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I Fight Dragons – A Lot

By Graham Rae.

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I Fight Dragons, Cool is Just a Number (EP),  2009

Unless you live under a rock or belong to some sort of Luddite religious cult that frowns upon the evil electronic entertainments of the sinful modern world, the chances are that if you grew up in the West over the last 30 years, and more specifically are male, you will have grown up playing videogames at some point of some stripe. You will have marveled as console gave way to console, Atari to NES to PlayStation to X-Box and beyond, and large chunks of your youth may well have been lost to Sonic the Hedgehog or Dragon’s Lair or Rolling Thunder or a million other games I could name; it all depends on personal taste – shoot-em-up, beat-em-up, platform game, logic puzzle, etc – and system(s) played upon and preferred.

As any videogame addict could tell you (and I’ve lost teeth-gritting bits of my own life here and there battling to get to the next level or end of some game or other, trust me), the tunes from the games that you play can subtly, invisibly – and indelibly – brand themselves into your brain through weary repeat wear and tear. I haven’t played anything much videogame-wise for a few years, but years ago I was unemployed in Edinburgh for a year. All I did was play Die Hard Trilogy (“Ho ho ho! I’ve got a machine gun!”) and Mickey’s Wild Adventures (a Mickey Mouse game – platform games and shoot-em-ups were always my thing) on the Playstation, often playing punk or rap music – Screeching Weasel and Dead Kennedys and D12 and Eminem and dozens of others – over the top of it to complement the gameplay.

By the time I left Scotland’s glacial impenetrable capital city I was practically speaking in rhyme, never wanted to see the Disney mouse again in my fucking life, and I was seeing John McClane blow away bad guys in my dreams; the played again-and-again-and-again visuals literally stole into my head and affected the displays there when I closed my eyes. Crazy shit. There are certain bits of the games I played I’m sure I could still time to the more-or-less-exact moment from the start of the album I would put on until I reached a certain point over and over trying to get past it. One D12 song – American Psycho from the Devil’s Night album – I can still picture in my mind going along to a haunted house part of Mickey’s Wild Adventures, because it has a creepy haunted sound and was the perfect tune to complement the visuals.

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Anyway. Given the obvious crossover possibilities in videogame music and music as played by live musicians in general, it would seem a no-brainer proposition position that the two forms would eventually meet and mate and mingle in some feverish brain and some new sort of mutant hybrid sound would be born of guitars and the noise of exploding Scandinavian terrorist heads. It’s actually such a simple idea you wonder why nobody has ever done it. Well, they have now, which is where I Fight Dragons (a name I don’t care for at all, personally, but that’s the only negative thing you will read about the band in this review) come in. I came across this future sound ear-beat-em-up comic book combo quite by chance when Laura, their backing vocalist, served a friend Elwyn and I in a Chicago bar. We somehow got to talking about music, she mentioned she was in a band who did stuff that had a videogame theme and were catching attention…it caught my attention…I went to their website…and was completely and utterly blown away.

Now. Just as videogame stuff like Die Hard and Pitfall has been used by me in the past for safe repeated recreational abuse, it’s quite clear that, for I Fight Dragons, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short) has been the videogame drug of choice in the past, so much so that the console’s sounds have bled through into the vulnerable brain of whoever writes the band’s songs and made them replicate the beeps and boops and blurps made as their plucky character progresses through the depths of whatever games they play…only laced through emo-cum-pop-punk sounds to create a stunning and innovative and beautiful and unprecedented sonic buffet to graze lazily on at your leisure and treasure the videogame and rock music pleasure amusingly fused at the hip and ear and young heart to entertain and make you think about the way sounds are blowing and going these daze.

It’s like this. IFD will use a NES beeping background sound as a backbreakbeat basis for their song (could see this being HUGE in Japan) then throw some fresh happy guitar and excellent vocals and harmonizing (male lead singer has a great voice) over it…and it’s just absolutely fucking great, to be blunt. What else can I say? It may sound like some sort of cheesy gimmick, but it’s absolutely not. You don’t believe me? Check out spunky poignant happy songs like The Faster The Treadmill or Heads Up, Hearts Down on YouTube (where they have their own fan videos made for them – as my wife Ellen astutely noted, in the future bands won’t have to make videos cos their fans will make them for them) and tell me I’m wrong.

But I’m not.

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This band has only been together for six months, and I’m literally amazed by just how damned really fucking good they are. There’s a vid on YouTube of them covering the cheesy old late 80s Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up” (which has special resonance for my wife, as she met the manufactured-pop sex dwarf when she studied in London in the late 80s) where they do a break and, after some fun slapbass jamming and various stupidity, they do a bit with the music from Super Mario Bros. (one of my own all-time fave videogames, and one I used to pour money into in the Treasure Island arcade in Falkirk in Scotland in the 80s) note-perfect…then build guitars…and it’s just the greatest fucking thing ever (putting it non-hyperbolically). I showed it to my wife and, bouncing on my haunches next to her as she sat in the chair in front of the Mac, I just excitedly ejaculated: “That’s ORGASM music!” And I wasn’t kidding. It’s gorgeous stuff altogether.

And that’s the thing about IFD. They are a mix of contemporary and retro, and as such provoke and invoke an interesting mix of sounds and emotions in the listener. And indeed in the musicians playing the stuff. They all look to be in their early 20s, and the NES was released in 1985, before they were probably born, so they’re being oddly nostalgic for their own childhoods, but putting a new twist on it and selling it to a modern audience. For a person like me, in their late 30s, the Super Mario Bros. music, and that NES sound in general, holds specific youthful memories, and the feelings it brings to the fore can be quite overwhelming. I shamefacedly confess that The Faster The Treadmill has made me cry, buried forgotten teenage game-sounds booty brought back to the adult surface shined up and glinting like a new best sonic buzz smilingly offered, with innocent and somewhat naïve lyrical concerns that will be tempered by life and experience and pain and pleasure, and it’s sad and beautiful to contemplate the whole thing. This band makes me feel the sound-released-endorphin fuck-rushes collecting in my cheeks and chin and joy-bursting head and heart, and how can you fault that? As for Heads Up, Hearts Down, the interplay of the guitars and NES-sounds-in-love in it made me think of the beautiful scene in the great Pixar flick WALL-E where he and his longed-for robot girlfriend are flying through space using a fire extinguisher for a booster for their escape trajectory lovedance. Make of that what you will.

Having said that. IFD are geeks with a capital GEEK. They wear superhero apparel on stage, and it’s clear that their videogame-fanboy image is no mere flirtation with elektrokool. They use NES accessories like the power pad, power glove and NES zapper on their E.P. and in their performances, and if you’re not a hardcore geek (who are mostly male) it can seem a bit toe-curlingly cheesy and embarrassing, revenge of the nerds writ rock and roll and large and in charge. The whole geek vibe does nothing for me personally (too old for that shit, you could cynically say, but even as a youngstar I was never that much into all that computer buff stuff), and it can seem a bit alienating to people not in on the whole NES-nerd-gameboy joke. It’s a smart move to have an attractive young woman doing backing vocals, because I’m sure that will open up the whole geekboy-band esthetic to a wider female audience, but I still have to wonder to what extent IFD will appeal to a larger audience outside their cult cult-videogame-lover one.

But maybe I’m being blinkered and naïve. Videogames are such a ubiquitous thing these daze that their music may well be universally embraced by the youth that it is aimed at, who will look at this as great songwriting and not embarrassing geeky nonsense. I for one sincerely hope so, and think they deserve to be recognized for quality over could-be-alienating image. After a scant six months of existence, these guys-and-gal are just as good, if not far better, than a great many bands who have been in existence for years. They have an extremely contemporary emo-like streak running through them (I think they sound like All-American Rejects in places, with Weezer threaded through), but manage to avoid that intolerable subgenre’s navel-gazing and emetic pathetic self-pity. They certainly know their audience, anyway. They recently lost a member and introduced their replacement by having the guy (whom they call a ‘new challenger’) play a tune from the NES game Mega Man 2 on his guitar in a vid. Sharp, interesting stuff, and they have grabbed their videogame image and run with it on YouTube. They play different versions of videogame tunes according to how they sound on different systems, and have obviously studied their videogame songwriting and sounds to play stuff in a way that I have not personally ever heard/seen done before, as I said, complete with using dance pads and such things onstage when they play. I don’t know if they invented this style of music or play, but if they did they deserve huge kudos for it and if they didn’t they still play it pretty damned well. These are quite Simply Great Pop Songs as good, and better, than what most anybody is putting out.

I think you might have guessed by now that I like I Fight Dragons A LOT, and it’ll be very interesting to see where the future takes them. Cos I mean, if they look like they hold the world (and an NES controller) in the palm of the world at only six months old…where will they be in another half a year? Another two years? With a songwriter (or songwriters) with such an obviously brilliant musical ear (I always liked the sonic doodlings of the genius Foetus, and IFD makes me think of something he would wish he came up with), and their whole brand new gameplayer musician concept, it boggles the mind. One thing I don’t quite understand is why the lyrics seem so 20th century, not reflecting modern social media-obsessed youth at all, texting and Twittering and Facebooking away, but they scan and are pretty decent so that hardly matters. The last song on the E.P. is called “With You.” Its wishful wistful acoustic sound is reminiscent of the recent melancholic song “Delilah” by Plain White T’s, another song by youngstars contemplating the outrageous slings and arrows of the future and what it may or may not hold. Let’s just hope that I Fight Dragons don’t have to fight for the success surely coming their way, because on the basis of this E.P. (from which you can get a couple of free songs on their website – they stopped handing out the thing free, unfortunately, though you can buy it online) they deserve to be huge – and probably will be. Time will tell. “Maybe we will be everything we say/Maybe all that we dream will fade to gray” indeed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Graham Rae has been causing chaos since 1969. NYC, September 2009, he will lecture on Burroughs and General Semantics. He has a novel (with no current title to fit its futuristic Scotland chaotic theme) published next year by Creation Books. He has no idea what he’s doing but it seems to be working just fine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 31st, 2009.