Show Review: Descendants of Erdrick at Emo’s – 8/17/11

Standing in the crowd midway through Descendants of Erdrick’s set last night, I was suddenly reminded of the Buzz Rickson’s MA-1 flight jacket worn by the protagonist in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. A painstaking recreation of Cold War military garb crafted by Japanese otaku designers, the jacket is a near-perfect simulacrum down to the last stitch, with the few added stylistic flourishes intended to enhance or slightly exaggerate the qualities of the original piece, rather than to provide a different take on it. This kind of analogy would probably not seem complimentary to many bands, but I think the spirit of perfection in replication is what the members of DoE strive for, and to me it is commendable because it indicates a love of the music that goes beyond fame or fortune.

I first heard the Descendants when I walked by the room they were playing in at an anime convention. I stopped in my tracks, as I was immediately struck by how unexpectedly tight their playing was for a band in that kind of situation. Drawn into the show, I found myself watching two girls and three guys who seemed to be bursting with joy and energy as they poured out their musical hearts for a smallish crowd of con-goers. I’d heard video game cover bands like the Minibosses before, but the jubilant spirit of DoE’s beat-perfect recreations immediately struck a chord with me. These people were really into this music in a charmingly guileless way. The joy they took from their meticulous recreations was readily apparent on their faces, and there wasn’t a trace of cooler-than-though posing going on. It was sort of like finding an alarmingly precise Metallica cover band playing at a small casino in Vegas, except with more smiles and kinetic energy. Memorable.

Last night, about six months after the first time, I saw them again. The crowd at Emo’s was expectedly geeky and mostly male, and I noticed more than a few attendants wearing DoE shirts, a sure sign that the band has developed a following. After a short sound check, bassist and frontman Chris Taylor greeted the crowd with a few remarks from center stage. A big bearded guy in driver’s cap and a bright orange Mario shirt, Chris seems to be the anchor of the band both personally and musically. He kept the words to a minimum though, and quickly announced that their first song would be from The Legend of Zelda. As one would predict, the crowd went wild.

Immediately, I noticed that DoE have gotten better at what they do. The physical interplay between the band members seemed more attuned, and once again they were all big smiles as they segued smoothly through the Zelda medley, not missing a note. Koji Kondo is one of the greats from the golden age of video game composing, and DoE’s rock band arrangement teases out the full power of his simple, rousing melodies. The band’s idiosyncratic inclusion of Lauren Liebowitz on flute works especially well here. When they let her take up the lead melody it soars joyously above the rest of the mix, and conjures up visions of Link’s magic ocarina.

The band followed their Zelda medley with more medleys from Mega Man 3 and Ninja Gaiden 2, and this was where the Buzz Rickson’s comparison popped into my mind. I was imagining the people who had originally written this music, composers employed at Tecmo and Capcom in the early 90s. These people received no direct credit for their compositions at the time, and probably worked insane hours for mediocre wages. Somehow, under these austere conditions, incredibly catchy and emotionally resonant music emerged. A theory I’ve heard before is that the strength of many 8-bit melodies comes from the limitations of the medium: when all you have to work with is a few simple waveforms, you have to work hard and use a lot of harmonies to make something memorable. Or maybe the kind of simplicity inherent in 8-bit musical architecture is an inherent booster for creativity. In any case, it seemed somehow amazing and culturally significant to me that this music written by obscure developers for Japanese NES games 20 years ago was being played to a packed bar in Austin Texas today. Listening to Descendants of Erdrick is proof that there’s more to the appreciation of these tunes than simple childhood nostalgia or geek love. Most bands would kill to have the inspiration necessary to create these kinds of compositions; the intro theme to Mega Man 3 alone employs bittersweet, complicated harmonies that say more in a few bars than many bands can get across in an album, and its chorus rocks in such a precise-but-pure way that one must be made of stone not to be swayed upon hearing it live in the way that DoE present it. The crystalline purity of these songs channeled by such a skilled, amped-up rock band is truly something to behold.

Segueing into their Metroid medley, the band didn’t bother to explain to the crowd what they were doing. Cheering erupted when the tune became recognizable after the first few crashing chords, as Amanda Lepre and Mike Villalobos, DoE’s twin quasars of guitar rock, began bouncing the spooky spaced-out alien melodies off each other. Lepre is an absolute firebrand; she seems to have as much physical energy as the rest of the band put together, and an exuberant rock star bearing that makes her stage presence something like a female Mick Jagger. Villalobos is no slouch either, and he and Lepre seem to be having a constant contest to see who can have the most fun onstage. This is incredibly gratifying to watch if your typical live show diet consists of listless indie bands who shuffle around and spend more time worrying about their poses than they do simply flowing with the moment. Drummer John Pike deserves a solid mention too; he has a background in metal bands and it shows in his impressive chops. The band couldn’t ask for a more voracious timekeeper, and his skills are necessary for their high-speed beat-perfect renditions of retro Japanese console rock that often wanders into metal territory.

Villalobos once told me that he constructs the band’s covers by taking waveform tracks directly from an emulator and assigning each to a band member, a method of reverse-engineered composition that guarantees maximum accuracy. When the band runs into songs with more tracks than they have members, such as some Final Fantasy music, they improvise and make the closest approximation they can. The last medley they played at Emo’s was their Final Fantasy one, starting with the deliciously rock-y Mystic Quest battle theme and working their way through FF4’s battle theme and finally the classic victory tune. One would be hard-pressed to point out what was missing in any of these. The Mystic Quest track in particular sounds like it was absolutely made to be played by a rock band, and I don’t know if any band ever represented it before with the degree of loving precision that Descendants of Erdrick do. Listening to them play this song feels right, like something that was meant to happen, and for me that makes them something more than just a geeky curiosity. Judging from the emotional reaction of the roaring crowd, I think it’s safe to say that they felt the same way.

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