Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Fight Of The Protomen

(The Protomen: Act I)
Full Disclosure: While I take it that everyone reading this has accepted that literally everything I say is a subjective, personal opinion, this one should be taken with a shot of salt and lime more than usual. Not because I'm saying any part of it without conviction - let's face it, when I say I love something it's because I fuck'n love something - but because I'm speaking outside of my usual expertise: Namely, that of a music critic, which is a thing I am not. I can only express the feels, man, and hope that some of you might give it a look based on that.

So while I'm being as humbled as I can be, I should probably also point out that I don't readily identify myself as a "gamer" in the broader societal sense - at least, not in the sense that the word is typically used to describe. I detest online multiplayer with strangers, and whenever I do drop $60 for a game opening week it's on something absurd like Hyperdimension Neptunia or Lollipop Chainsaw rather than the latest Call of Duty or God of War spinoff - but that doesn't mean that I don't still like games.

I like them a heck of a lot, actually - if you could see how many hours I sunk into Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage you'd think it was all a cry for help, and I've never been more exhaustively infuriated when 3/4 of the way through Dead Island, my game shat the bed, forcing me to reset my stats and complete the final map with not only nerf'd characters skills, and no customized weapons at all. Hell, I even finished all but the final stage of Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days - not because it was particularly good, but because it encouraged local co-op, allowing the wife and I to mow down rows of Mandarin spewing NPC's and strategize how to take down that one dipshit hiding on the first floor with the grenade launcher. Y'know what that is? That's bonding time, friends. Not binding time, though, that's... that's another discussion entirely. My point is, while I'd happily elect myself as some sort of exploitation-slash-animation nerd, gaming is a hobby, and a secondary one at that. One I very much like and take seriously... but no, my days of taking anything that involves buttons labeled "A" and "B" with anything but a passing grin are, for the better I'm sure, long behind me.

Pictured: Everything I ever wanted for my birthday.
(At least until "vagina" became a valid answer.)

As a child, however, the NES and its latter 16-bit successor were a huge chunk of my adolescent life. I learned how to read more through a combination of The Legend of Zelda and Looney Tunes than anything else at my disposal, and I can remember myself, two family members, and literally two other kids being the sole survivors of a showing of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. And I was excited to see it. I mean, yeah, I was still under 10 at the time - I deserve the benefit of the doubt at that age - but the fact that I'd spent more time stomping goombas than I ever had working on math homework was just a staple of my younger self. I hundred-percented the shit out of Super Mario 64, and was young enough to look at that as something of an accomplishment. I also got to the final boss in Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos - now, I don't think I ever actually beat that cocksucker Jaquio, but all things considered, just goddamn getting there was an impressive enough achievement for anyone too young to have pubic hair or credit card debt. I always hated sports games and drifted away from consoles in general once Sony had, somehow, become the tent pole company pushing both hardware and new developers... but for a while, that's who I was.

To put this in simpler terms, I'm absolutely a member of that nebulous group occasionally dubbed by its members as "Generation NES". And one of my all time favorite franchises from this period came in the following box, rented for one joyous weekend sometime in 1989 for a mere $2.50 (plus a late fee or two, I'm sure):

Wait... did our hero just break his ankle?

Mercifully I never saw the butt ugly cover of the first entry, or I may never have given it a second look... too bad that hoagie chugging monstrosity spawned its own memetic playable character in Capcom's already irony-soaked STREET FIGHTER X TEKKEN game instead of the version of Mega Man everybody actually likes. Oh, that feeling you have while watching that trailer? It's called "Swallowing Sadness". Mega Man and I basically parted ways on the NES around part 5, I think, but I tend to hold the potentially sacrilegious opinion that Mega Man X was the best form the franchise ever took anyway. I'd make that same argument for Super Metroid as well, but now we're barreling off course... let's get back to those rock 'n' roll guys I posted at the top for a few minutes.

The Protomen started as an independent rock project in 2003, and have - for the most part - retained their anonymous status, with the lead singer having only ever referred to himself in public as "Raul Panther" - but hell, the second most reasonable name these guys have relating to their public personas is K.I.L.R.O.Y, so, just don't think too hard about it. Their first album was released in 2005, and while neither the most complex nor original album, musically speaking, it grabbed my attention by its premise: A rock 'n' roll fable - their words, not mine - presenting the continuity of the original Mega Man NES games as an operatic tragedy. The album's liner notes are filled with a complex backstory filling in details that diverge quite heavily from the Capcom series proper, with a level of dystopian decay, violence, and moral ambiguity that didn't fit in with a NES series who's sole mechanic can be summed up as "walk, jump, shoot, repeat". Granted, Mega Man is one of the handful of Nintendo franchises' to be popular enough to get a semi-canonical Saturday morning cartoon series in the early 90s and gave way to a host of cut scenes in the games proper, giving just enough back story that using the simple world of the blue bomber as a means of fraternal warfare made just enough sense to make perfect goddamn sense to turn into a... Rock Opera. Because holy crap, what doesn't become more awesome in the presentation of a long-form concept album?

Even if you aren't familiar with the in-game history of Thomas Light and the sinister Albert Wily, The Protomen's self-titled debut album give you a crash course that tells you about all you need to know; Dr. Wily holds the world in fear with his army of dangerous robots, and Dr. Light built a machine known as Proto Man to fight back. Proto Man lost the war, and Light tried again, if by way of 1984 and with a dash of Blade Runner for flavor. Mega Man fought against Wily's horde, only to realize his fallen brother, Proto Man, had defected and now fights for the liberation of machines instead of men. Whereas Capcom's games ended this conflict in a draw and eventually had Proto Man gradually switch sides back towards that of humanity, The Protomen's album gets to this conflict and ends on a darker, emotionally charged note that re-writes the very essence of the Mega Man mythos.

While the whole The Protomen: Act I concept album is certainly decent, and runs with a number of musical styles ranging from twangy country to distorted electronica beats and even bouts of furious punk rock, the absolute show-stopper is The Stand (Man or Machine), a deceptively serene piano driven piece in which the jaded and dissonant Proto Man reveals himself to his 'brother' who thought him long dead, and spits the young would-be hero's idealistic philosophy right back in his face.

(The Protomen: Act I) 
I guess you could easily enough argue that it's all a manipulative stunt driven by nostalgia, tearing away the wholesome layer from a nearly 30 year old game franchise and leaving an adolescent-minded 'serious' version behind... but honestly, it works more than it doesn't. In no small part because despite this being the world's unofficial "Grim and Gritty" reboot of a franchise best described as silly, it's working with whatever moral and narrative complexity already existed, even in the games themselves. Hell, the first album even uses the 8-bit synth themes as the backdrop for the music proper, layering on increasingly complicated music on top of carefully reconstructed NES soundtracks, forming not the overall tone of the album, but a recognizable part of it that it still clicks in with the memory of the games themselves. It walks a fine line between lionizing and destroying the material it's named after, and I think the sum of its parts is better than it really ought to be. It's all just fan fiction at the end of the day, but at least it's good fan fiction - what more can we ask for from a Nerdcore rock band who's most obvious inspiration were a fusion of Queen, Les Miserables and Kurt Vonnegut?

Along with an increasingly ridiculous stage presence (see above), the album is available on CD with a large selection of... I guess they'd be narrative notes? They set the stage during instrumental passages in a way that wouldn't be possible otherwise, not without it quickly becoming a bizarre music-driven radio show. All in all, their first album is the positive side of both nostalgia and fan omnipresence; it's proof positive, even if it's on a small scale, that artists who grew up with this stuff as the voice of their childhoods are not only capable of making incredible art, they're capable of turning those memories into art itself, that not only redefines the shared experience we all had with it, but stands on its own two feet by using those common experiences to color how we interpret these new threads born from the same common threads.

Case in point, during The Stand (Man or Machine), as Proto Man delivers his heart-breaking soliloquy as to why mankind is doomed to be crushed under the hell of Wily's robotic domination and, in turn, is telling Mega Man his own tragic reality of having only found acceptance from the person he was literally built to destroy... a funny thing happens. Proto's very human voice cracks the further into his story he goes, gradually shifting away from the bitter, angry feelings of an all too human narrator to the distorted whine and snarl of a machine: Proto Man has not only rejected his father's philosophy, he's showing a physical rejection of humanity so strong that by the end of the song, he's basically an incomprehensibly auto-tuned Megatron sound bite. Proto isn't the only character who's literal emotional breakdown is realized in this way, either, leaving a totally chilling end to what could have otherwise been an operatic celebration of Good vs Evil. Like I said, I'm no music critic, but as a piece of what - again, I must stress - is rock 'n' roll fan fiction about a game for children, that is fuck'n awesome.

Don't turn your back on the city.

The Protomen, in all their cheesy yet hard-earned glory, weren't done with simply recounting the rise and fall of Dr. Light's most famous creation - if they were, this post would be a lot shorter, because frankly I'd be less enthusiastic. In 2009 they released The Protomen Act II: The Father of Death, with producer Alan Shacklock, who made a name for himself producing albums for Meatloaf. Unlike the previous album, there are no intro/outro tracks, the 8-bit chip score noodling is regulated to a few surprisingly good instrumental tracks, and the storyline is... well, despite the title it's actually a prequel to The Protomen's self-titled album. The Father of Death begins, again, with canonical Capcom fragments - namely, Wily and Light teaming up as young men to build an army of robots to carry out duties humans couldn't safely do on their own - and then quickly expands what little we knew about these man into an original story that has no direct bearing on the official storyline... but doesn't outright contradict it, either. With the exception of a handful of names, this could easily be seen as a totally original work, but the fact that it was carefully constructed to resonate with the ideas in their previous album makes that fact all the better.

Wily and Light built the first machine that could do the work of a man, and while they both realized greatness could come from it, Light could see that Wily's aims were far less altruistic than his own. No longer wanting to be a part of Wily's grand plan to rebuild the city into an automated metropolis he went to his lover Emily's home to leave with her... only to find that Wily had already killed her, the last letter she'd written to her beau still in hand, and that the police were right behind him. Light was the only suspect, and Wily used his newfound control over the local media to paint Light as a monster. He was eventually brought to trial, where he was pronounced not guilty, turning Tom into a pariah and giving Wily a face to unite his city against. With no other choice, Light fled the city before he was lynched, and was assumed dead by Wily's mechanical eyes...

(Act II: The Father of Death)

Many years later, Wily's city has become a soulless, "perfect" machine unto itself. A young man who calls himself Joe and still rides his father's gas powered bike has seen the way the electronic utopia has closed in around everyone, leaving them listless and unable to do anything for themselves. Wily tries to put a stop to Joe, and in the process drives him inadvertantly towards the old hermit who lives on the outskirts of town. Light and Joe realize they're two halves of the same resistance, and realizing their time is limited, concoct a plan to destroy Wily's transmitter, bringing down his army of machines in one fell swoop... with survival almost surely impossible.

Let me make this explicitly clear; Doctor Thomas Light sends a shaken teenage boy off to right the world's wrongs with a backpack full of explosives, with the only plan they have is him crashing his vehicle and then sacrificing himself in one glorious, nihilistic act of resistance. Doctor Light is about two steps from becoming Osama Bin Ladden... and he's still the guy we're rooting for! The "Good Doctor" returns to Wily's city as fast as he can and sees that Joe's sacrifice has meant nothing; in the years since he was run out of Wily's city, he had built a fortress with its own broadcast tower. He had built an army. A mechanical Hell on Earth. With nothing left up his sleeve, Light waits for Wily to strike the coup de grace and end this miserable, deadly dance the two have done for years. In his final moments, read the last letter Emily had meant to give to him. They strike a chord with him, and Light realizes that he has one more option to fight Wily on his own terms. If you remember that "Act II" takes place before "Act I", you know exactly where this is going... and then feel a little sad for him.

(Act II: The Father of Death)

Musically, The Father of Death is a lot more complicated than its predocessor. The album toys with Country, Spanish guitar, Ska, even a mournful Gospel piece finds its way into the formative emotional roller coaster that compromises the first half of the album. Once the lurch forward into the future happens, the album settles into a seemingly odd choice of machismo fueled 80s synth-pop, which are (arguably) the high point of this band's entire output so far. In a way, this all makes sense too; the lore it's riffing on specifies 200X as the year in which Mega Man rushed into battle, which means that throwing the past of this universe to not only the potential sounds of 198X, but the stylings from whence these games were born to begin with gives an oddly fitting "full circle" from the inception and inversion to what, in my eyes at least, could be the final relevant form of Capcom's most famous machine.

There's a number of legitimately good songs here - The Hounds is an exciting, unexpected bit of genre bending that gives us a side of our villain that's never been properly explored. Breaking Out is a piece that could have easily slipped into Walter Hill's Streets of Fire, a soundtrack which - coincidentally - the band has admitted played a large part in inspiring this album to start with. Light up the Night, in particular, is the catchiest goddamn 80s movie show-stopper about suicide bombing that somehow never existed and shows this 9 piece band is more than capable of elevating themselves above a novelty, if they so choose... and yet, they seem to not be going anywhere but further down the retro rabbit hole.

For better or worse, their third album was A Night of Queen, a live show covering a wide variety of what could be the greatest, gayest rock band of all time. It actually isn't bad, either, though as good as the band's frontman "The Gambler" is, no man alive can top the vocals of the late Freddie Mercury, so it's relevancy to the world is debatable. According to a fairly comprehensive fansite - which, I'm afraid, is infinitely more readable that the official one - their fourth album, The Cover Up, is set to be a literal album of 80s movie soundtrack covers, and they're already suggesting by way of key art on a limited casette release* that this might also be woven into the fabric of the original material they've been producing. Considering how damn good their oddly Ennio Morricone inspired version of NO EASY WAY OUT was - which quietly slipped out on a limited vinyl B-side, the way all singles did once upon a time - I'm curious to see where this goes. Are we getting The Protomen Act 2.5 by way of Rocky theme songs? Beats the hell out of me. But if we do, wouldn't that be kind of great?

And what of the future of The Protomen's Capcom inspired rock opera? Well, as of PAX 2012 they've officially unveiled a rough version of a single track from the third and final Mega Man continuity. Details remain in the mist, but based on both what we've seen and the general shape of Mega Man lore, it's a pretty safe bet that Roll is going to be the one to end it all.

Kneel before your robotic savior!

Honestly, I can't wait to see how this all pans out. I'm all for the earnest worship of whatever the hell it is makes you happy - hell, working intently and maniacally on nerdy studd is what landed me a career in the first place. But I'm especially happy when the results of that fan-wank turn out to be something good. I've long been told not to say anything if I don't have anything nice to say (and tend to do a shit job of it, I know), but all I'm going to say about The Megas is... well, these guys are what I thought The Protomen would be. And I was thrilled to be proven wrong.

With any luck, at least you might now understand (if not even share) my fascination with The Protomen. There's something not just fun and unusual about them that caught me by the short hairs, but something honest, something that comes from a place of understanding that you can take this stuff as seriously as you want, so long as you don't half-ass it. A big chunk of the things I find myself enjoying in terms of music, movies, games and everything else that crosses my path is a certain sense of Absurdist Drama, that idea of taking something as simple as the story of robots shooting lemons at each other and then making the audience feel something for it. That's the stuff that I can't get enough of.

Along with their next two albums on the horizon, The Protomen have supposedly shot a number of music videos over 2011-2012, and are also working on a Kickstarter Funded documentary. In a way, if you've only heard of them recently you're cheating; we blew past years of uncertainty and unanswerable questions. But we're in a wonderful position to see this thing end, bringing to rest a part of my own adolescence that never quite burned out of its own accord. It's fun, and goddamn it, sometimes that's all it should be.

Now, if only I didn't know THIS existed and was selling for double/triple the original MSRP, I'd be even happier...

* Seriously, everyone within earshot who does anything that relates to music: STOP USING TAPES. They sound terrible. They're not convenient. I don't care if it made Rosario Dawson's panties drip in Death Proof. They're a joke, and unlike carrying around a vintage 8 pound Game Boy, there's nothing on a tape you couldn't easily get onto a CD. Like I said above, these guys get one pass what with the release date, but Jesus Christ...

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