Jay Tholen has been a pretty busy guy in 2011. In February, he released his Blood Fete EP and then followed that in August with Mud Pies or Bread and Wine?, a “loose, crusty, and fun” release inspired by Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies” that I reviewed over on Christ and Pop Culture. (And just for the record, “Secret Name,” is almost certain to appear on my year-end mix). And earlier this month, he released Vainglory, a five-song EP that features his unique, characteristic take on chiptune.
Chiptune as an aesthetic can be fun and entertaining, but to be honest, I often find it rather cheesy in practice, focused more on 8-bit nostalgia and kitsch for their own sakes, and on little else. But listening to the one-two punch of “Ancient Feast, Specially Prepared” and “The Call of Abaddon,” it’s clear that Tholen is using chiptune as a jumping off point for something deeper and more intriguing.
From a musical standpoint, the tracks are relatively somber affairs, with moody, melancholy atmospheres drifting between the Nintento-riffic bleeps, bloops, and beats — and thus turning down the kitsch factor considerably, or at least bending it into some unusual forms. Then there’s the obvious feature of Tholen’s Christianity, which comes through quite explicitly in his lyrics. “Ancient Feast, Specially Prepared” is an ode to the Crucifixion and the Lord’s Supper, as Tholen’s warbly voice sings:
The only Bread worth breaking, broken just for me
Partaking of this feast is the only way to be
“The Call of Abaddon,” on the other hand, compares worldly tempations with Godly peace, and ends with these ominous words:
Flickering hypnotic lights
Are all aglow to draw the kids away
Deep into a shallow grave
The city’s arms are stretching wide
Artfully inviting us to die
In the most delightful way
This love isn’t real
As I found with Control Me, my first exposure to his madcap take on gospel music, the key to Tholen’s music is earnestness. Yes, this is obviously “Christian” music, but it’s far cry from the propagandistic material that is often labeled as such. Tholen’s music is too oblique, rough around the edges, and “experimental” for that, and while Tholen’s lyrics are certainly full of praising and worshiping, it’s neither contrived nor forced. I find it ironic that music coming from a genre based around the sound of archaic video games, music so obviously synthetic at its heart, should be so reverent and spirit-filled. But therein lies the delight.
Vainglory is available as both a digital download and a limited-edition CD-R. The CD-R comes in handmade packaging and features a custom song with lyrics that Tholen will personalize based on the buyer’s directions.