CURSEBREAKER X by EQUIP
“𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝖙𝖗𝖆𝖓𝖘𝖋𝖔𝖗𝖒𝖆𝖙𝖎𝖔𝖓 𝖜𝖎𝖑𝖑 𝖇𝖊 𝖈𝖔𝖒𝖕𝖑𝖊𝖙𝖊 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖞𝖔𝖚 𝖜𝖎𝖑𝖑 𝖑𝖔𝖘𝖊 𝖞𝖔𝖚𝖗 𝖘𝖔𝖚𝖑.”
CURSEBREAKER X Theme
A full moon is rising as you enter the dusty weapon shop. A sanguine blade shrouded in crystal draws you nearer with a siren's call. Your hand trembles before you as you extend your arm and reach for the mysterious weapon. You can sense the electricity in the air as a cold sensation dominates your spine, the hair on your body stands at attention. It's as if the blade wants you to have it, it needs you as much as you want it. A thought begins to creep forward from the back of your mind as your hand hovers ever closer to the hilt, "Trouble befalls those who take what isn't rightfully theirs." The momentary intrusion quickly recedes as the blade's silent voice reaches out to you once more. As you equip the blade it fuses to your hand like an extension of your own body. A new and strange mystical power surges through you as you've never felt before. Your stats begin to skyrocket, you feel so alive, but at what cost? A path has been set before you, the die is cast, destiny consumes you. Embrace your inner curse this week with CURSEBREAKER X by EQUIP. Pressed on pink with blue splatter vinyl by 100% Electronica, the next album from VGM WAX Award-winning composer and artist EQUIP (Kevin Hein) is here. This week I sat down with Kevin to unravel the otherworldly mysteries behind his brand new album, and give us all a peek behind the foggy vale of this heroic journey -- It's time for a curse.
SHOP (New Inventory!)
EQUIP (Kevin Hein) is a vaporwave producer, artist, and super positive guy based out of Chicago, Illinois. Best known for his Synthetic Core 88 Original Soundtrack in the video game music scene, Kevin has become a household staple in the emergent video game adjacent vaporwave genre. Infusing his works with an ethereal 16-bit style, Kevin has completely transformed the musical landscape with his unique and dreamy music. As I have been a huge fan of Kevin's for some time now, I found myself compelled to ask him some burning questions that I've been dying to know. First, I wanted to know where the name EQUIP originated from:
"Hmm. Honestly, I don't remember having an 'aha' moment or anything. 'EQUIP' is an option in nearly every RPG/adventure game... it stuck with me. I wasn't thinking about it at the time but there's a bit of cross association there, where seeing the text EQUIP in the game may remind someone of my music :D"
A simple explanation for something that I and I'm sure many others have experienced. EQUIP is such a clever moniker for the kind of music that is produced from this project and fits the aesthetic perfectly. I figured it would be something simple like that, but it was fun nonetheless to ask and find out, you know, for the record!
CEMETERY MOONGLOW (in the cold air of the night)
Signed to the 100% Electronica label, Kevin has set out to release his most epic album yet. CURSEBREAKER X is a massive and dynamic project that has completely blown me away from the moment it was announced. So much work has gone into making this the best, most definitive EQUIP release to date and I am here to help tell its story!
According to Kevin, his parents were a massive influence on him, citing them directly as the driving force behind him pursuing a life in music:
"They were always playing music. The first band I got into was the Beatles. I had a walkman so I taped my dad's Beatles stuff from CD and vinyl."
This early exposure to music I believe is not only formative but harbors a lifetime enjoyment of the art created that can clearly be observed through Kevin's catalog. The sheer enthusiasm he has for anything he's involved in, the type of equipment he uses, and the music he creates has such a palpable and electrifying aura. There's a certain energy about what he produces that never ceases long after it's done playing. As a vaporwave producer that dabbles in video game music and culture I was dying to know what some of his favorite games of all time were:
"Final Fantasy VI, VII, and VIII definitely, I put so much time into them. The Zelda series for sure, especially the game boy installments. Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid. More recently, Earthbound, the Panzer Dragoon series, Snatcher/Policenauts, and Shenmue!"
GATECRASHING (Illusionary Angel)
Labeling these as defining for Kevin would be an understatement. These are absolute bonafide classics. Every single game he listed is teeming with vast cultures and followings that have always bred creativity as an extension of the original artists that crafted them. It's no wonder that Kevin drew from these as defining gaming experiences for himself. What Kevin is doing is the literal manifestation of that culture, breeding more creativity from influential pieces of gaming's history. The rich and vibrant stories that Kevin creates for his music is an amazing representation, not only of the great concept albums before him but of Kevin as a person:
"I adore world building in music. I love a good concept album. The first time coming across narrative based music was with prog rock bands like YES and ELP. It just adds a fun extra layer and gets you to use your imagination a bit. I was psyched that folks were doing narrative based concept albums with vaporwave in 2014, 2015. Using that little text box on the Bandcamp to write something that adds depth to the album, I love it."
NOCTURNE CATACOMBS ( d e s c e n d i n g )
Kevin has always done more than add a little flavor and text to his album's descriptions, he goes above and beyond. Kevin delivers a world overflowing with ripe imaginations and visuals that allow you to truly become lost inside his palace of notes. But what comes first, the music or the story? What drives that creative process that eventually leads to the discovery of a new world below the surface of the sonic landscape?
"Always the music, the narrative always comes out after writing a few tracks. When I feel the buzz of the album-making 'flow state' I usually try to latch on and try to make as much music as I can with the same sonic palette."
MIDNIGHT (t i m e ｉs ｒu n n i n g ｏu t)
As Curesebreaker X is a narratively invoked piece driven by the music of it's creator, what Kevin has crafted here is an incredible auditory experience that is enhanced so much by the various visual pieces of lore he has created and tucked away into every aspect of the creation and promotion of this album. I wanted to learn more about this narrative and just what lead Kevin into this creatively inspired workflow:
"I started working on CURSEBREAKER as soon as I got back from playing LA and San Diego with George Clanton and Negative Gemini (Lindsey French) last fall. I was super inspired by their live energy and wanted to write some faster, more intense music. I had also beaten Castlevania Symphony of the Night for the first time ever earlier that summer and always feel kinda goth in the autumn, so those influences came out into the music."
I knew there had to be some Castlevania involved! From the moment I heard that first single, witnessed the first piece of promotion, and listened to the full album a month ago there had to be a dominating factor behind all this imagery, tempo, and force. The drums on this album are absolutely banging, pushing forward the melodic narrative -- cleverly woven into every beat, time signature, and measure of this vibrant, and reflective album is a piece of Kevin’s own self.
“I wanted to get back into drum programming and up the tempo. I had a problem with drum programming previously, where I would spend way too much time on it and not enough on the actual melodic content. I intentionally kept the drums very simple on Palace and there are little to no tracks with drums on SC88. This one I wanted them fast, loud, and driving.”
This album isn’t so radically different from his previous work, rather it’s a metamorphosis, a molting of Kevin’s previous self into what I feel is a more confident, and inspired musician. That spark of creativity and change bled into everything Kevin did, it consumed him and gave birth to what you will find pressed into this record. That contagious energy brought on by his label head George and Lindsey germinated and became the catalyst for what CURSEBREAKER X has become. With all of this in mind, it helps make the story of this album even more incredible!
"The story of CURSEBREAKER. Our hero, EQUIP, is a traveling weapons collector who finds an "off limits" blood red blade in a weapons shop. They steal the blade and equip it immediately. They find themselves overcome with incredible power, but start changing form, transforming. They learn from an angelic spirit that the 'Sanguine Edge' blade was once part of a magical sword, the CURSEBREAKER, forged by witches and blacksmiths eons ago to slay an ancient demon king. Ordinary weapons had no effect so the sword was imbued with special bloodmajik, essentially fueled by connecting directly to the user's nervous system. Equip must obtain the other half of the sword, the Lightbringer, and fuse both weapons together in the magical forge where it was made.
I heavily referenced the ‘Hero's Journey,’ which is a common story template and the basis of nearly all popular fantasy lore.
LIGHTBRINGER OBTAINED (Countdown)
How freakin' cool is that? The amount of imagery and context that this story provides to the album as a whole is totally and completely on another level! This same creativity and passion is the exact reason I gave Kevin's Synthetic Core 88 from last year the VGM WAX Award for Soundtrack of the Year. His work with Drew Wise on that album showed me just how creative a group of people could be in this ever-growing and emergent genre within the vaporwave industry. CURSEBREAKER X is without a doubt one of the most compelling and unique concept albums I have ever had the privilege of listening to. How did Kevin know when the album was done though? How do you even close the book on something that has consumed you in the most beautiful way? As it turns out the album’s completion was the exact thing that Kevin referenced when I asked him about his favorite memory from this album’s writing sessions:
“I like to test my mixes in earbuds playing on my phone as I take a walk- I figure that's how most listeners will experience it. I remember finishing the record and there was a full moon that day. That's when I knew it was done.”
A full moon on the day it was finished and a Super New Moon on the album’s full release… That’s the kind of stuff you don’t even plan for. This album literally materialized out of the ether to become what it is, and that is the pure embodiment of Kevin’s growth and transformation into the new age of EQUIP!
PERFECT HARMONIC CURSEBREAKER (Final Boss)
The lead up to this album was magical, to say the least, and it gave me a greater appreciation not only for Kevin as an artist but for 100% Electronica as a label. Most bands will release their singles and leave it at that until the album comes out, letting you enjoy the music and nothing more. What Kevin, 100% Electronica, and every other artist involved in its creation have done, in my opinion, is moved the goalposts in terms of quality and creativity. The Tryptic, ahh, the amazing Tryptic. What an incredibly unique and lore driven way to slowly and methodically build up to an album's release. For those of you not in the know, CURSEBREAKER X's three singles were released over the span of a month on three separate 7-inch records all featuring wildly beautiful art from the amazing Bani-chan. When completed this trifecta of album covers combine to create a singular piece of art representing the heroic journey that this album will take you on, it’s honestly frame-worthy. Kevin reminisced with me about his experience in working with Bani, “Her art is gorgeous and I'd been begging her to do a commission for me for a while. I was thrilled with her piece, and I really hope I get to work with her again.” I think we can all agree with that sentiment Kevin!
Pressed on "Milky White", "Translucent Crimson Red", and "Translucent Shadow Purple" vinyl, each single consisted of an original song by EQUIP as well as impeccable remixes from some of the vaporwave industry's greats. Satin Sheets, Dinosaur On Fire, R23X, d'Eon, Nonlocal Forecast Scar Tissue, death's dynamic shroud, ESPRIT 空想, Eyeliner, and Saint Pepsi all had a hand in delivering what is the most unique experience I have ever witnessed in the music industry. I asked Kevin what it was like to work with his peers in such a cool way and this was what he had to say:
“It was amazing! As for working with Marc (R23X), James (DDS), and Tech (DDS/Dinosaur on Fire), I feel a special bond with as we all traveled Japan together last fall. Everyone else was just so incredibly nice about it. I did all my reaching out/communicating via Twitter DMs, and provided each artist with audio and MIDI stems. For compensation, I promised everyone an Equip remix in return. So far I've only repaid one remix debt but look forward to working on the rest when the time comes. People seem to like the remixes and I've received several requests for the stems, so I'll most likely release them publicly later down the line for a competition type thing.”
More EQUIP music is never a bad thing at all, it's going to be cool to hear these eventual remixes from himself and the competition of community-created content! This kind of comradery between professionals is always a blessing to see, not only does it show how amazing the vaporwave industry has become, but we also get some great music out of it! As if all of that wasn’t enough, each and every single included on the B-Sides ECCOJAMS of songs from the full album, and I have to say they are truly great. With the ability to play them at 33 ⅓ RPM or standard 45, you the listener, are given the choice on how you enjoy the music. I personally preferred the slowed down 33 ⅓! This was such an amazing and creative way to release singles and is above and beyond anything I have ever witnessed personally. During the Q&A session, I had the pleasure of picking Kevin's brain to find out just how this creative idea came about!
"George came up with the triptych idea! We are playing into the whole 'gotta collect em all' aspect that even I am a sucker for. I knew Bani-chan would do an amazing job with it and we traded emails back and forth for a while before she started. Releasing singles isn't a new or novel concept, majors and indies alike have been doing it this way for a very long time. It's a good way to soak in the limelight for a while and generate hype and attention. Once your album is out, it's done. People listen to it and move on to the next hype thing. It's sad but true. There's another aspect, which is streaming services like Spotify. Most people, myself included, have zero attention spans. They listen to individual songs, over and over again, vs listening to an album front to back. Releasing songs one by one will ensure that each song, and the album as a whole, will get more exposure. I'll probably release my next album song by song and drag it out EVEN LONGER next time."
Releasing an entire album in the way that these three singles were handled would be an incredible experience and one that I can't wait to witness!
“W h a t d o y o u w i s h t o k n o w ?”
100% Electronica have completely outdone themselves on this release. As a passion project from Kevin, they completely took him in their arms and built him and everyone involved up to deliver a solid product that’s worth adding to your collection. As a group of like-minded creators, 100% Electronica has become a breeding ground of world-class music, and art. Lead by the vaporwave master himself George Clanton, what he and the team he's cultivated have done at 100% is just magical. I asked Kevin what it was like to be signed with such a loving and down to earth label:
"I love 100%, they are the best, I relate to George and Lindsey (Negative Gemini) on a personal level, we are all about the same age and have similar interests. They are all about making sure my releases are 100% up to my standards, letting me take care of my own design, never cutting corners on quality. They really treat each artist like royalty and truly want all of us to grow with the label. I think 100p has the potential to go mainstream, there's a cool pop crossover appeal and a shared nostalgia for the '90s, which is in right now."
By giving their artists the freedom and support to create whatever their hearts desire it's no surprise that everything coming out of this independent label is pure gold. A carte blanche in the best industry imaginable. From humble beginnings to cult classics overnight I would definitely keep an eye on 100% Electronica and any of their signed artists moving forward. All one has to do is look at their vast catalog of music to get a true sense of Kevin's sentiment. This nostalgic movement taking over the music and fashion industry is no joke, and this label has the pioneers that are leading the way!
The artwork for this album was carried out by none other than Keith Rankin. As a staple in the industry, Keith’s surrealism truly encapsulates Kevin’s music and adds a new facet to the amazing narrative that was crafted here. From the gorgeous pastel clouds to the wildly fantastical hero character, what Keith has achieved here is nothing short of spectacular!
Ｉ ａｍ ｔｈｅ ｔｈｒｅｓｈｏｌｄ ｇｕａｒｄｉａｎ．
I remember first being exposed to Keith’s work on the vinyl release for “I Dreamed Of A Palace In The Sky” EQUIP’s first album, and another stunning 100% Electronica production. Keith is truly world class and this album art is proof of his expertise as an artist! I asked Kevin how working with Keith again for this album was:
“This is the third time I've had the pleasure of working with Keith- he is always amazing! The art for Palace is so special to me since it was the first time I'd ever commissioned an artist to make something for me. I provided Keith with Bani's commission for reference, but told him to do it in his own style- and that I wanted clouds, of course. Keith understands the source material- he's experienced with RPGs and knows fantasy aesthetic is what I'm after. The surreal nature of his art fits my world so well.”
The clouds are definitely amazing here and are one of the things I like most about this cover. The wonderful hues and pastel palette spanning this cover is one of the best aspects of this album's presentation. Like a teleporter from the ‘80s Keith has channeled some pretty awesome design and art into this one. It might be one of my favorite pieces from him to date.
Mastering for this album was carried out by Kevin himself and is spectacularly clean. The pressing here is smooth, punches hard, and has a gorgeous breadth to its dynamic range. It's ghostly and soberly quiet when it needs to, leading you twisting you down through its corridor of echoey synth filled grooves, and it's wildly chaotic at all the right moments. Bouncing off the walls in a discordant and dazzling way, Kevin's driving percussion with sweeping synth trills will thrust you up through a nimbus layer of clouds like a spire. This album’s sound is just perfect!
This is easily one of the best albums to come out in 2019, and is the definitive vaporwave experience this year. If you’re even teetering on the edge of picking this one up, please let me give you that final nudge to drop you deep down within this gorgeous adventure. Pick. This. Album. Up. Now. I think this vinyl has the same mysterious properties as the Sanguine Edge? It appears to have fused with my turntable's nervous system — it hasn't been able to come off my platter since placing it on there…
Here's some extra little content that you should definitely check out to further immerse yourself in this world that EQUIP has created, and dive deeper down into the world of the artist that brought this wonderful album to life.
If you want to get a scale for the sheer amount of love and work that was poured into this album’s release look no further than the social media pages for EQUIP and 100% Electronica. For the past week, Kevin has been posting pictures of a commissioned photo-shoot by Breanda Elise Fedie (Gzhel) representing the main character of this album and his slow descent into this wretched curse! These photos and posts are filled to the brim with even more juicy lore tidbits so I highly suggest you check it out!
100% Electronica & EQUIP also teamed up with filmmaker Rocky Heart to release a mini-documentary series chronicling Kevin’s approach to music and the inspiration behind some of his compositions. The first episode is available now and is well worth a watch! Keep in mind this is an ongoing series so make sure that you keep an eye out for more parts coming out soon!
I want to end this review by giving Kevin a huge thanks for being so supportive and communicative through this whole process. I also want to thank you for being a fan of the work I do here with VGM WAX. The fact that you trusted me with an early review copy of this album means the absolute world to me and I can't wait for the next one!
If you liked what you just read and want to help support me by bringing more content like this to you in the future, please check out my newly launched Patreon. Every tier includes early access to each and every review I put out. I've also put together some exclusive VGM WAX-Themed swag like stickers and a T-Shirt for those of you who want that. I have to say they are pretty sweet! I will also be releasing exclusive and unique behind the scenes content available only through this program! Much love to all of you and thank you for the past year. It has completely transformed my life. I can't wait to share more of my passion, love, and creativity with each and every one of you beautiful people!
What’s next for EQUIP?
I’ll just let him tell you… Hold on to your butts…
“90% done with a full length collaboration with R23X that we've been working on for a year now. Really wanting to make more new jack swing inspired tracks! Been listening to a lot of Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis productions. I think that sound has the potential to come back in a big way.”
That’s right folks. A full on collab between the two greatest video game adjacent vaporwave artists of all time! I am beyond hype!
Where to buy?
This album is still readily available to purchase directly from 100% Electronica. Limited to 500 copies, and almost sold out, I highly recommend you pick this album up before this gorgeous pressing is gone for good. 100% Electronica & EQUIP have also put together a bunch of awesome merch and goodies that you can pick up with your vinyl, including: stickers, a T-Shirt, and a special foil trading card! The album and it's singles with incredible bonus remixes are also available to purchase digitally through Bandcamp as well which includes streaming as well as downloads in high quality MP3, FLAC, and more…