Warped into the 8-bit Dimension with Cara Neir

When it comes time to try something new musically, many musicians will join new projects or even start solo ventures, but who’s to say one project can’t be multiple things at once? Texas metal duo Cara Neir have made a point of keeping things fresh by switching styles and trying new things at every turn, forging a cohesive identity despite a sound that outright refuses to get comfortable. Instead of focusing their efforts on refining one distinct style, vocalist/lyricist Chris Francis and multi-instrumentalist Garry Brents have instead made it their modus operandi to never settle and never conform.

Of course, this wasn’t the plan from the get-go. The project’s core sound was initially supposed to be something in line with what can be heard on the second half of their first release, Part I/Part II, which was the first material they wrote. “But then I wanted to do a split with ourselves, so to speak, by having completely different sounds on each half, production and all,” Garry tells Astral Noize. Since their debut, the band have adopted the unique approach of being a constantly evolving project. “We’re always striving to release something that’s different from what we did before, yet still grounded in the roots of the genres that we pull influence from,” explains Chris. 

This ambitious approach has been present throughout all of their output to date, but the duo’s latest album, Phase Out, feels like the culmination of their work thus far, taking things to hilariously wacky but fiercely creative new heights. “Throughout our discography one might hear black metal, post-hardcore, screamo, grind, post-rock, electronic bits and more,” says Garry. “It stems from the both of us just really enjoying writing a wide range of music where we unashamedly throw it all on the wagon that is our project and watch it go into different directions every year or so. The wheels surely fell off this time around…”

He’s not wrong. Even amongst a discography founded on a lack of sonic cohesion, Phase Out stands out in both sound and aesthetic. For this record, the band let their imagination run amok, penning a love letter to video games complete with retro 8-bit artwork featuring avatars of the band members in a fantastical world entirely of their own making. Lyrically, the album follows the pair as they’re sucked into a pixelated dimension at the whims of a sinister entity known as The One or The One From Trimjrtle. This evil creature has existed in the band’s past material, operating behind the scenes, but is front and centre here as the main antagonist of Phase Out’s bonkers narrative. 

“We’re both big on sci-fi and video games,” begins Garry. “So Chris came up with this otherworldly semi-omnipotent alien (and home planet of Trimjrtle) early on which we’ve only subtly referenced here and there. This time, we have him highlighted thematically as a grand antagonist behind this whole descent into video game madness where we traverse different game levels in a gauntlet for his morbid amusement. Each song plays out in this manner like a totally different video game level.”

This influence is much more than surface-level theatrics, though. A lot of care has gone into the album’s artwork and lyrics, but the music wasn’t written retrospectively to fit the story. In fact, the concept largely came together after the music itself, which is a thrilling amalgamation of black metal, punk and chiptune. “I remember telling Chris last summer [2020] that I’ve always wanted to incorporate 8-bit sounds into our music while also being sonically similar to the raw production approach of our first release,” Garry divulges. “’Valkyrie’ was the first song I had come up with before any of the story or lyrics and knew I had to expand upon it for the whole album. So I mentioned to Chris this meta idea about us being warped into a video game dimension, and that being the cause of our album sounding like this, pushing the idea of his old character of The One being behind the wheel along with subservient monsters/soldiers trying to prevent us from leaving this dimension. So, we ran with that in full force.”

What this ensures is that the concept gels so flawlessly with the music itself, making it all too easy to truly lose yourself in the immersive world of Phase Out whilst listening. The band have even avoided traditional promotional band shots to further solidify the feeling that they’re stuck in a video game. Musically, Garry made a very conscious effort to recreate the atmosphere of his favourite games – Star Ocean: The Second Story, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana. “We really tried to hone in on that chiptune element,” he tells us. “Specifically pointing to some plugins like basic64 and Tweakbench Peach as the backbone of maybe 90% of the video game-esque sounds and further adding other effects to sculpt and mould them to fit as needed. Also, a popular VST [Virtual Studio Technology] called SNES VERB was the main reverb of choice throughout the album since it’s an amazing emulation of the SNES 16-bit style faux reverb effect to sonically fit.”

The other half of the video game atmosphere comes courtesy of Chris who, as vocalist, sought to tap into the feel of playing a game. “The biggest hits for me during the ‘90s were platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, and adventure games like Kid Chameleon and Rascal,” he reveals. “I’ve been an avid gamer since those formative years and have steamrolled countless games across all genres. When writing the lyrics for Phase Out, I tried to channel the frustration and curiosity we experienced from some of the most profound games that we’ve played. There is also some meta lore within the album serving as a central plot point that we have been carrying since Part I/Part II.”

Chris’ work is key to the album’s atmosphere but most crucially its narrative, which is told through his lyrics. For much of the album, as on tracks like ‘Damnation’ and ‘Floodgates Of Doom’, the vocals flow like a gamer’s stream-of-consciousness whilst playing, as they discover loot, figure out puzzles and take on enemies. At other points, as on ‘Valkyrie’, the lyrics imitate the in-game dialogue of a boss. “I tried as much as possible to write the lyrics from our character’s POV within the universe of Gnax,” the vocalist explains. “’Valkyrie’ and ‘Maestro Infernus’ are The One’s frontline soldiers, and were written and titled as such. A lot of love went into writing the lore and designing the characters. Garry even had artwork commissioned of all the central characters and villains to better immerse the listener into the adventure, and to also give them a visual aid while listening. Without spoiling much, ‘Legacy Of Gnax’ sets the stage for a classic final boss battle with a twist. Any fans who have kept up with our lyrics will be surprised and even possibly saddened when they learn of The One’s master plan.”

The commissioned artwork Chris mentioned adorns the band’s Bandcamp page as well as the physical release, and helps listeners envisage the world in which the album is set. It has also made for some unique merch designs, but surely the most obvious piece of tie-in merch would be a video game. “Great that you mentioned that!” exclaims Garry. “We actually have an indie RPG/combat-based game in the works right now being developed by a gamedev group called Nyanko Games. We haven’t seen the finished product at the time of this interview, but it is supposedly nearing the final stages of coding. We’re both going to create the SFX and music for the game. It will be geared more for casual gamers as an alternative way of enjoying the themes and aesthetics we’ve created for the album.”

“It will be the perfect playable medium to experience the lore of the album,” adds Chris. “I think the style and accessible gameplay will be an excellent fit for it. If we decide to follow the same route for the follow-up album, I feel like we may go for a more old-school survival horror feel with some challenging puzzle sections and thick atmosphere.”

The game should be available on itch.io and possibly Steam sometime this spring, and as Chris mentions, the band are already planning a sequel. “Last year [2020] was full of firsts for us as a band,” he says. “We’ve been firing on all cylinders, trying new things and bringing different elements into our sound, and I think we’re going to keep doing that. Our releases beyond Phase Out and the follow-up will feature our most varied music to date.”

“We’re going full force with packaging, artwork, aesthetics, and that narrative break of the fourth wall,” adds Garry. “I see our project really taking on this approach where it’s not just about the lyrics and music, but everything else being more thematically involved.”

It’s this extra level of commitment that makes Phase Out so wonderfully engaging, and Cara Neir such a consistently interesting band. Never resting on their laurels and doing absolutely nothing by halves, Garry and Chris are already gearing up for more, and we’re excited to join them for the ride.

Phase out is out 2nd February. Pre-order here.

Words: George Parr

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