New York City 8-bit band Anamanaguchi doesn’t seem like a recipe for mass-appeal music. You can explain their genre by saying “If you like video games and anime, you’ll love Anamanaguchi.” But when I try to imagine a band that takes those mediums as its main influences — not to knock on video games and anime — I imagine niche tunes that only meganerds like myself would enjoy. Definitely not thoughtful, multilayered or widely appealing music. But [USA] is all of the above.

The album has been long in the making. The band first announced [USA] in November 2014, promising a 2016 release date. They kept busy by releasing their own parody video game and headlining Minecraft music festivals (seriously). [USA] finally released in October 2019.

I should have known Anamanaguchi was anything but one-dimensional. With electropop bangers like “Pop It” and “Miku” under their belt, they are so much more than gamer music. Their talent is beyond the confines of 8-bit pop, and so is [USA].

It’s popular to build an album around a sort of sonic journey, following the conventions of narrative — exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. That structure is audible in [USA], but not just across the album; every individual song has its own journey that takes you somewhere else. Take “Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem).” Beginning with a synthetic voice singing the pseudo-Latin dummy text lyrics — “Lorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet” — the track continues to build with buried, bassy percussion before blasting into a chiptune explosion. Just as it seems the tension is easing, the song erupts into its high-pitched climax. The second half of the song is a chilling ambient cut. You can almost feel the wind and the waves of the arctic beneath the track. That’s the kind of transportive journey felt on every song.

Anamanaguchi builds a world with subtlety in [USA]. Like the wind and waves on “Lorem Ipsum (Arctic Anthem),” I feel the forest beneath “The C R T Woods.” I can imagine the mysterious creatures whose voices sing “Speak To You [Memory Messengers]” and “Apophenia Light [Name Eaters].” It’s no coincidence that the cover art depicts a weathered storybook over moss-covered cobblestones with a paintbrush beside it. [USA] is what a picture book would sound like as an audiobook, and Anamanaguchi is the narrator.

But is that [USA] picture book one of fantasy or reality? It’s easy to think it’s fantasy. After all, Anamanaguchi got its start in pioneering a combination of pop punk with chiptune music generated from Nintendo hardware (their earliest releases were actually on playable NES cartridges). Their next release was a soundtrack to the “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” video game, and their debut record, funded via Kickstarter, is literally titled Endless Fantasy. But by the band’s own account, [USA] is about confronting reality. Band member Ary Warnaar says[USA] is inspired by the struggles of acknowledging the distinction between (fantasy and reality) … a process so many of us seem to be undergoing.” The way [USA] deftly swings between adrenaline-infused excitement and moody, ambient melancholy is a reflection of reality.

The end result of that reality-based, storybook sound is a gratifying full-album experience — so much so that if I hear a song from [USA] on shuffle in a playlist, I get this weird sense of confusion from hearing it out of context. Despite how unique each track is, it’s easy to forget this record isn’t a single 52-minute song. Anamanaguchi put their hearts into crafting that clean and cohesive a project. My fingers are crossed for a remix album down the line.

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