudly, but never insists that you should play it so. Rather, it shuffles along in the background efficiently, which, at the very least, can help to soundtrack the rummage through your cupboards as you try to find your old Mega Drive.