Prototype – first listen

I’m pleased to announce that I have a new album – Prototype – almost ready for release.

Prototype is a beat-driven instrumental album of dark, heavy and thought provoking electronica.

While I finish the final production tweaks on the music, here is a full stream of Automation.

Prototype will be released as a digital download via my Bandcamp page in the very near future… stay tuned for details!

Rophonic – In With the Out Crowd

I was recently commissioned by Sheffield duo Rophonic, to produce the cover art to their new album, In With the Out Crowd. With an advance preview of the album, I was able to immerse myself in the pastoral and hazy world of Rophonic, and there came the challenge of creating a piece of cover art to match the music.

Guitarist and vocalist Peter Rophone’s brief was “this is the world where dreams are made”, and that both band members should be relatively small. The rest was up to me.

We initially looked at a variety of different artists for inspiration, particularly English Romantic painter John Martin, whose work we both admire. From this, came the conclusion that there should be a golden dusky sunset.

After working on several very different concepts, I hit upon the right direction, with what is on first impressions, a warm, surreal and dreamy landscape. Yet on closer inspection, it looks somewhat dystopian. There are strange buildings towering into the horizon, and the scene is framed by ruins. Rophonic themselves stand among the crumbling ruins, but both figures are overgrown with vines and entangled with creepers, as if they’ve been there for some time… perhaps in perpetual performance!

With tracks such as Welcome Back to the Afterlife, The Door Into Summer or the sublime Curtain Call which closes the album, the music does indeed pose certain questions as to our existence and what comes next. I wanted to reflect this in the strange world I had created – which is part digital painting and part photo montage.

The artwork was designed to continue across the front and back cover of the album packaging, plus there would be a different scene on the inside. Having created the main panoramic piece for the cover, the next challenge was applying the text.

I decided to use a transparency effect for the typography. White text (or any other colour for that mater) simply cut through the artwork and jarred with the whole thing. This needed to be subtle, yet legible and in-keeping with the mood of the whole project.

In With the Out Crowd is available on CD and digital download via Bandcamp.

Blasts from the Past…

I got my first Amiga computer – an A500 – in 1990, initially to pursue my interest in computer graphics. However at 12 years old, it wasn’t long before I also became absorbed in computer games, arguably one of the things that the Amiga did best. 

I was always a big fan of the shoot ‘em up genre – in particular sideways scrolling shooters like Menace, Blood Money, R-Type, Apidya and Disposable Hero to name just a few. Being a science fiction fan, the notion of piloting your own space craft through alien worlds and fending off the enemy was always appealing (Apidya aside, where you flew a wasp through a more Earthly environment). There were fewer vertical scrolling shooters, but titles like Battle Squadron and Xenon II were excellent.

My best mate Tony had told me about the existence of a shoot ‘em up construction kit – a piece of software which allowed you to actually create your own vertical scrolling or static screen games, without the need for any programming! I was sold!! I remember the Shoot ‘em Up Construction Kit (or S.E.U.C.K) arriving, in its shiney blue box. It was published by Outlaw and Palace Software, the studio responsible for games such as Barbarian. 

Amiga-SEUCK

The S.E.U.C.K interface was simple and easy to use. It was limited to either static screen vertical scrolling levels, which essentially meant any game you made would have to be top down in view, and 16 colours; 8 colours for sprites and another 8 for backgrounds. It also came with a large sound library for all your in-game sound effects. Everything had to be drawn pixel by pixel, and you decided all the attack waves and enemy movements, mapped out by movements with the joystick. 

The world was suddenly my oyster, and in no time at all, I was exploring what I could do. I remember making a Doctor Who game where you battled Daleks (simply due to the inclusion of a Dalek shouting “Exterminate!” in the sound library), and a game called Iron Butt, an Untouchables-inspired gangster romp, which was really an excuse to draw lots of bloody deaths! However, it was thosepace-based shooters that I really wanted to make and gradually became addicted to creating.

Me and Tony made several games together, calling ourselves STAB Software (the name was derived from our combined initials!). Our first project was called Paranoid, which we ambitiously spread across two disks in order to vary the colour palette, by effectively making four separate games for each ‘world’. 

At the time, I had set my sights on becoming an Amiga games designer or artist. Being able to put together my own games, felt like an exciting first step. I even used to draw my own cover art for the games and make boxes for them.

Dozens of S.E.U.C.K games were started, though my main fixation was to make the best classic shoot ‘em up that I could. Granted, there wasn’t much variety in what I was making – the games were a variation on a theme and each one was an attempt to better the previous as my ideas and pixel art skills improved. Above all, it was tremendous fun!

I was frustrated that you couldn’t make a horizontal scrolling game – I remember even writing to Palace Software to see if there was any possibility of a Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit 2, where this would be possible! There wasn’t going to be one.

As the next couple of years went by, it became obvious that the end of the Amiga – and my dreams of making games for it – was in sight. However, my career ambitions had already shifted by that point, and I was content to simply enjoy the process of creating my own S.E.U.C.K games. I made them for my own enjoyment during the school holidays, their only audience being Tony, who would receive a copy of each finished game, fresh from the disk drive! Of course, had I had the Internet back then, they would have gone straight online for other people to download and play.

Dusting off my A1200 recently and finding my (fortunately preserved) disk box of S.E.U.C.K games, it was great to relive and rediscover my own creations.

These games were made between 1992–1995 and the ages of 14 to 17, so do bear that in mind – along with the fact I’ve had to take photographs of the games, via an LCD television screen connected to the Amiga by SCART, so not the sharpest images I could achieve (especially with no pause option…!), but certainly better than nothing. The main thing was to get a snapshot of the games, so here goes…

 

Zyrax (1991)

After dabbling with the construction kit for a year or so, this was the first game that felt like it was really going somewhere to my 14-year-old self. Tony came on board to draw some of the backgrounds, as he had a way with pixel art that I didn’t at the time. Obviously any space-themed game needed an alien sounding title, with Xs or Zs in the name!

1-Zyrax

 

Hell (1992)

All of my S.E.U.C.K games took influence from the many games I loved playing on the Amiga. By this point, I we were starting to work out ways of cheating the software to make the games better.

On Hell, I faked parallax scrolling by having invisible sprites firing out a steady flow of vertical background graphics down the screen!  Here’s a short clip:

2-Hell

Terrania (1993)

I took everything I had learned in making Hell and ramped it all up a level for my next game. One major advancement in my designs was rather than joining enemy sprites together (which rarely worked that well) in order to make a big end of level guardian, I actually drew the guardians out of background blocks in order to make them huge, then covered them in invisible sprites for the collision and firing. This meant they were static (then again look at R-Type or Menace…), but much more exciting.

3-Terrania

Megawing (1993)

A great game with a terrible title! Highlights included an aquatic level where you could pop bubbles by ramming into them to score bonus points. The aim of the game was to rescue your Megawing fleet, and at the end of each level (usually just next to or behind the boss), there was a fleet ship to ‘collect’.

At the end of the game, you are rewarded with a screen displaying all the end of level baddies… and their silly names.

4-Megawing

Intruder (1993)

Taking it’s title from the opening track on Peter Gabriel’s third album, which I was obsessed with at the time, Intruder was a much shorter game but I increased the difficulty level, probably just to put Tony to the test. During this game, I drew a hexagonal background pattern that would become a recurring theme.

6-Intruder

Scorpiox ‘95 (1995)

This was one game I actually made twice. One of S.E.U.C.K’s major flaws was that it was very easy to accidentally overwrite your game with the title screen graphic. The game file and title screen had to have the same name, but saved in different directories, so it was an easy mistake to make. This fate befell the original Scorpiox, which I remember being very happy with – and in one click it was gone! So I started over. 

I deliberately went for a more organic look to many of the levels on Scorpiox, whether it was aquatic, vegetation or anything generally slimy and tentacular. Again, all the boss characters were built out of background graphics with animated sprites overlaid for power sources, guns or big features like mouths or eyeballs. This also meant that when you blasted the sprites away, you could reveal wounds or damage underneath.

I’d also learned to play with the timing function for the end of level boss sections, so after you’ve been fighting the thing for a while, it was possible to suddenly change things, so the boss could unexpectedly come back to life, get angrier or increase its attack. 

The first boss in Scorpiox was a big brown monstrosity screwed into position with gigantic bolts. After you think you’ve defeated it, the thing suddenly frowns and fiercely does its best to obliterate your ship in a second wave of attack! Other bosses included a green mass of pulsating eyeballs, a huge gun and the end-of-game guardian which starts off encased in an armoured shell that you gradually blast away, revealing the enemy within. 

5-Scorpiox

Armouroid (1995)

By 1995 I was on a roll, and making my best games. Despite its title sounding more like a medical condition, I was particularly pleased with the ship design in Armouroid. Once again, we had crystalline landscapes, subterranean caves and industrial strongholds to penetrate.

7-Armouroid

Cronium (1995)

Even looking at Cronium today, there was suddenly an improvement in my graphics and combining the various tricks to make things more exciting.

On the first level of Cronium, I had indestructible sprites fire out a constant wave of lasers – a security force of the level you were entering. So you had to be quick in navigating the laser fire, otherwise you’d completely had it.

8-Cronium

Tin Machine (1995)

Yes, the name did come from David Bowie’s much-maligned late 80s rock band! I had discovered the first Tin Machine album in the run-up to the release of 1.Outside, which would become my personal favourite Bowie album. Meanwhile, I concluded that Tin Machine would also make a great game title.

It was also the best game I’d made up to that point, putting everything that worked well in the previous ones into play. Huge end of level guardians… timed screens, so that they would explode once you’d blasted them to bits, and I even worked out how to use the static level option to create basic end-of game sequences.

In Tin Machine, you faced a huge robotic golem, a giant sphere (with obligatory centre eyeball) and a screen-filling end-of-game boss. You flew over the compulsory hexagonal background, space age pyramids and a Giger-esque world of mangled pipes and wires.

9-TinMachine1

Tin Machine II

Finally, we have Tin Machine II, with a stylised colour palette of just reds and blues. This gave the game a really different look to what I’d done previously, even if I was (still) revisiting old ideas (like the hexagon level…).

By this point I was drawing more organic looking backgrounds. One of the levels was made up of a red bubbly landscape – this was actually a recreation of the first level of a game I had made (and lost/overwritten) a few years earlier, called Space. Tin Machine II culminated in a grotesque final level where, at the end, you encountered a repulsive giant heart, studded with pulsating, blinking eyeballs! Once shot, the valves deflate and the heart hangs in tatters before leading into the end of game sequence.

I even dabbled in some rudimentary end of level boss music, having loaded various audio samples I’d found, into the construction kit. Again thanks to an invisible sprite firing bullets off-screen, the fire sound effect was a music sample, timed to fire so that the sample played on loop. It didn’t always work, but it was fun when it did. Years later, I realised that the sample I’d used was actually a bit of “Maniac” from Flashdance. That ruined it a bit.

But that aside, I’m still enormously proud of the two Tin Machine games, probably more than any other. They’re playable (as well as any S.E.U.C.K game was) and brimming with creative ideas. They are arguably the best games I had made in my efforts to push the construction kit to its limits.

10-TinMachine2

Making these games were a large part of my personal computing history and indeed teenage years in the early 90s. I’m grateful to the Amiga for so many things (I owe my entire career to it, in many ways), but in particular the Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit.

I’m really glad I still have these games. Perhaps the next step is to work out how to port them to my Mac, and then they can at last go out into the big wide world…

The Sleeping Dragon

This week, my latest cover art was unveiled – a full cover wrap for The Sleeping Dragon, a fantasy comedy by Jonny Nexus.

This is probably among a minority of fantasy books with “dragon” in the title, but no dragon in sight on the cover, and there is a good reason for this – but you’ll just have to investigate the book when it comes out, to discover why!

Jonny was keen to show two times within the cover; a lush, Tolkeinesque landscape of the past, intersected with a glimpse of the future metropolis that would be built on the same land. Showing the future vision via a crystal ball conveyed the magical, fantastical element that we wanted.

The Sleeping Dragon Cover

I also created a short animated visual for the cover, which Jonny has used in his own cover reveal video…

You can find out more about the book and Jonny’s other work, by following him on Twitter.

Gaming in the Obscure

One of my current projects is the design & layout of a new book, Gaming in the Obscure, by console collector, Jonn Blanchard. The book details many of the lesser known and much forgotten gaming consoles of the 80s and 90s.

Jonn has launched a Kickstarter campaign to hopefully fund a bigger print run of the book, so if retro gaming is your thing, please come and take a look!

 

Warrior Errant

Another recent book cover illustration was for Harry Elliott’s début Military SF novel, Warrior Errant. The video above introduces the cover art, which was great fun to work on, and also something quite different to my previous covers.

Check out Harry’s author page on facebook, where he’s had the marvellous idea of getting his fans around the world to send in photos of their copy of the book!

Warrior Errant is out now, published by Guardbridge Books.

warrior_errant

Alice Sabo – High Barrens

One of my most recent cover illustration projects was for Alice Sabo’s new fantasy High Barrens, the first book in Sabo’s new Tales of Haroon series.

Alice wanted to capture the essence of the mystical world in which this coming-of-age story is set, but at the same time capturing the sense of journey and adventure.

Here you can see my initial concept sketch and the final artwork for the front, back and spine.

To find out more about High Barrens, visit Alice’s website.

Limited Edition CDs

Three of my albums are available on limited edition CD direct from my Bandcamp page.

Crossover is my latest release – an epic three-part soundscape reminiscent of the 1970s LP era, that explores the blurred lines between dreams and reality – or is it a crossing into an alternative reality? Crossover has been likened to Mike Oldfield and John Carpenter.

Back Into the Light – composed throughout 2017, Back Into the Light brings together electronic beats and otherworldly atmospheres, and celebrates 10 years since my début release, Into the Light. The album comes with beautiful cover art by grand master space artist, David A. Hardy.

Traces – a personal favourite, originally released in 2014, Traces is a nostalgic and reflective collection of tracks composed using many sounds from classic Korg synths of the 80s and 90s. The passing of time is at the core of Traces, as it looks into the past and future as reality becomes entangled with dreams.

Recent Features

Here is a guest post I wrote recently for the RetroVideoGamer website, talking about the inspiration of 90s Amiga computer game music:

http://www.retrovideogamer.co.uk/the-chiptune-legacy-amiga-music-inspiration-25-years-on/

I also participated in SouthWaves Audio’s regular ‘5 Questions’ feature:

http://www.southwavesaudio.co.uk/2018/05/15/interview-alex-the-light-dreams/

From the shadows…

I recently completed 3 illustrations that were inspired by The Body Library – the latest book by Jeff Noon. I was present at the book’s launch at Follycon, earlier this year, where Noon read a haunting passage from the book – although I was already sold on it, having read the first book in the series, A Man of Shadows, last year.

The world which Jeff Noon has created for the inspector Nyquist mysteries is quite unusual. Astoundingly original, in fact. I haven’t read anything quite like it. The first book,  A Man of Shadows, was set across two time (and mind) bending worlds; Dayzone (a city of constant daylight) and Nocturna (an eerie underworld of perpetual darkness). It felt like a surreal film noir, or some kind of retro-futuristic graphic novel. For The Body Library, Jeff Noon turned that strangeness up to 11, setting the book in the city of Storyville… a place founded on the written word. Words spread like living disease and everyday life is infected by stories.

Living up to its title, The Body Library is a  surreal and disturbed with a gripping murder mystery at its core. I found my inspiration fired up, and knew I had to interpret some of the book’s moments in my own way; as if illustrating an imaginary graphical version of the story. I hadn’t done any illustration work like this for a long time, so that in itself was particularly rewarding.