Coin Toss

Thermos Malling's new project, COiN, makes a strangely intriguing symphony out of the video-game sounds of the past

There is something wrong with Thermos Malling. Maybe growing up in strip-mall Phoenix did him in. Forming the melted-delta meta-blues duo Doo Rag -- in which he played drums on things as various as film reels, horse troughs and suitcases -- may have warped him. Perhaps creating a vocal-amplification device made of vacuum-cleaner hose and a telephone microphone for his Doo Rag cohort Bob Log was what did the permanent damage. Or it could have just been the unforgiving Tucson sun. Whatever the active ingredient in his innovative derangement, fans of the sonic eclecticism he champions are grateful.

With Doo Rag dormant, and with his collaborator Bob Log set to release a new album, Malling has found a new area of sound to mine. It consists of something that's managed to weave its way into the psychic vein of most of us who experienced growing up in the Eighties. It's Eighties music, but not the stuff that was on the radio.

It is, as Malling describes it, "the soundtrack to my ill-spent youth, hanging out in arcades in Phoenix." His new project is called COiN, and its music is comprised almost entirely of video game sounds. You know, the repetitive sub-analog synth music that played while you killed everything, ate everything or saved the world. Something about this music, lovingly created by closet composers bound by finite space and infinite code, struck a chord with Malling.

Turtleneck chic: COiN's live duo, Thermos Malling (left) and the mysterious "Walter."
Turtleneck chic: COiN's live duo, Thermos Malling (left) and the mysterious "Walter."

"That's what's amazing about video-game music in general," explains Malling from his Tucson home. "A game would be written -- the graphics and the interface and everything would be designed -- and they would leave very little memory for the soundtrack. So these programmers, these hacker-type musicians, would have to go in, note for note, in Basic and program it that way. One hundred percent code."

COiN was born when Malling was helping a friend promote his novel. Trying to find a variation on the books-on-tape theme, Malling was going to read the novel through Apple's Text to Speech extension. "I thought it would be cool, but it was really boring," he says. Although that project didn't jell, Malling saw potential in the voice simulator. "At the same time, I was messing around with these video-game sounds," he says, "so I just married them."

Most of COiN's music was captured from an arcade simulator called MACMAME (Multi Arcade Machine Emulator) that features vintage arcade games in their native states. He also transferred data from a Commodore 64 into a contemporary Apple machine via a nebulous process. The game scores were then fitted into song, augmented with a computer-generated voice and live organic drums. The Apple OS provided the speech capabilities and the female voice is, uh, strangely alluring. Despite its techno-retro origins, COiN is not a trip down memory lane. It's rock 'n' roll that just happens to utilize a palette of video-game sounds.

To prove that the music genuinely rocks -- and doing so in naughty-little-boy fashion -- COiN has the computer-generated voices speaking dirty lyrics. More than one song on COiN's self-released CD Attract Mode have overt sexual content. Hearing a computer intone lyrics about a "laundrymat [sic] b.j.," with the music beeping and blipping and the drums filling in the gaps, is an absurdly entertaining experience.

Beyond the nudge-wink sentiment of the crude lyrics, there is also a strange robot-love vibe happening on Attract Mode, which makes seemingly innocuous computer jargon come off like some sort of sex talk. "Permission to establish the interface?/Establish the interface" sounds like it could be Hal making the moves on a gal 2000, while the lyrics "Let's discuss the next level" have adult-flavored meaning when framed in the context of the more explicit material.

In a world where music is increasingly more bland than the commercials that bookend it, Malling and his creations seemingly come from outer space. COiN is a million miles removed from the prepackaged, preplanned Eighties renaissance being foisted on the musically retarded. New bands like the Rentals and older ones like Blondie currently cashing in on the Eighties resurgence miss the subconscious nostalgia trigger that COiN pulls so easily. COiN plays music that we didn't know we liked, that we just passively allowed in, while plunking down allowances to play something that couldn't be beaten. COiN is not rehashing, or pandering to fashion's fickle temperament, it's reshaping a forgotten form of musical expression.

Citing disparate sources of inspiration such as electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, children's educational toy Speak & Spell, Japanese noise-savant Cornelius and the Commodore 64, Malling says the project may, in some strange way, be anticipating the future of music. "Sometimes you have to step into the future. We're kind of taking one step forward and five steps back," says Malling.

Malling frequently identifies the Commodore 64 as perhaps the most significant influence in shaping COiN. A long-obsolete early-Eighties home computer, the machine holds a special place in Malling's heart. "The Commodore 64 was really the first affordable computer that could do anything," claims Malling. "It supported Midi right out of the box. It didn't have an OS, but you could still do sound with it, and you could use it as a Midi controller for a couple of hundred bucks. That's why a lot of musicians had it. It [Commodore 64's programming system] was all based on math and sine wave. You would have to program, you would have to tell the machine, for example, how long to hold a note and what note to hold. If you want to put in vibrato, what is the rate of the vibrato, every note. I was able to sample all the sounds."

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