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Beat Codes: new electronic music inspired by video games

Greg Sawyer explores the different ways producers are weaving their love of gaming into music and runs down 10 tracks from experimental artist Patricia Taxxon

We’ve all heard the well-worn adage that “if Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music”, and yes: it’s a well-observed one-liner, but we chuckle (or not), and move on. What’s more interesting and worthy of closer attention is how those same computer games have gone on to inspire an entire generation of innovative electronic producers, many of whom are exploring a rich and diverse sonic landscape somewhere between cutting-edge experimentation and heart-tugging nostalgia: fertile ground indeed if you’re into music that makes you both dance and well-up at the same time.

The impact of video games on electronic music is far from a new phenomenon, and once video games became a global cultural touchpoint, producers started sampling them in droves. The ubiquitous Pac-Man formed the basis for The Packman’s 1982 proto-electro cut ‘I’m The Packman (Eat Everything I Can)’, while a decade later house legends Phuture took a line of dialogue from Sega’s Altered Beast for their twisted club banger ‘Rise From Your Grave’. Now, producers’ horizons have expanded further than simply sticking a sample in a record, with entire albums — or even careers — being guided by gaming soundtracks, without necessarily operating within the boundaries of chiptune, bitpop or other hardware-led microscenes.

Sometimes these influences are more overt than others. For someone brought up on the 8-bit bleeps and clicks of games like Super Mario and Lemmings, Lorenzo Senni’s incredible 2020 album, ‘Scacco Matto’, at times sounds like a direct homage — from the glorious I-just-rescued-the-princess- from-her-reptilian-captor refrains of opener ‘Discipline Of Enthusiasm’, to the frantic Jesus-these-little-guys-are-heading-right-for-the-cliff-edge bounce of ‘Move In Silence’.

More recent (and overt) is Cody Uhler’s concept album ‘Darbo’s Island’, which he bills as “a soundtrack to the greatest video game that never existed” and is, like the very best video games, fun, slightly puzzling and relentlessly addictive.

Uhler had a clear vision, and has perhaps taken the trend to its zenith, but similar levels of devotion to gaming are rife in contemporary electronic music. The modus operandi of Kaizo Slumber — the electronic music project of Libyan-German producer Kaizo Ziad (who formerly recorded as Acetantina) — is to create a “frenetic yet ethereal atmosphere with electronic beats reminiscent of rave and video game music”. His recent EPs ‘My Friend Torimoti’ and ‘Hologram Splendor’ demonstrate just how potent a blend this can be, when handled correctly.

Elsewhere, the ridiculously prolific experimental artist Patricia Taxxon has been harnessing the frenetic energy and vivid imagery of video games for years, most notably in her latest LP ‘Yes, And’, which evokes both classic Final Fantasy soundtracks and the day-glo mayhem of the recent indie hit Fall Guys. ‘Yes, And’ is already the fourth album she’s put out in 2021, further undermining the archaic parental mantra that kids who play video games won’t end up doing anything productive with their time. You’ll find a selection of some of Taxxon’s most essential tracks below. 

 

‘Indeed, Moreover’
[Self-released]

“The opening track from her latest album ‘Yes, And’ is grimy and glitchy, with occasional bursts of neon joy.”

'Spider'
[Self-released]

“A moment of glorious, spiralling relief from one of her more challenging glitch albums, ‘New Piranesi’.” 

'Over Eager'
Self-released

 

“Essentially an intensely fucked-up version of a Fallout 4 review. Hard to listen to, but you can’t argue with the creativity.”

‘Precisely, After All’
[Self-released]

“Also from ‘Yes, And’. Perfect final credits music. You’ve committed 100+ hours, beaten the final boss, now sit back and bask in what you’ve accomplished.”

‘The Real Challenge'
[Self-released]

“This 20-minute drone track sounds like you’re stuck inside the engine room of an interstellar rocket.” 

‘Soul Waste’
[Self-released]

“Made specifically for a video game of the same name, its cinematic expansiveness immediately sucks you in.”

‘What A Wonderful World’
[Self-released]

“Louis Armstrong reimagined through the filter of a larger-than-life JRPG.” 

‘Dandelion’
[Self-released]

“A gorgeous, emotional gem from the 8-bit bonanza that is 2020’s ‘Sapphire Apts’.” 

‘Rainbow Road’
[Self-released]

“Takes its name from the Mario Kart level. Not many people can get synths to sound this happy.” 

‘Show Us What You’re Made Of’
[Self-released]

“Ravey breaks from the album ‘Pix & Bit’ — two supercharged creatures who stand for justice and having fun. Will you join them in their fight? Or let go of everything that matters?”

Want to read more about gaming in electronic music? Revisit Cherie Hu's in-deph feature on the subject here, and her column on the nw DJ video game from the makers of Guitar Hero here