They’re named after a joystick and they play note-perfect covers of music from the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Yes, the Advantage is something of a novelty. But if it’s just empty nostalgia you’re looking for, try another Nintendo cover band — really, there are several.
The Advantage formed in 1998 in Nevada City, CA with the stated goal of recording every song from every NES game ever. Tuesday sees the release of Elf-Titled, the follow-up to their 2004 debut. In the 37 tracks they’ve cut so far, the band has eschewed obvious standards like “Super Mario Brothers Theme,” tending towards the more obscure. The geek-pleasing Elf features music from long forgotten game packs like Solar Jetman and Guardian Legend.
But even though some of these songs defy easy recognition, all are a vehicle for the band’s considerable technical proficiency. The Advantage set the difficulty level to “high”: Given their monophonic origins, “Kraid’s Lair” (from Metroid) and “Mission 5: Forest of Death” (from Double Dragon II) were probably never intended for live instrumentation. This puts some serious demands on the guitarists, but Carson McWhirter and Ben Milner are up to the task, deftly maneuvering around their fretboards like Samus navigating an underground den full of Space Pirates.
Stripped of their original, pixelated context, it’s not hard to appreciate the care that the original composers took with these songs. On guitar and drums, they almost sound like that post-punk that seems to be so popular with the kids these days; Castlevania III’s “Boss Music” won’t be too big a stretch for Bloc Party fans.
The only departure from the original arrangements is the drums. Spencer Seim’s nimble stickwork not only keeps the band from sounding like a ringtone, but also lends the songs a volatile energy. In the Advantage’s skilled hands Contra’s “Alien’s Lair + Boss Music” becomes a prog-rock disco maelstrom, in line with some of the Mars Volta’s more spastic freakouts.