Crate-Digging: Speed Chess – Speed Chess

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll focus exclusively on netlabel releases for all of April…

(Test Tube, 2008)

I wasn’t in chess club. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you if my high school had one. If it did, I couldn’t be bothered. I wasn’t some four-eyed loser with tons of time on my hands to sit around a chess board and contemplate strategy. I had my own issues, man, and I didn’t need to waste my time with no stinking chess club. I was an extrovert, obviously needing to express myself in much more gregarious, attention-seeking ways. I had important things to do and say. I even had a preferred energy beverage, before energy beverages were widely on the market: A-Treat’s Big Blue soda, a festering teal sugar rush sure to jam your brain’s transmission into overdrive. (Side effects almost certainly include twitching and excessive urination.) Clearly, sitting in a stuffy, fluorescent-lit classroom after school hours wasn’t my idea of a good time in the least. The nerds can have their precious chess club.

So, OK, my eyesight is terrible, so we can turn the “four-eyes” comment right back around. I wasn’t the monster I make myself out to be, I was just a little … eager. And I’m sure chess clubbers had their own sense of eagerness, but most of them are probably raking in bigger paychecks now than I ever will, in their ivory towers of science, finance, or world domination (for aspiring evil masterminds). Is Seattle’s Wes Slover, aka Speed Chess, an aspiring evil mastermind, or is he just enamored with the exploration of one-on-one strategic gameplay? The jury’s out – sorry Wes – but we can glimpse inside the creative process and peek at the inner workings of Speed Chess, determining how its wheels turn and its cogs … coggle?

The album starts out niftily enough with the brief title track (“Speed Chess” by Speed Chess on Speed Chess – how about that?), a Books-ish rhythmic collage of pieces moving and clocks being slapped, opponents remarking “Check” every so often until the end, where a voice intones “I think that’s checkmate.” I was down with that – I love The Books, and even though the melody here is fairly simple, the percussive sounds of two opponents obviously very skilled at their respective offenses draw the listener in to the challenge. And yet Slover is able to separate the listener from the experience as well, using the unusual source to construct a musical piece – a trick at which Matmos is incredibly skilled as well. (See the body-IDM of A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, where actual surgical sounds are cut up – pun intended – into musical compositions.)

That’s only a minute and a half in, but it’s the last minute and a half of this style on the album, a fact that both frustrated and eventually intrigued me, as although Speed Chess veers into more traditional electronic territory, it still manages to win you over with its charm. “Tokyo Guard” and “Metaphysics” open up fantastic ambient IDM landscapes, spacious interdimensional territories that breathe and flow and simmer with alien life. Imagine a pixellated National Geographic Channel from another universe, as it were. “Spirit Stretch” oozes murkiness under its sopping dubstep beat, a dead ringer for a Burial sketch. “Bedtime for the Monster” begins innocently and trip-hoppily enough, but once the titular monster’s agitated, Slover descends into jungle mayhem.

A few tracks feature vocals, the first of which is kind of a surprise, as Slover sings “I love you Kathryn” over moody New Age synth arrangements on “Kathryn Elizabeth.” It’s not terribly unpleasant, but it also feels like an intrusion. “The Sky Is No Limit for Us” fares better as Slover’s voice is cloaked in electronics, a vocoder effect blurring the humanity of his singing voice, which, actually, is a good thing, distancing the song a bit so that the listener is forced to experience the music from the outside. The lyrics “Set a course for the sun / The sky is no limit for us” hint at a future time, a time to which we’re not ready to closely relate. And that’s OK – it fares so much better than “Be Pleased My God,” the only song on the record that I actively dislike. Speed Chess should not stretch for notes – the bare vocals are simply too thin, and the emotive delivery is jarring and off-putting in this circumstance.

But not all is lost, as you’ll be rewarded if you stick with it. “Early Reflections” and “Everything Will Pass” close the album nicely and contemplatively, wrapping a nifty little bow around the package, and cementing Speed Chess as a contender in the nu-New Age scene, ready to go toe-to-toe with the big boys at Stunned Records, or NNA Tapes, or Not Not Fun, or whatever. (And by “big boys,” I most certainly mean those who actually sell product, like the 250-cassette-run mega-labels. Limited 7-inch, anyone?) Speaking of nu-New Age, does that make Speed Chess the genre’s Limp Bizkit? Is Stellar OM Source its Korn? Two Bicycles its Godsmack? Dylan Ettinger its Staind? I’ll stop now.

Download this from nifty netlabel Test Tube, and check out the rest of their vast discography.

RIYL: Iambic2, Given Willingly, John Murphy + Underworld

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