Sam Chown’s gamified new album for Orange Milk Records captures the low-res appeal of home consoles gone by. Skye Butchard finds joy and a healthy dose of dread inside its inventive drum-led levels

If you’re five, discovering an invisible wall in a platformer could be your first existential crisis. You’re playing Spyro, marvelling at an infinite, polygonal world. There are dragons to meet and gems to collect. The game directs you to a portal, but there are sprawling mountains in the distance. You fly over to them. Bonk! Spyro dies. There’s nothing beyond that mountain. The game-world is a lie. A few years later, you’re trying to go out-of-bounds for fun, seeing how quickly you can break what’s been built. By your teens, you’re yearning for when you thought the game-world went on forever.

On DiiNO POWER ON PLASTIQ ISLAND producer and drummer Sam Chown, A.K.A. Shmu, captures this early discovery – the wonder, the falseness, and the thrill of pushing the machine too far. Electronic music inspired by video games isn’t new, and there is an occasional feeling of aesthetic retreading here. Rustie’s Glass Swords, Soshi Takeda’s Floating Mountains, Naked Flames’s Miracle In Transit and countless post-vaporwave releases use the utopian ideal of low-res gaming to their advantage. Still, Shmu brings some fresh excitement with a volatile approach. 

The album’s secret weapon is his drummer’s ear. Shmu honed a frenetic style in instrumental projects like Zorch. His diverse solo material has moved from the wild shoegaze of 2015’s Shhh!!!!, to a genreless blend that throws industrial, footwork and various flavours of electronic music into the mix. It’s an unwieldy digital hodgepodge. 2021’s The Universe is Inside My Body was his best yet, finding a clearer identity away from the kit. Now, he returns to sensory percussion with a sharper sound. 

Opener ‘Darkwave Crystalcave’ shows the strength of his drum-led approach with its wonky polyrhythms and infectious energy. The following ‘Silver Cyborg Symposium’ features a killer vocal performance from Fire-Toolz. Her guttural screams clash with the goofy expressive fills that bounce around the track. We’re only on level one of a ‘five level’ album, and each new adventure is more chaotic. Level three, for example, would be ideal for a joyride through a PS1 nightscape. The garbled loops of ‘Peachtree Joyland’ recall the maximalist trap of Hudson Mohawke, while ‘Jolly Ranchero’ is a silly freeform take on synthwave and the Vice City soundtrack. 

The album is best when there’s a groove or melody to ground us. The jumbled soundplay of ‘Slippery Babbling MoonCreek’ is impressive, but as it breaks into impulsive jamming, it’s like watching your sibling play while refusing to give you a controller. 

When showing more restraint, the album is gratifying. ‘Blood Rain Sparkle Road’ with Thor Harris, Bloodz Boi and Zac Traeger is a percussive posse cut that’s as innocent and confident as a PaRappa the Rapper song, while ‘Love Cafe by Cyberspace Racetrack’ is a touching vocoder ballad that keeps its forward momentum. 

Like its song names, the record could be irritating or transportive depending on your mood. Embracing your inner five-year-old, there’s limitless potential.

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