The Blast Processors is a rock band that plays music inspired by the Sega Genesis. If you get the joke, then you’re the target audience.
“Blast Processing was a marketing term created to advertise the Sega Genesis,” said Julian Spillane (aka Master System), singer and synth player for The Blast Processors. “It literally isn’t a thing.”
But if you want to understand the band’s acoustic sensibilities, it’s best to start with the name. According to urban legend, the term emerged because Sega’s marketing department needed a catchy way to distinguish the Genesis from Nintendo’s SNES. Blast Processing implied that Sega had the more powerful console, positioning the Genesis in direct opposition to its rival.
Twenty years later, The Blast Processors have done the same, effectively reviving a console war that has long been concluded. The first track on the band’s debut album – out yesterday on iTunes and appropriately titled Genesis – is even a cover of the Genesis Does What Nintendon’t commercial from the 90s.
“It’s fanning the flames of a war that ended long ago,” said Orie Falconer (aka Mega Drive), the band’s vocalist and rhythm guitarist. “That deep-seated feeling is still there for a lot of people.”
It also makes the band’s gimmick remarkably effective, the opening track a surefire way to grab and keep attention in front of a pro-gaming crowd. Sometimes people don’t get the references – a younger cosplayer dressed as Link once stormed out mid-performance – but for everyone else, it’s fun to be reminded that Sega used to be relevant.
“I think most people are in on the joke with us. We love Sega, but we recognize that they did not by any stretch of the imagination win the console war,” said Spillane. “I think it’s funny that people do still feel that way because it was so long ago.”
So why do people have such powerful reactions to the gaming iconography of the 80s and 90s?
Spillane has a theory.
“We are the first generation to have an entire history of media never disappear. Everything is accessible,” he said, referencing sites like YouTube that weren’t around to chronicle prior generations. “There are two seasons of Doctor Who missing – MISSING – because they never thought anyone would want to rerun an episode. Our nostalgia is infinitely being called upon. We want to hear Sonic music again and again.”
The Blast Processors is a tribute to that retro sentiment. The members all work in game development in and around Toronto and they started the band because they wanted to play music together. The Sega theme evolved as a way to blend their two passions.
“Game development can take a lot out of you,” said Falconer. “It’s refreshing to have a project that’s celebratory rather than, ‘this game has to succeed.’”
“I felt like I was tired of games,” said Spillane, whose ten years in the industry includes a brief stint at the beleaguered Silicon Knights. “This has actually reinvigorated my love of gaming.”
It makes for a stark contrast with other game-oriented projects the members have been involved with. Spillane and Falconer previously collaborated on Mega Man 25th, a fan game intended to celebrate the anniversary of the Capcom classic. They put together a trailer, but eventually had to scrap the project due to conflicts with work and the negative toll it would have taken on their personal lives.
“The community of people who enjoy fan work is waaaaaaaay nicer than the people who enjoy games,” said Spillane. “I haven’t once gotten a comment saying, ‘Go kill yourself I hate you die.’”
“Whereas with Mega Man 25th, we did,” said Falconer.
It’s a damning portrait of a game culture dangerously overprotective of its sacred cows. Thankfully, The Blast Processors tap into a more positive enthusiast trend, a symbol of the passion that inspired them to make nerd rock it the first place.
“Unless you’re the Rolling Stones or willing to live on ramen noodles, it’s hard to be a full time musician,” said Spillane. “We’re doing it for fun.”
“We don’t have to rely on it for income,” added Falconer.
“Even when I’m making the game of my dreams, I still need to make enough money to make another game,” said Spillane. “When I make music, it’s like, fuck it. What do we want to listen to? We make that, and then we hope that there’s an audience.”
“If it makes money, we can buy better gear and make better-produced songs. The only thing that’s bruised is our egos.”
Unlike Mega Man 25th, The Blast Processors also provides its members with a less rigid creative outlet. While the band started out with covers until it gained confidence, the songs on the album all boast original lyrics and original arrangements, existing as recognizable yet distinct creations. The Sega trappings – including songs inspired by Sonic and Knuckles, Golden Axe, and Streets of Rage – merely serve to deliver an audience.
“It’s easier to draw in gamers because we are tailoring our music directly to them,” said Spillane. “People hear one track and know what they’re getting into.”
But the group is a musical passion project as much as a gaming one. A longtime karaoke savant, Spillane can rattle off the makes and models of 1980s recording equipment as easily as he recalls the specs for the Sega Genesis controller, and as musicians, the group hopes its appeal extends beyond the convention circuit. After all, gamers may be fervent customers, but they’re not always the most discerning musical tastemakers.
“It’s a nice pat on the back,” said Spillane of gamer appreciation. “I like you because you like the things I like.”
Recognition from non-gamers is therefore the “ultimate compliment,” because it indicates that the music resonates with people regardless of any familiarity with the subject matter. In that regard, the attraction is not unlike that of early heavy metal. If Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath were high-concept rock bands that modeled their aesthetic on Satan, then the Blast Processors are a high concept rock band that models its aesthetic on Sonic. The theatrics are part of the show, and the hard rock influences are as evident as the video game influences in the band’s overall sound.
Spillane believes the mash-up works because video games and hard rock aren’t that far apart to begin with. The Sega Genesis was a notoriously difficult platform for sound designers, so the few composers who were good at it – like Masato Nakamura (Sonic the Hedgehog) and Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage) – often had experience in other branches of music. They were synth rockers first, and that was reflected in their output for video games.
Meanwhile, the recent rise of EDM ensures that synthesized sounds no longer sound foreign to younger audiences, further expanding the scope of references that make sense with relation to retro gaming.
That integration may ultimately be the key to the success of a nostalgia act like The Blast Processors. Though the Genesis is the most obvious framing device, the group approaches the recording process with an appreciation for other pop cultural artifacts. If Mega Man 25th fell into the uncanny valley of retro gaming – too much yet not enough like the original – then The Blast Processors nimbly skirts the edge thanks to the identifiable influence of, say, Saturday morning cartoons on a track like ‘Afterburners Go!’
The eclectic pastiche reads as new, and that, in turn, allows The Blast Processors to rile a crowd without devolving into the vitriol that often plagues fandom on the Internet. They’re not referencing the actual Sega-Nintendo console war. It’s a fictionalized approximation from a dystopian future in which Nintendo won and then took over the world, a more productive form of recollection that’s harmlessly appreciative and silly rather than defensive or vindictive. We may think we want to hear the same thing again and again. But nostalgia is most affective when it’s used as reference rather than copy.
So what happens now that the album is done?
The Blast Processors are looking to tour Genesis to American conventions, taking a more deliberate approach to expansion with a plan that includes another EP and more video content to go along with its absurd backstory. (Short version: They’ve been sent back in time to stop the aforementioned Nintendo dystopia, but ended up in 2013 instead of 1991 because they powered the time machine with a Game Gear.) In the meantime, they’ll keep playing Sega-themed music long as it remains fun, demonstrating that it’s still possible to mine the past for inspiration rather than regret.
The Blast Processors are:
Julian Spillane (aka Master System) – vocals, synthesizers
Orie Falconer (aka Mega Drive) – vocals, rhythm guitar
JP Stringham (aka Saturn) – vocals, lead guitar
Nick Springthorpe (aka Game Gear) – bass guitar
Chris Baragar (aka Menacer) – drums