386 DX: Biggest Smash Hits (Staalplaat, 2021)

February 7, 2021 at 1:50 pm | Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

386 DX: Biggest Smash Hits

386 DX was a “cyberpunk-rock band” helmed by Moscow-based contemporary artist Alexei Shulgin, who performed MIDI covers of classic rock tunes, sung by a Russian-accented robot. Definitely a novelty act comparable to Anton Maiden or the Moog Cookbook, but like those artists, elaborate and absurd enough to transcend its novelty status to the realm of the sublime. A longtime WFMU favorite, the project has achieved minor internet cult status, particularly for the “California Dreaming” cover. I honestly forgot about 386 DX until Staalplaat released Biggest Smash Hits this month, and it’s been a happy rediscovery to say the least. The details are what make this fascinating: the robot’s attempt to approximate Johnny Rotten’s snarl and James Hetfield’s manly growl, the 8-bit John Bonham drum solos which just sound like a bunch of pixels being rubbed together, the way the vocals extend during the choruses but still struggle to fit all the syllables on beat during “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The renditions are super precise in some aspects, but still limited to dinky MIDI technology and still imperfect in a human way. And the vocals make this seem funny even when it shouldn’t (i.e. the cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me”). “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” is performed without the gonzo backing vocals, perhaps adding a slight sense of desperation to the song, but not enough to derail its silliness. This comp includes one song from the project’s Legends of Russian Rock album, and it’s easily the wildest thing here, sort of a Chuck Berry-on-speed rave-up with rapidfire whooping vocals in Russian. Not sure if this project is still active, I’m assuming his janky old computer died a long time ago and it would probably be hard to salvage a system old enough to reproduce something like this, but at least the internet is keeping the legend alive, and now it’s made it to vinyl.

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