You can’t really speak of synth metal without dropping MASTER BOOT RECORD in the same breath, right? It doesn’t matter what you think, you can’t. Over a short few years after arriving to the synth metal table, MASTER BOOT RECORD is already synonymous with that tag. I can’t recall precisely how I ended up caught in the magic of these tunes, but it happened and I couldn’t be happier. It’s definitely one of the more rewarding musical experiences I’ve had – if not for anything else, for how much I can put this music on repeat. I’ve spun all MASTER BOOT RECORD releases dozens of times, as well as the Keygen Church releases, which are an alternate outlet of cyber mastermind Vittorio D’Amore. Now, for those of you who are familiar with the act, you might be thinking the same as me: what’s up with this eerie, mysterious, kind of dark, yet weirdly alluring avatar/persona/musical identity?

‘The way the MASTER BOOT RECORD persona shaped has to do much with my personal life experience and the events that took place right before I started this project. I’ve been going through a phase of radical changes both on an artistic level as well as a personal level, and that has influenced the approach I had with the project as well – particularly the choice to stay semi-anonymous, or rather, almost never associate my actual name to the project. I wanted people to focus on the music rather than myself, but it was also connected to other things such as VirtuaVerse, the videogame I was developing, whose main character’s identity is also shrouded in mystery. That character was actually designed based on some of my photos and I have also written the story, so there are elements that are inspired directly by my life experiences.’

I think that’s a rather novel take on the whole not-revealing-your-identity schtick, so to speak, which has been put on by many other bands, most notably though, Ghost. There’s something palpable and organic about the reasoning behind all of it and, in an odd way, it almost feels relatable, if that makes sense. I love it and it makes me wish other groups would flesh out things more, in order to avoid the style-over-substance trap, although it doesn’t end here; MBR is much more than that. There’s a fantastic, almost esoteric tinge to what’s at the core of it. As D’Amore continues:

‘On the other hand, the MBR concept is about a computer that is enchanted by a sort of spellware made of Icelandic magic and glitches in its algorithm that made a 486 DX begin to write this mix of chiptune, synth metal, and classical music. In this context I’m more like a system operator, which is also what I’ve been doing as a job for a decade. There’s quite a lot of aspects relating to the concepts of MBR that are strictly connected to my personal sphere and my life growing up with computers through the ’90s. On the musical side too, I take inspiration from all the music I’ve been listening to in that time frame, from the crack intro and demoscene music, and videogame music, to classical music and thrash/death metal. MBR is quite the direct expression of all those things together and I believe that most of the people can feel that genuine connection to it.’

I mean, it’s obvious when you come in contact with any MBR record, or even song, that there just has to be some kind of strong tie with old computer technology, but it becomes even more obvious as it is revealed to us in the lines above. This type of deep-seated bond is one of the most important ingredients in making a compelling act and, obviously, authentic music that will just grab you immediately. As it becomes even more apparent as we move on, it’s not simply a gimmick; real life bleeds into art and vice versa:

‘It is indeed entirely a thing bleeding from real life and my past. When I was a teenager, my father had a computer shop that was really active through the ’90s, but even before, when I was a kid, he was into computers as a hobbyist. We would be playing around with those early computers in the cellar of my family house. So, I’ve been basically growing up among floppy disks, computers, crack intros, ocean loaders, video games, printers, scanners, early operating systems, and all that stuff, but I have been actually working at the computer shop too. I’ve been doing hardware technician tasks, acted as system operator, and all sorts of stuff in the IT field for my whole life, even after the computer shop closed in the early ’00s.’

While only a small number of people may share a similar past, it’s likely that it led to other paths and ultimately, it may not be all that relatable. However, the musky smell of old computers, the clock-like buzzes, whirrs, clacks, and other sounds that old machines made, will definitely make some kind of nostalgia bloom within us, making the appeal all the more apparent and a fascination appear all the more natural. Now, as D’Amore continues, it’s about a little more than just a matured childish wonder; there’s a clear-cut artistic endeavor there:

‘The fascination with old computer tech is also pushed by a sentiment to preserve and pass on the knowledge of those machines and old software, but it’s also connected to the artistic approach of the project in a lot of different ways. For example, the limitations that come with these old technologies are also a multiplier of creativity. This is a concept that is also a founding principle of demoscene, where the challenge is not just about doing the most interesting effects using the code but also doing it on machines that have limited computing power and little space for data. The same concept applies also to pixel art for example, where you have a limited canvas and palette. Low resolution. High Imagination. Of course, it’s a basic concept in chiptune music, where you have to write music dealing with the limitation of each machine’s sound chip. This is a type of approach I also have with what I do as MASTER BOOT RECORD. I have created my sound set that is my own and that is pretty much the same through all the albums. I’m focusing more on the composition rather than having several fancy sounds or effects.’

It’s probably about time to actually touch on the music itself, no? MASTER BOOT RECORD is a highly prolific outlet, holding to its name a good 14 releases. Yes, you read that right, that’s a little over two albums per year on average. Remember I mentioned above there’s also Keygen Church? There’re three albums to that name as well. Some bands/projects will mull over the better part of three to four years usually before a record is done, and here we’re lumped at the extreme opposite end of that. Naturally, it calls into question if it’s a deal where quality is sacrificed for quantity. Having mowed plenty of times through all these records, I can safely say that, while there are certain dips in quality in my view, they’re few and far between, and for the most part it’s a solid stream.

Yeah, I do have a sweet spot for the style itself – how it’s voiced with old analog-sounding tones, the relative density of the tunes being packed to the brim with action, but I will confidently hold that statement even taking a few steps back. Things can also be misleading because of the approach at hand: things can sound maybe too similar between albums if you aren’t listening carefully. There’s a large palette of compositions put on show for us.

VIRUS.DOS, for example, takes the form of a highly energetic, thrashy, bombastic, dramatic, and action-packed journey – but not only that. It’s a record that makes me headbang as much as it will make me daydream in lines of code. It will also send me on some deep trips into the dark nether regions within me. Sometimes I’ll even wistfully stare out the window, pondering existential questions because of certain moments found throughout. It has a very neat flow to it too, and I don’t even usually realize as I drift from one state to another. I guess I could say that this translates as a bit of a hypnotic character as well.

I spoke at some length about C​:​\>DEFRAG some time ago here, having been quite fond of the experience I had with it. I also discussed PERSONAL COMPUTER a few months ago, although it wasn’t such a captivating experience as a follow up to C​:​\>DEFRAG. Not that it wasn’t a fun ride, but it felt like it lacked some of that proper oomph. Now, I can’t really complain, because I had all the possible kicks with the third and latest Keygen Church last year.

If I bring forth DIRECT MEMORY ACCESS, I can yet again engorge on this sonic offering with eyes wide as saucers, glinting with excitement. While it’s not quite as hard hitting as other staples from MBR’s oeuvre, the emphasis it takes on melody and harmony is simply enthralling. It absolutely lends more into the direction of old video game soundtracks, with a more playful attitude transpiring in its melodic unfurling. It’s a highly entertaining affair, but don’t think for a second there aren’t riffs. There’s enough of them to break your neck headbanging, if the weight of the wild, yet sometimes soothing vocal delivery of the vocalist from Öxxö Xööx wasn’t enough.

There is, though, another thing that’s worth dropping in here, as if the veritable cornucopia of listening material existent just isn’t enough. MBR also makes covers of old video game tunes and themes in his own trademark style. Said archive is always updated when there’s a new entry and it’s a really nice touch, which ties in very neatly with the entire demeanor of the project. You can find these for free (how lovely) right here.

How all these things come to life at a nigh alarming frequency is anyone’s guess, but we can stop guessing, because there’s a very clear presentation of the process just around the corner:

I’ve always been very fast at composing, but the type of production approach I have created with MBR really let me speed it up even more. Everything is MIDI and the fact that I’m using the same sound set for each of the projects is something that lets me focus entirely on the composition, rather than the mixing or sound research. When I open a project, it’s all already sounding the way it should sound and I can just focus on writing the music. This is also something that made it possible for me to live stream while I am composing. In a different context it would be much more complicated. Most of the times I stream, I essentially come up with an entire song/raw part in a few hours. Of course, then there’s a lot of work I do with the records to polish the mix and do the final arrangement, so with every album I try to improve the production and the sounds themselves. ‘

D’Amore expands on that further:

‘Yeah, it’s a lot of albums and tracks in a short time frame, but I think it’s just a normal pace with the type of production approach here. I essentially just write stuff when I am inspired and I also take very long breaks in between where I am not writing anything at all. For example, now I am back writing some stuff for Keygen Church but it’s just pretty erratic; I may compose three days in a row then stop for a month, then maybe I’ll write for a week and finish the album. To be honest, I don’t really have control of the pace at which I’m producing stuff but, on the other hand, I can say I will probably slow down a bit to focus more on the live side.’

While the result appears bewildering, the process seems pretty casual and systematic. Also, yes, a lot of the times when MBR is composing or recording it will be happening on a live stream. You can find some of those sessions here. Now, that’s just behind the screen and the keys. On stage, though, it’s something else entirely and I can almost feel the excitement that goes into putting that show together. Especially with the pandemic easing enough to allow the return of live shows – our most beloved staple of music – I can imagine that an MBR show is something that’s an absolute must.

‘We finally have a chance to be back playing live shows and we have so many songs – it’s insane. I’m really focused lately on growing the live side of the project and there’s a lot of exciting challenges, as well as things to do about it, which I already have had the chance to experiment with. I’m also very proud of the live members that are sharing the stage with me; they are both incredibly talented performers. The great thing about the live sound is that we are essentially doubling and playing along all the electronic sequences. I do the rhythmic guitar parts with a baritone-tuned guitar and the lead guitarist is doubling all the lead parts, plus there’s the live drums that add a lot to dynamics. The live parts we play aren’t always the same as the album, though, as we are adding variations to the original versions and, on top of this, I recently started to add additional synth layers by using a Commodore 64 and Amiga 500, which are modded to play as live synthesizers. At the end of July, we had our first two shows after the pandemic, where we could finally bring live the whole thing and it was really awesome. We had a lot of fun and I can’t wait to play those upcoming shows we have lined up in the future.’

I have to say I was almost instantly fascinated with the tones I heard through MBR’s music when I came into contact with it initially. Particularly the synth guitar, because let’s be fair here, it’s the thing that catches your eye. It’s like the most expensive thing in a store; you’re drawn to it without even seeing it. Over time, I kept trying to figure out maybe something about how it comes together in that sense. A friend and I concluded that surely there’s some Native Instruments plugins that’re being used, but other than that it was all guesswork and hypotheticals, one wilder than the next. Well, we get something of a reveal in that sense!

‘Actually, I am using only one plugin from Native Instruments, and that’s the Massive VST synth. With that synth I’m essentially doing all the sounds, including the synth guitar and bass, the pads, leads etc. The most characteristic sound is, no doubt, the synth guitar, which is actually a very simple chain of plugins. There’s a base sound done with Massive that goes into the amp emulator of Cubase, then it’s doubled to make it stereo, panned 75% and routed to a group bus where it gets distorted more with quadrafuzz and then goes into an EQ and reverb. It’s a pretty simple thing, but it does also work on a very precise balance of things. That is also why that sound specifically never changes too much, even though I’ve been improving it gradually through the albums. It’s got a very specific tone that is sort of a trademark sound and every time I try to create it with different plugins or combinations it just never sounds as good.’

It is rather curious to me, though, how clearly defined this tonality was, like, right from the beginning. There are few bands out there with such minute changes in tone and sound. The general idea of the setup has stayed basically the same, undergoing changes merely in terms of being more polished and/or refined. The one variable which creates a dynamic signaling evolution is songwriting. Some may hold this under criticism, but I was too enamored with the sounds to care, even though I myself like to criticize such moves. As we find out below, there’s actually a really clear and well-defined reason why it’s all the way it is. No dramatic shifts, no wild style changes, or anything that seems remarkably out of place. This extends in many ways to Keygen Church as well, not just MBR.

‘I’m really happy with the sound I have as MBR and I really focus into exploring the composition side of it rather than have any radical change in the sound. It’s very similar to the classical music approach, where you have an ensemble and you’re writing music for that specific group or set of instruments or just writing compositions for piano or for orchestra. Changing the sounds, the way I see it, would essentially change the project itself, which is exactly what happened with Keygen Church, where there’s a sound set that shares elements with MBR, such as the synth guitars, but then focus on piano and pipe organ as main instruments, although without any chiptune leads/pads/lead.’

It’s honestly a perspective that surprises with how grounded it feels, although it will make a pinch more sense a little later. Now, going on to shed some light onto the genesis of Keygen Church:

‘I started that project because I wanted to explore a darker side of synth metal with something more influenced by black metal, gothic metal, and doom. The thing that kickstarted it though was when I was going to Venice on vacation. There, while visiting a church, there was this guy playing some very interesting music on the pipe organ. Of course, it wasn’t the first time I listened to organ music, being a big fan especially of Bach, but that event sort of gave me the impulse to do this project. So, when I came back, I just wrote a bunch of songs in the span of three weeks and released this new project.’

It came as no surprise to hear that D’Amore is a big Bach fan. Having listened to a lot of classical composers myself, the influence from that area is clear as day in MASTER BOOT RECORD’s tunes. The electronic influences pretty obviously show their roots as well, without any kind of reserve. The music almost feels like a love letter to these precursors as much as a graceful and grateful nod in their direction. At the end of the day though, the influences in MBR’s music carry on from plenty of different areas:

‘I’ve been listening to classical music since I was a kid actually, but it has been around ten years ago when I started to listen to it more, how can I say, methodically and getting inspired by it. I’m especially a big fan of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin because of the darker vibe of their music. On the other hand, I indeed have been influenced a lot by electronic music, especially industrial, techno. Of course, the influences extend beyond chiptune and demoscene music as previously mentioned, to, obviously, heavy metal.’ Talking about music, my main influences come from the thrash metal and death metal I was listening to as a teenager. That is probably the biggest influence, because I simply grew up with those bands. To name a few: Metallica, Megadeth, Sepultura, Death, Testament, Kreator, Sodom, Pantera, Slayer, Exodus, Anthrax, Bolt Thrower, Destruction, Entombed, etc. – the list would be too long if I were to name all of them. I’ve lived through the tape-trading era so the amount of metal bands I’ve been listening to is so big that I can’t even remember them all. Actually, streaming services have been a great way to figure out some of those more underground thrash/death metal bands and discover some more I missed at the time, which is pretty cool.

All of that checks out; it lands neatly in line with what we hear and it’s really nice to see it all coming together like an arcane digital puzzle. One thing that I didn’t initially expect to be an influence at all, is warez culture, but it makes perfect sense:

‘One thing I’m very proud of is that I have recently been a guest doing a collab with Dubmood for a track that appeared the recent crack intros and installers of Razor 1911, which is one of the most legendary warez groups. Also, my song “ANSI.SYS” has been the theme music for CODEX installers in the latest couple of years. It was great because growing up during those times I’ve played a lot of those pirated games, just like literally everyone at the time. Let me say this too: whoever doesn’t want to admit it is just a hypocrite, because there was literally no one I knew who was rich enough at the time to buy every single game in original copy, even though you’d eventually buy those which you liked more.’

D’Amore keeps unraveling that thread, showcasing an interesting outlook on piracy and its legacy:

‘It was a completely different time, though, and to be honest, piracy has been a key factor that contributed to the popularity of some video games and software houses – not to mention the fact that piracy itself has been a key factor for the whole computer scene to grow as a whole and become what we experience today, same as tape trading has been essential in the popularity of heavy metal. Also, not to mention that so many of those skilled programmers who were initially part of crack groups went to work legit or even founded companies in the IT world and have literally shaped and built the world we live in today. That being said, the great part of warez groups wasn’t just the pirated games but also the fact they put out some damn good music in all those crack intros and, later on, demos. That was, of course, a big inspiration for me that shaped the way I’m composing music as well.’

I listened to “My Lorraine 500” ad nauseam on repeat for more than I’d ever care to admit. It’s unbelievably satisfying and elegant in its simplicity.

It’s fascinating – to say the least. Since we arrived more heavily into the subject of software and particularly games, it is known that one of the newer MBR releases is the OST for a point-and-click adventure game called VirtuaVerse. We’re going to find out how that went down, and there’s also an interesting twist in there.

‘Actually, VirtuaVerse has been the reason why I started MBR in first place. The way things went and starting this game also inspired me to dig back in my past, pushed me to go listen again to chiptune and demoscene music, and eventually contributed to create the project itself. It all started when I asked Valenberg, the pixel artist, to create an animated looped GIF to go together with a song I was writing and the concept was based on some of my photos. It was a cyberpunk setting with this character standing in an alley of some sort, smoking a cigarette. When saw the GIF I was like: ‘this totally looks like a point & click adventure’. So, I proposed to Valenberg if he’d be interested about doing a game. Then, eventually, I met Elder0010, who is a very skilled coder, as well as a demoscener in the Commodore 64 scene, so we all decided to join forces and create this small development team called Theta Division. Then, of course, we needed a soundtrack, so I wrote a bunch of tracks which ended up being the OST of the game. However, I had some tracks that were a bit too metal for the game, so, starting from those tracks and that’s how MBR was born. The interesting thing is that, despite being released in 2020, the soundtrack of VirtuaVerse is basically the very first MBR album. Take “Mag Police” particularly, which is the song at the beginning of the first scene of the game. It’s literally the first track I wrote and it was heavily inspired by the PC demo of Second Reality.’

Departing a little from video games and leaning into a different type of game so to speak, fans of MASTER BOOT RECORD will be well acquainted with the cryptic and mysterious strings of numbers at the end of the track listing for each album on Bandcamp. To those who are new here, they’re puzzles. Decryption puzzles. These involve ASCII translations, varying types of AES encryption, runes, and other things. For some it sounds super fun, but these kinds of things are beyond me. I am nevertheless deeply fascinated and I have even followed, for a while, various message boards hoping to learn how to figure these out. The thing is that the reward for solving these puzzles consists in never-before-released songs from MBR. There’s a great deal of secrecy around the solutions to the puzzles, like state-secret levels, showing first and foremost how tightly knit the community formed around these is, as per MBR’s request to keep the solutions and the tracks to themselves. That begs the question: how many people have figured these out?

‘It is impossible to say how many people have solved them, but I can say there’s been really a huge amount of people that did. I have recently automated the process, but before, I was sending directly the emails with the bonus tracks to those who solved the puzzles and at that time it was in the order of 500 people or more. The great thing is, those puzzles have created a very nice community that is used to meet up at my IRC server, especially during my live streams. I have absolutely no idea about the identity of any of those people because the chat is entirely anonymous, but it’s always a lot of fun to chat with all of them while doing new songs. The IRC server, at first, started only as part of a CTF for the album Internet Protocol but then I’ve kept it active because a lot of people started to gather around it and it was really cool. I also have a BBS on the same server that has been visually revamped recently thanks to the help of my friends Smooth and aNST from iMPURE!ASCII 1940 who did improve it with some very kickass ASCII art.’

I think it’s only appropriate to direct our curiosities towards the dimension of the future. What’s going to be happening next in the already so storied trajectory of MASTER BOOT RECORD and Keygen Church as well? I think things are looking good, and we can expect a bit of silence in terms of releases, but most definitely plenty of noise on other ends.

I’ve been dropping some riffs for a new Keygen Church album for a while now, but I can’t really say when this will be released. The first cassette for both Keygen Church albums has been released recently on a Bandcamp Friday, which also features some very cool packaging and design – it is a very special and limited edition. Apart from that, as said above, with MBR, I am focusing now on live shows since the new album with Metal Blade released just some months ago. We had another show in Hungary on August 20 at Fekete Zaj Fesztivál and then Euroblast on October 1, as well as a show upcoming in Rome on December 2, but our booking agency is already working to line up many more shows for this winter and early 2023. I think next year will be very live focused and then maybe I’ll also start working on some new album. As I said, it’s not something I really have control over, it will just happen when I feel inspired. After all, to switch the PC on, run Cubase, and start the live streaming when I feel like doing it, is all it takes to spread the code.’

Indeed. It doesn’t take much to spread the code, particularly for us. Now it’s your turn to spread the code if you believe: Facebook, Bandcamp, YouTube, MBR Server, SoundCloud, Twitter, Spotify.

Robert Miklos

Robert Miklos

What can I say? I love slapping keys and listening to squiggly air.

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