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Intruder Alert: The Advantage rack up points as the premier video-game soundtrack replicators.

Mega Men

Video games are bad for your eyes, but thanks to the Advantage, they're good for your ears

By Erik Fong

ANY CHILD of the '80s can hum the Marble Madness theme song. The repetitive subliminal transmission of those bleeping sequences was first-rate marketing on Nintendo's part. The music wasn't exactly THX quality, and eight-bit technology kept the music to extremely bare structures. Unbeknownst to Nintendo, however, those technological hindrances would eventually establish a trademark sound, become the stuff of geek legend and lead to a Nintendo cover band from Sacramento named the Advantage.

"The sounds that Nintendo had to use were drilling into people's brains," explains Carson McWhirter, bass player for the Advantage. "They're just simple waveforms, and they seep right in. There isn't a lot to weed through. There's something about the way that the old songs were written--under [technological] restrictions--that made them flourish. Now that there are lesser restrictions, it seems like they're just putting whatever they can onto these games and contracting some guy to record crappy rock songs. I don't relate to it."

Each track on the band's self-titled 26-song debut is referenced like a movement from a classical piece: "Ducktales, Moon," "Megaman 2, Bubbleman," "Double Dragon III, Egypt." Self-produced and home-recorded, the album consists of clean guitars, bass and drums, maintaining technological simplicity with a lo-fi indie sound stripped of dynamics. Most tunes are about two minutes long on average, though some are conjoined into longer medleys.

The performances are exact transcriptions of the eight-bit versions, and the music sometimes kicks into double time for tension, just as when levels progress or game timers run low. "Our thing is to keep it how it was and make it sound as good as we can, as a rock band," explains McWhirter. "We try to stay true to the songs through the bulk of them."

The band began roughly four years ago under the name Generic. Though the musical principles and goals have always stayed the same, it wasn't long before a name and lineup change was in order. The longest-reigning member is drummer Spencer Seim, best known for his guitar work in the math-rock duo Hella.

Seim was the band's first mortal percussionist--the original three members played over a drum machine during shows. Soon, McWhirter filled the vacant bass slot; guitarists Ben Milner and newest member Robby "Brad Pitt" Moncrieff complete the current lineup.

The re-creations of the music translate just as powerfully to nongamers. During the Advantage's recent California tour supporting John Vanderslice, audience response was strong, and not everyone there was necessarily a Nintendo fanatic. "We've gotten a lot of people who either didn't have any experience with Nintendo at all or are older than that age group," says McWhirter. "But they still really enjoy the music. It's pretty universal."

The more obsessive Advantage show-goers do yell "weird things," however, usually requests for "Goonies" and "Marble Madness." There's one song the band won't touch: the original "Super Mario Brothers" theme is the "Celebrate" of Nintendo cover band set lists. The Advantage is fun, yes. Predictable? No.

Legal? That's another story. According to McWhirter, the band's label, 5RC, corresponded with Nintendo representatives who also happen to be fans of the Advantage; though no official legal permission has been granted, there haven't been any cease-and-desist letters either. "They know about us," says McWhirter. "They're turning their heads a bit. It doesn't seem like there are any problems, and [5RC founder] Slim Moon feels confident about releasing the album. We did contact them ahead of time, so we gave them a chance."

As the venue for the Advantage's CD-release party, Nickel City arcade couldn't more appropriately emphasize the group's purpose: to further the celebration of video-game culture. The very idea of a Nintendo cover band could easily be labeled as irony and nostalgia, but the innocent spirit in these songs has turned dorky, melodic supplements into tunes with their very own legs and heartbeats. The Advantage and Nickel City fit together like a hand in a Power Glove.

The Advantage, the Huxtables and Shinobu play April 15 at Nickel City, 1711 Branham Ave., Ste. A-1, San Jose. Tickets are $2. (408.448.3323)

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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