It’s funny, but I started the The Red Herb probably right around the time the rhythm game genre began to wane and people’s indifference to plastic instruments forced the genre to wither out of existence. It was a lot like Freddy Krueger losing his spectral dream powers because the parents of Elm Street unanimously forgot about those rash of murders on their block all those years ago. Rock Band and Guitar Hero lost their grip on the kids.
So music games didn’t get a lot of say on here over the years. Sure, we talked plenty about Resident Evil and Claire’s butt, but my fevered love affair with Guitar Hero and, soon after, Rock Band went undocumented. Let’s put it on the official record then: I loved the living hell out of these games. If you paid me for every hour I poured into mastering those five fucking notes and the endless combination of chords, hammer-on’s, and hammer-off’s associated with them, I’d be writing this article from a small island I bought and undoubtedly named Red Herbia.
It all began with Guitar Hero II, man. The ascent to greatness was slow but gradual. I began my days of fake musicianship by struggling through Medium difficulty. Then my talent grew, and I was a Hard level hardass. Soon after, I dipped my toes in Expert… just to see. Eventually, it became so that I couldn’t play on a lower difficulty. I would make sweet baby guitar music everyday. I jonesed for it.
Yeah, I could’ve put that time and effort into a real guitar, but those unruly sons of bitches had more than one string. And it wasn’t the point. Sticking your nose up at rhythm games is just like having some douche mock you while you play Madden saying, “Why don’t you be a man and actually try out for the NFL?”
I love video games – they intertwine everything I do; from my writing to my work. And I love music. I’m always looking for the next artist I’ll be loading onto my phone and overplaying into oblivion. Often enough, I mix my two loves. Unless it’s a story intensive game, or if a soundtrack is of Jack Wall-ian quality, I’m usually taking full advantage of custom tracks. Repetitive action games – anything from Call of Duty to Dynasty Warriors – demand some audio… seasoning, we’ll say. (Sidebar: Spotify on PS4 is divine.)
But where Guitar Hero broke ground in the hopes of reaching that music/gaming nerve of joy, Rock Band stuck a spigot in it. Suddenly you and three friends could jam together, get stupid, and have a good time. And unflinchingly consistent DLC drops every week continued to feed my need long after I wore out the on-disc set list. To date, I have downloaded over 200 tracks from the Rock Band Store. Yeah. I’m probably part of the demographic of quiet supporters that twisted Harmonix’s arm into green-lighting Rock Band 4.
Music game preamble outta the way, let’s get on to this list. Despite an extensive catalog that touches on multiple genres, there’s still some holes in my personal taste that haven’t been filled in over the course of three games and years worth of DLC. Now, hence the “underrated” part. Underrated being underground; out of the mainstream eye, though not entirely unheard of. But they’re all on the lesser known spectrum than, say, 30 Seconds to Leto or Paramore or other popular acts that hurt my ears.
We all already know how painful it is to have gone this long without Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the like. They’re tragic omissions gone unanswered due to the licensing wars they ignite (and some of the artists’ personal biases). My bands, however, likely won’t have the same rights holdups in trying to get into the game. No estate squabbles or lawyer free-for-alls applicable here (I think).
Hailing from the Midwestern void that is Nebraska, these Saddle Creek darlings have been around since 1995. From humble beginnings as an emo(tional) pop-punk lineup, Cursive swam the waters of post-hardcore for a good while before their own penchant for experimentation evolved their sound past even those trappings (there was a time when the band employed a full-time cellist).
Lead singer Tim Kasher’s open diary style of writing leads to some heavy verbiage yet his hooks and memorable croon jam Cursive tracks in that special place in your brain that has you unconsciously mouthing lyrics throughout the day.
While not as recognizable as their Saddle Creek compadre, Bright Eyes, Cursive has a loyal following and a sound that stands out above their peers. Literally anything from their one-act-play-written-as-a-record Domestica can work for the game, and the singles pulled from The Ugly Organ or, going into latter years, Mama, I’m Swollen, should keep fingers busy and ears happy in RB4.
1. “The Recluse”
2. “Art is Hard”
3. “From the Hips”
Personal Pick: “The Martyr”
4. PORTUGAL. the MAN
It’s amazing to me that only recently this bandl has made a ripple in the mainstream because there isn’t a single self-respecting hipster worth their weight in septum piercings that doesn’t know Portugal. The Man.
The Portland, Oregon outfit is a chameleon of sorts, tinkering with their sound where they see fit. Each album is distinctly Portugal yet may not share the same genre as the record previous. They’ve done indie rock, pop rock, progressive rock, and psychedelic. But unlike other bands that go through sonic identity crises, Portugal. The Man attunes new styles to their method, owning every genre with panache and confidence. They’re a trip you can trip to.
Technically, there’s already a song available in the game. “Do You” was independently made and released on the Rock Band Network sometime ago but that’s not the same as the devs officially putting a spotlight on the band themselves.
1. “Modern Jesus”
2. “Purple Yellow Red and Blue”
3. “So American”
Personal Pick: “Guns and Dogs”
3. DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979
In a time when robots battling dinosaurs was somehow a personality descriptor, DFA1979 was king.
The band is all buzz and all heart. They drive their rhythms fast and hard like a punk band would, but drench their chords in droning noise rock. They avoid being downbeat, though, by making their music incredibly dancey. It’s like listening to a drunken split by Sonic Youth and The Misfits.
Their reign, however, was sweet but entirely too short. An EP, LP, and remix album later, the band was broken up. That was the whole story since 2006. Then, out of nowhere, the Canadian rockers had a new record ready, and it was killer. The Physical World is like a sequel to a film made ten years after the fact: everyone got back in the saddle because they genuinely wanted to make more art. Because if it was a cheap cash-in, it would’ve happened when the iron was hot.
Their inclusion to the Rock Band pantheon may call for some creativity given that they’re only a two man act. One dude shreds on a bass guitar while sprinkling some synth action on top, and the other smacks the drums while magically serving as the lead singer. I’m sure Harmonix can manage it, though, even if it means lead guitar has to sit a few tracks out (hey, it’s happened before). Death From Above’s blistering, ass-shaking jams deserves a place on the coveted virtual set list.
1. “Trainwreck 1979″
3. “Crystal Ball”
Personal Pick: “White is Red”
2. HORSE the BAND
Early in this Californian ear-assault’s lifespan, the band began referring to themselves as “Nintendocore,” a phrase used to describe their infusion of throat-scorching metalcore and 8-bit sounding key work. And, honestly, there’s no better way to describe them.
Horse has gone through such a transformation since their beginnings as an after school hobby back in 1999. Simple shredding, lots of screaming, and video gamey keyboards slowly led way to a severely focused progressive sound. The band may be utterly goofy – they once famously shut down a tour and wrote an entire EP inspired by a local pizzeria whose slice they couldn’t get enough of. But they make expert use of gaming metaphors to mask deeply introspective lyrics; some even painfully intimate.
It’s hard to hear the tell-all sometimes due to the mosh-worthy cacophony they pack into every song. But don’t let the references to Mega Man and Mario fool you – their metal is hard, fast, and complex. Think Norma Jean meets a Game Boy. Rock Band is already a mash-up of games and music. It’s a crime Horse the Band is missing from the lineup.
Personal Pick: “Shapeshift”
1. CIRCLE TAKES the SQUARE
Hailing from the sulfur pits of Savannah, Georgia (I know nothing of geography) comes one of the most wildly experimental, hauntingly melodic acts this side of hardcore.
If your ears are hard enough to get past CTTS’s abrasive barrage of squealing guitars, beaten-bloody percussions, and the apocalyptic duet of Drew Speziale and Kathleen Stubelek’s vinegar vocals, you’ll be struck by the fact that you’re not just listening to screamo songs – you’re listening to screamo compositions.
In 2004, Circle Takes the Square wrote one of the most influential post-hardcore albums to date. As the Roots Undo plays host to an ethereal fusion of experimental progressive rock and straight-to-the-gut grindcore. Though each section and arrangement is meticulously chosen the whole album sounds as if it was purposely performed on out-of-tune instruments. It’s the soundtrack to a horror film, but as revealed in the lyrics (that could be poetry by themselves), that horror is coping with everyday life. The band is broken, bombastic, and brilliant.
CTTS is, of course, a harsh contrast to the games’ regular standby’s in Boston and Linkin Park, but some of their longer songs can serve perfectly as end tier closers sure to push any plastic fret-burner to new limits. Thought “Green Grass and Hide Tides” tested your mettle? Try “Kill the Switch” on Expert and see if that wrist cramp goes away in anything under a week.
Top 3 Tracks According to Me:
2. “In the Nervous Light of Sunday”
3. “Kill the Switch”