I had roommates in college who liked to watch me play video games. They weren't any good at playing, and I was only slightly better, but they lived vicariously through my controller. Maybe their relinquishing control made the leaps over pits, bullets fired, and zombies attacked that much more exciting. Bit Brigade taps into that same nail-biting appeal, performing a live soundtrack as pro gamer Noah McCarthy speeds through classic video games projected on a big screen.
Boasting members of Athens, Ga., heavyweights Cinemechanica, Maserati, and the now-defunct We Versus the Shark, as well as one of Reptar's touring guitarists, Bit Brigade specializes in hyperintense rock versions of soundtracks. The band's style is especially suited to the technical, guitar-heavy and metal-influenced soundtracks from 1980s video games.
"Our 'front man' is Noah," guitarist Bryant Williamson explains. "His instrument is the Nintendo Entertainment System. He not only plays classic video games all the way though, he beats the shit out of them."
Bit Brigade started out performing under the names Contraband, Megaband, Ninjaband, and Castlebandia, depending on the featured game (Contra, Mega Man 2, Ninja Gaiden, and Castlevania, respectively). When playing Contra, the classic commandos-versus-aliens shoot 'em up, McCarthy would recruit a partner for two-player carnage, usually beating a game straight through with no lost lives and no cheat codes.
Bit Brigade has entered the relatively small national community of video game bands — the NESkimos, Powerglove, the Minibosses — and a performance at 2011's music-and-gaming conference MAGFest IX in California provided a big publicity boost.
"We always thought the band had the potential to catch on," says Williamson, "but thought that maybe we'd never find the right opportunity to play in front of the right people, etc. Since that show, we've definitely seen a bit of a snowball effect."
Bit Brigade toured the West Coast for the first time earlier this year, playing a smaller festival called Rockage in San Jose, Calif. "We've been big fans of several video game bands over the years and have now been incredibly fortunate to share the stage with almost all of the bands we have been fans of," says Williamson.
This current Atlanta show sees Bit Brigade tackle Mega Man II all the way through, a particularly challenging game and soundtrack alike, as every level in the plucky robot actioner features a stylistically different soundtrack. The intricacy of the music offers challenges, but the need to pay attention to McCarthy's gaming progress even more so, as the band pivots tunes the second he clears a level, beats a boss or, as has occasionally happened, dies unexpectedly. A play-through of Castlevania is planned as an encore.
Bit Brigade's first show was at Athens' Caledonia Lounge in 2006. Though there were only two people playing a video game, more than a hundred packed into the tiny club, illuminated only by the garish colors of 8-bit graphics. There were cheers, whoops, and fist pumps, and one massive audience groan as the Nintendo system froze up — of course — right on the game's final level. If a video game victory can be felt vicariously, so can its tragedies. Spectators at sporting events experience their own catharsis; the same goes for video games, whether in a dorm room, apartment, or, when Bit Brigade plays, in a rock club.