Zackery Wilson’s DIGIFOOD Serves Up the Right Amount of Nostalgia
Wilson’s latest album revisits his back catalog while offering up a wealth of new compositions
I was overcome with nostalgia even before “DIGIFOOD,” started playing. The title track off of chiptune composer Zackery Wilson’s latest compilation album features a signature Sonic The Hedgehog 3 styled title card for the accompanying video uploaded to YouTube. About a minute later, another wave of nostalgia rushes over me as Michael Jackson’s “woos,” “gos,” and “come ons” (like the ones featured in Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s Launch Base Zone) fill the soundscape.
I was going to listen to “DIGIFOOD” regardless of the album art — Wilson’s music has been in my regular rotation since his SoundCloud days, when he uploaded loosey tracks like the funk adjacent “B E A C H S H A D E.” Seeing the Sonic-themed artwork led me to press play even quicker, as if I’d achieved some level of symbiosis with an apparent fellow Sonic-fan.
“I never owned a Sega Genesis or Master System, so I never really played Sonic games growing up (as blasphemous as that is to say, I know!),’’ Wilson admits. “I just happen to like those sound sets more than anything.”
Sonic-fan or not, Wilson’s latest drop is a nostalgia-tinged good time for listeners new and old. DIGIFOOD is a 20-track album that pulls from Wilson’s oft-cited source for expression — video games. A fan of video game music from an early age, Wilson uses sound tools from classic consoles to create songs that straddle the line between modern and retro.
DIGIFOOD arrived almost exactly a year after Wilson’s last full-length release, SNESQUE II, which in turn was a sequel to his 2014 release. In all cases, his tracks are liberal reimaginings of the source material. “Higher, Drier Socks,” for example, reworks Koji Kondo’s sublimely soothing Super Mario 64 track “Dire Dire Docks” into a frenetic piece that strays from its aquatic origins. Wilson admittedly recognizes his musical deviation from the fan-favorite original piece, with his own YouTube upload of the song calling it a “bastardization” of the classic.
The key here, though, is that while Wilson takes some inspiration from old music, he’s not beholden to recreating the same emotions of the original tracks. In some cases, like “EarthBound and DOWN” from SNESQUE, his tracks would feel right at home within their source material. Earthbound features plenty of breakbeats and funk rhythms across its three-hour-long soundtrack and is accurately represented by Wilson’s rendition.
Even then, Wilson explores remixing techniques that add layers to chiptune compositions. The 12th track on DIGIFOOD, “GHOST,” is a remix of fellow producer nelward’s original track. The original song is seated somewhere in the realm of punchy, new jack swing — Wilson’s remix levels up nelward’s composition by incorporating some of the same melodies and structure from “EarthBound and Down,” turning the original song into something of a red label Greatest Hits version.
Wilson operates within the realm of digifusion, a genre-melding descriptor that often pairs distinctly digital instrumentation with limitations from the early days of gaming and other PC methods of composing. From an outsider’s perspective, digifusion emanates from a similar realm as vaporwave. The genre very clearly draws inspiration from certain segments of music — video games, phone ringtones, computer start-up jingles. But because its rise occurred disparately across message boards and forums, a consensus of what the genre is has yet to be fully established (though composer Aivi Tran from the band aivi & surasshu and Steven Universe fame has created a primer on the genre).
More important than driving home a unified genre descriptor however is Wilson’s creative process, which begins with selecting a source of inspiration.
“The process is slightly different from track to track, but typically, I begin with an idea of style (in this case, funk/fusion/new jack swing), sound palette (for DIGIFOOD it was FM synthesis, evocative of retro Sega video games), and harmony (e.g. a hip chord progression, full of extensions and jazz colorations), with melody typically secondary to harmony,” Wilson explained. “That’s pretty much how most of my tracks get their start, honestly.”
One of Wilson’s recurring sources of inspiration, however, continues to be Ubiktune’s Soundshock series, which blends jazz and IDM (intelligent dance music) with FM synth work. DIGIFOOD, like Soundshock, carries the crunch of FM production, compared to the more mellifluous sounds of Wilson’s SNES-sampled work.
“I was probably influenced by that series of music (in terms of my strong affinity toward FM sounds) more than any retro Sega console, to be completely honest,” Wilson said. “But to finish answering your question: I like both sides of the ‘16-bit coin’ (SNES/samples and Genesis/FM) — I go back and forth in my choice of sound palette(s) from track to track.”