For as long as I can remember, I wanted to own an arcade machine. Any arcade machine. Bubble Bobble, Defender, F Zero AX; any arcade machine.
So when I started a company with a friend of mine who also wanted an arcade machine, it was finally time. $400 and a 400 mile round trip in a rental van later, we were the proud owners of a 1990s Virtua Fighter cabinet. It had all its innards ripped out and replaced with an Xbox running a multi emulator platform, it was huge, it was heavy and it looked terrible but most importantly, it was ours.
I’d been playing arcade games for years using emulators on consoles but when I started playing games I’d played hundreds of times before – the shoot ’em ups particularly; Salamander, Gradius, Parodius – on a big, ugly box, it was an incredibly powerful experience. The screen is inches from your face, the music and sounds resonate in the cabinet’s body to make everything sound huge, even using a stick and arcade buttons just feels like the way you should have always been playing. This experience planted the first seeds of what Encounters would become.
I’d been dabbling with synthwave and knew I wanted to create something inspired by Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross and other mecha series’ of the 80s. But in terms of the musical direction of the album, I wanted to draw from the sounds booming out of the huge wooden box in the corner of our office.
For those who don’t know, Gundam is one of the progenitors of the mecha genre of anime and manga. It started in the late 70s and continues to this day, crossing universes and timelines, telling the story of how humanity will survive in space and how compassion and love can exist and grow out in the void. The Universal Century is Gundam’s central timeline and each track on Encounters is a musical re-telling of a specific part of that timeline.
So, still with me? Shoot ’em ups, Gundam, Synthwave.
Full Burn was always intended to be the second track on Encounters. I wrote about five separate 60ish second intro tracks to precede it, all sounding more and more derivative of Tron Legacy’s “The Grid”. I scrapped them all one after the other because Full Burn sets the tone of the album right away. We hear a giant robot start up, fly off and then we’re off too!
I wanted a big bass riff that the rest of the instrumentation could move around with a chugga chugga chorus because nothing – to me – is more synthwave than a big chugga chugga chorus. The sonic pillars of this whole album are the big saw wave bass, the piano, electric guitar and anything that falls under the “bleep bloop video game noise” category, and Full Burn features all of these. The song builds to a crescendo at the end with a key change and an absolutely roasting guitar solo from a good pal of mine, Thomas Temple.
Formula is inspired by the movie Mobile Suit Gundam F91, a beautifully animated film from 1991. The track itself is slow, chugging and has an emotional slant throughout. There’s a lovely keyboard solo in the middle from my long-time collaborator, Drew Millar. Just a simple square wave out of a Korg Triton, still an absolute powerhouse of a synth. There’s a bit of funk-ish guitar at the end and a solo that’s almost too metal to even be in the track from Scottish JMetal superstar, Jamie MacKinnon.
Formula is a track where I think the synths I’ve chosen really shine. Synth1 continues to be my workhorse, a great free tool for making music of near enough any genre and a great way to teach yourself the basics of synthesis. An equally brilliant tool for people who just want to dial in a great sounding preset, its lead and percussive bass sounds are really great for synthwave, especially with a little tweaking.
Zeta was the first track I wrote for Encounters. It was featured on a YouTube channel about five years ago when Synthwave was still largely being called Outrun. Zeta is a darker song with a driving bass and hi hat patterns, lots of big 80s stabs and some more jazzy (I use jazzy very, very loosely here) piano. Interestingly, the piano / synth part towards the end uses a reprise of a melody from “Luna”, one of the unused intro tracks I mentioned earlier.
Zeta features guitar more prominently than the previous two tracks, mostly as a texture to fill out space in the mid-range. It also features the Linn LM-1 “When Doves Cry” pattern, something I put down when messing around but ultimately had to keep because I love it so much. The sounds of Linn’s LM-1 feature heavily throughout the album. For my money, the best cowbell and clap and second best rim shot sound in the business!
ZZ (pronounced Double Zeta) comes from Retro Promenade’s Class Action compilation, released way back in 2015. This is the most fun track on the album because nothing says fun quite like a big distorted slap bass. For ZZ, I took a lot of inspiration from Prince, Peter Gabriel and 80s cartoons. In particular, I remember visualising Galaxy High so strongly when writing this and I think there’s a sizable chunk of its DNA in there.
We also have a big Thriller-style outro which I overlayed with some voice acting from ZZ’s final climactic mobile suit battle. I used a lot of Korg Wavestation in this track, very 90s Genesis and a fair bit of Roland’s JD-800 which you may know as either the Eurobeat synth or Kevin’s Moore Images & Words synth. Analogue gear is great but nothing beats 90s ROM samplers for me – they’re so cheap and yet so expensive at the same time.
The next track, Encounters is made up of two pieces under the unused subtitle Encounters; Pt.1 AE / Pt.2 Axis. This isn’t prog metal though, so I’ve simply gone with the title Encounters here! Inspired by Mobile Suit Gundam Char’s Counterattack, Encounters refers to enemies encountering each other in battle, encountering each other emotionally and encountering each other within themselves (please watch Mobile Suit Gundam!) The track is through composed; I had an intro and an outro and wanted to just fill the gaps so we have a feeling of related but differentiated sections.
The intro is supposed to conjure up science, development, bad science, questionable development. A fizzy synth and harmonically different (in the context of the rest of the album) piano part set the intro apart from what’s to come. When we get into Encounters proper, we have this Rocky montage section split up with some dramatic Abba / Erasure style chord sequences. For this track I collaborated with my good friend Kyle Murray-Dickson, a seasoned pianist and composer who even writes his own music for D&D sessions!
In the spirit of it being through composed, we’d just hit record and get down some piano parts and later I’d chop them up and arrange them, and that became the eventual basic structure for the track. In the middle we have one of those “everyone has a turn” solo sections with a synth solo from me, guitar solo from Jamie MacKinnon, bit of piano from me again and a doubled up guitar / synth that just screams Castlevania. The music of the 8-bit and 16-bit Castlevania games has always been a huge influence on me musically. Near enough everything I’ve ever written has a part where you could listen, nod and say “Aye, that’s a Castlevania bit”.
Encounters makes use of some sounds from the Dracula X (SNES) soundfont. Nothing too obvious but it really adds texture to parts of this track. We move through more sections and keys towards the big climax, one of my favourite parts of the whole album. I think the outro sounds hopeful but bittersweet and I hope that when people listen to this track a few times, they feel like I do; yeah, we really got from there to here.
The Void is a breather after Encounters and before the album’s big climax. A track based around the central concept of Gundam; Newtypes. Souls connecting empathically, on a psychic level. Reaching a greater understanding of one another, humanity’s next evolutionary step after exposure to living in space. The Void is two souls reaching out across a huge distance and meeting each other and in an instant, knowing each other.
Vanguard – 0133
This album’s suite, Vanguard is made up of three tracks and draws heavily from arcade shoot ’em ups in tone, sound and energy. Its namesake is the Crossbone Vanguard featured in Mobile Suit Crossbone Gundam, which is best described as Gundam but the robots are pirates.
0133, the year Crossbone takes place, serves as an overture and – to me – represents people getting in their robots, getting suited up, the ship select screen in an arcade shoot em up, all these things at once. I love arranging for strings and 0133 is one of a few examples of parts I arranged for quartet, to supplement the synths and add an extra layer of depth and drama. This is space music after all.
Vanguard – X1
X1 is stage one of this non-existent Crossbone Gundam video game. Like Star Fox’s “Corneria”, it’s all action. A space battle, lasers, explosions, all that good stuff. The intro has a very deliberate mix of an 8-bit NES sound and a 16-bit Mega Drive bassline right into a smooth, soaring main section that cements my mental image of a huge robot gracefully zooming around space and causing absolute havoc. There are more video game sounds throughout; including a huge C64 SID arpeggio, some sampled Amiga drums, a distorted Hammond and again the strings return to bring the energy down before we go into the biggest escalation on the album.
A beam rifle blast signals the first guitar solo from Calzo Houdini, a hot 70s vibe played over the track’s original A section. Second up is a huge synth solo from Drew Millar, keep in mind Drew can play these, these aren’t programmed. Finally another red hot guitar solo from Thomas Temple, pulling out all the remaining stops before, calm. A final reprise of the piano part from the song’s middle section takes us to the end… Or does it?
Vanguard – X2
X2 is a straight out of the gate ripper. This track signals the arrival of the X2 Crossbone Gundam, great rival of the X1 piloted by the maniacal Zabine (who even has an eyepatch). The final battle is here! We build through another synth solo and a reprise of 0133 overture melody, the X1 head melody and one of the only harmony guitar riffs on the album, something that was very hard for me to reign in. Just as we build to yet another climax, they’re gone. The X1 and X2 shoot off into space together to finally see who the better pilot is and we’re left behind, floating in the void, waiting to see what happens next…
That then, is Encounters. Something I hope you’ll really enjoy. I’m incredibly thankful to anyone even reading this as this album has taken a very long time to scrape together around the rest of life’s distractions. I’ve tried to create a collection of cohesive tracks united by a theme, inspirations and a sound palette. Whether I’ve been successful or not is up to you, listener but I’m very happy it’s out there and that you’re listening to it. Hopefully you enjoy it so much you take a look at Mobile Suit Gundam, play your first Gradius game or get completely obsessed with Castlevania. That’d make me very happy.
With all that being said, it’s time to jump into your normal suit, make sure your helmet’s firmly secured and strap into cockpit of your very own Mobile Suit for some Encounters of your own. See you in the void, Newtypes~
Epoch is Barry Topping