How do you even begin to quantify what is and isn't "canon" in fan fiction, I wonder?
Don't worry friends, I'm not talking about 50 Shades of Gray - if I ever want to go down that road, we damn well know I have far more interesting BDSM themed films to talk about. No, I'm talking about The Protomen and the decade or so they've been pouring into what could be the most impressive piece of edgelord fan fiction since Dante wrote L'Inferno.
Back in 2005 the nine-piece group release The Protomen: Act I, a "classically" styled rock-opera depicting an alternate vision based, somewhat loosely, on the 200X continuity as featured in Capcom's classic 8-bit Mega Man franchise, particularly the events of the first three games, ending with Mega Man (Rock) and Proto Man (Blues) - two "sibling" machines - facing each other in combat. The new twist was that the whole thing was interpreted through a lens of an Orwellian Dystopia, with the villainous Dr. Wily playing the role of Big Brother, and the heroic Dr. Light playing out the role of a fallen social pariah - vilified by Wily's propaganda and playing the role of an honest to God terrorists who's second mechanical son walks through the flames of the unnamed city, unsure why the people refuse to take up arms and liberate themselves. It's not until he comes face to face with Wily's most dangerous machine - Light's first wayward son, and the martyred brother he always saw as his inspiration - that the reality of his eternal struggle is made clear, forcing Mega to kill Proto, and leaving the hero unconvinced that humanity is even worth saving as a result.
The whole thing is, as you can guess, just a bit silly. But it's delivered with such sincerity and a carefully measured mix of lyrical narrative, liner notes painting poetic vistas of the INGSOC interpretation of Wily's Robot City, distorted freedom rock and almost pained, bitter soliloquies from one of the NES' early attempts at moral ambiguities, it all hangs together in a way that it probably shouldn't. The Protomen: Act I may be fan fiction, but it's goddamn good fan fiction, experimenting with familiar pieces in ways that I simply couldn't have fathomed possible until I saw it for myself. The first album has some pretty basic continuity issues (is Dr. Light a southerner or isn't he?!), lacks enough context that it may not make a lot of sense to anyone who doesn't already know something about Capcom's all ages original franchise, and buries the finely tuned vocals and snarling guitars under so much faux-analogue distortion that, honestly, the 2013 remix of The Will of One is a dramatic improvement for simply letting the individual elements play out as they were recorded, without any additional "robotic" choppiness laid on top. It's a damn good tune, if you can forgive wearing its youthful heart on its sleeve. Being an unrepentant manchild with a fascination for games nearly as old as I am, this may as well have been crack for my soul.
But they weren't content just to be "that band that's like The Megas, but better". They spun the concept out into The Protomen Act II: The Father of Death, which is an ironically named album because the events actually take place before "Act I", serving as both an expanded foundation for the grim and violent reality they extrapolated from an all-ages game franchise, and allowing them to mash up a more or less original version of "Tom" and "Al", playing the story out as equal parts 1984 and Streets of Fire with the heroes being terrorized by what's best described as HAL from 2001 in a leather jacket. It also burrows deeper into the idea of heroes and triumph being relative, with Tom -unable to avenge the death of his lover Emily at the hands of the machines Albert himself corrupted - becoming a dangerous recluse in the forbidden areas outside of the town, who eventually lures a young man out to join in his fight to take down The Man, and the tower that controls the machines that have enslaved the world without anyone fully realizing how it had happened in the first place. In short, they turned him into two parts Nikola Tesla and one part Osama Bin Laden. It's fucking incredible as a concept and was produced by the guy who convinced the world that Meatloaf was a rock star, jettisoning the grungy mixes of Act I for a largely genuine-sounding fusion of Spanish inspired analogue rock and synth-powered adolescent fury, with each tune building closer and closer in tone to the inevitable sound of Act I until the closing track serves as a prophetic bridge into even the narrative itself.
Basically, The Protomen are to Fan Fiction what Passion of the Christ is to Snuff Films. It perhaps isn't quite the same thing, but goddamn, does it show how badly most other people are doing what they've always been trying to do.
With Act 1 having been released in 2005 and Act 2 having come out in 2009, that means faithfuls have been officially waiting a decade to see the grand finale. They've teased a few tracks, and we've even had a few spinoffs - like the positively decadent, 70s stage-musical level Built to Last on the MM25: Mega Man Rocks Anniversary Album - but their last two full albums have been nothing but cover tracks. 2012's A Night of Queen is, in and of itself, a lovely little tribute to one of the most iconic and influential artists of the 20th century. I like it, but as a friend who's been a die hard Freddie Mercury fan than I have pointed out, the arrangements are actually a little too close to the originals in most cases to be considered all that notable. They're quite good actually, but goddamn few artists out there are Queen level good, which makes very close approximations - no matter how impressive or sincere in their love for the material - seem ever so slightly redundant.
Their latest album - which is now available exclusively on cassette, vinyl or digital-only (no CD, goddamn them) - is one we've known was in the cards for some time. Called THE COVER UP: THE MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK, it too is a fine of covers - though only one was from Queen's collection this time out. The goal was an admirable one - to take the sounds of the mid-1980s and compose the single most amazing movie soundtrack licensing would never have allowed - and to that end, it does a damn good job. One could argue that using songs already associated with intensely 80s films - Princes of the Universe, No Easy Way Out, and Danger Zone may as well be "the theme from..." their respective cinematic vehicles - was a bit of a cheap move, but I'd argue the substantially reworked nature of two of them more than make up for their somewhat shameless inclusion on the list. Hell, the Spicy Tex-Mex version of Rob Tepper's ultimate montage tune was what convinced me to nut up and buy the vinyl in the first place.
What was less expected what the question of exactly what the album means to the broader scope of The Protomen's decade long fusion of Mega Man and insanity. Four dialogue heavy tracks with seamless transitions from the music, as well as a distorted message at the end of the final tune all paint a curious picture that seems like it's part of the larger narrative... but it doesn't quite add up. Tom sounds like Michael Biehn instead of a young Johnny Cash, and there's a romantic subplot with a "fearless reporter" who's never given a name. There's also a question of what "it" was that Albert was so desperate to get back that it eclipsed whether or not Tom survived. So what the hell?
First, let's look at the cover:
Even if you despise these tunes,
I defy you to hate this album cover.
"The Soundtrack to the Motion Picture ." In other words, in the universe that The Protomen have crafted, there was a film detailing Tom being framed as Emily's killer, and that makes the title of "The Cover Up" all the more delicious, as it's basically telling us outright that Al had it banned. But is that all there is? Did the movie just make up some crazy reporter who fell in love with Tom, and moved beyond the Danger Zone to broadcast the truth to those who wander outside the reach of The Arm? Well, maybe - and some unspecified members of the band have reportedly said that the soundtrack is being released on cassette specifically under the notion that Joe, the ill-fated hero of Act II, found this tape in his father's belongings, and that the romanticized vision of what the world was like before Wily's totalitarian regime is what spurned him to rebellion in the first place. It's a really cute idea, to be honest, and if that's as far as it goes - a distorted, romanticized alternate take on the grim underbelly that formed The Father of Death - I'm pretty okay with that.
But it's just as possible that this stretch of Tom's life - the 18 years that occur in the musical interlude How The World Fell Unto Darkness - holds mysteries that have yet to be explored in full. It would be difficult for Act III to work in flashbacks to previous events and keep a forward momentum of any sort, but if the groundwork has already been explored in subtle, clever ways here, that means they can mention "The Reporter" and "The Truth" being revealed without it feeling like a dramatic ass-pull. To that end, the tracks themselves even work in subtle nods to when in the canon they're taking place:
- The end of track 6, "Last Stop", features the sound of sirens blaring and dogs barking in the distance as Tom pays his respects at Emily's grave. This is in direct reference to the track in Act II, 'The Hounds', in which Al confirms that he has no choice now but to betray light and continue on his own path to victory.
- At the end to "Calling in the Air Tonight", the song changes briefly to a progression of notes that marks the shift in Act II's 'When the World Fell Unto Darkness', signifying both Tom being run out of town, and Al rebuilding it in his image. This more or less confirms that the track is playing concurrently with Act II.
- Track 15, 'Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)', is significant for two reasons. The first is that traditionally The Protomen would play their reworked piano intro as an introduction to 'Breaking Out', which occurs when Joe finally gets fed up of Wily's society and leaves to the forbidden areas outside the city's walls.
- No less important is the garbled message that the reporter gives, stating that "He saw it coming" - and "He's been gone for nearly 18 years and yet his dream is still alive". Could this be a pirate radio broadcast that our mysterious reporter has been making for some time, now that she knows the truth about Tom and Al? And could that distorted, intercepted message be the very static on the radio that brought Joe to Tom in the first place?
Even if we ignore what look to me to be blatant instances of drawing parallels between the two albums, the track list as it's organized would make some sense as a retelling of the events of Act II as-is, starting roughly with 'The Good Doctor' and ending shortly before 'Keep Quiet'. Let's examine the evidence, and by that, I mean let's sperg the fuck out over it for a few minutes:
- (Track 1) Pick Up - Emily is startled from her silence by an unexpected call that never answers. Clearly, eyes are on her, and she knows she has no choice but to run or risk her life by staying.
- (Track 2) Because Tonight - Tom surprises Emily with a romantic evening, prompting her to stay by her lover's side a while longer before she flees town. They've previously discussed where their souls promised to meet should they ever lose one another, so shit is about to go down and they know it. They're just trying to ignore it as long as they can.
- (Track 3) Princes of the Universe - An explicit, alternate take on 'The Good Doctor' in which Al convinces Tom that they hold the ultimate power in the universe; the power to change the world with the power of machines.
- (Track 4) Mr Roboto - Tom and Al give "birth" to the first artificially intelligent life form in their laboratory. 'Kilroy' breaking down could easily be Emily's death as described in 'The Father of Death'.
- (Track 5) No Easy Way Out - Tom, on the run from the cops and with no friends left to turn, grips with whether or not "giving in" to thoughts of suicide and allowing Al's sins to go unpunished is best for everyone.
- (Track 6/7) Last Stop/Calling In The Air Tonight - Tom visits Emily's grave, knowing he doesn't have it in him to join Emily yet. Knowing he has no further low to reach, he carries on...
At this point, it gets a little fuzzy, but let's assume this is still canon...
- (Track 8/9) I Drove All Night/Total Eclipse of the Heart - After knowing that something big has been discovered, Tom returns to the outskirts of the city to meet up with the unnamed reporter... and gets lucky. I'm flatly unable to find any reading of this track combo that isn't this. Which'll be really, really weird if my theory pans out in the long run.
- (Track 10/11) Hunted/The Trooper - After coming clean about Emily and confirming feelings for The Reporter, the two are attacked by The Trooper, likely the same "Mr. Roboto" twisted by Al's manipulation to be a violent servant.
- (Track 12) I Still Believe - After surviving their run-in with The Trooper, Tom realizes that it's never too late to change his own fate.
- (Track 13) Results -
- (Track 14) Danger Zone - Far from the prying eyes of Wily's City, Tom continues to experiment and perfect the design for weapons capable of undoing and destroying the sins he himself released.
- (Track 15) Silent Running (On Dangerous Grounds) - The Reporter continues to speak the truth to those who will listen, spreading propoganda among the people in the hopes that they will see Light as an inspiration and rise up against the corrupt, literal-iron fist of their Robot Masters.
This is all to be treated as conjecture - personal theory, no more and no less. But there's two very interesting questions that have so far gone unanswered, and likely either won't ever be clarified, or will be the basis for the twists that propel Act III, when - and perhaps if - that ever comes out.
The first question is who is this reporter risking her life by uncovering the truth of the violence, censorship and manipulation that put Wily in control of the city? The most obvious answer is that, in one form or another, this is The Protomen's version of Roll.
"Who is Roll?" - someone who stumbled onto this page expecting pornography or bootleg mix tapes by mistake must surely be asking themselves. Well, the short(ish) version is that in Capcom's original "200X" continuity, Proto Man (aka Blues) was the first machine Dr. Light built that was capable of independent thought and reason - in short, an autonomous, mechanical human possessing human reasoning. Having created a working prototype, Dr. Light built two additional siblings - Mega Man ("Rock" in Nipponese-go) and Roll (...just, Roll) - as his lab assistant and his house keeper, respectively. Yes, Dr. Light supports keeping skirts in the kitchen and sweeping floors. Make of that what you will. The reason Proto defected was because there was a design flaw in which Proto's core would eventually expire, and trying to rebuild him would inevitably erase his consciousness - effectively, Proto was mortal, and went out to live his own life while he still could. Wily found him near expiration and modified the mechanical man to survive past his due date, at which point Proto swore allegiance to Wily for his help. The Protomen expanded on this idea and made it more a matter of Wily breaking and rebuilding Proto, letting his own doubt in humanity be the reason for his allegiance, but the broad strokes are more or less the same.
Roll is the third sibling to Light's mechanical family. With "Act I" centered around the feelings of betrayal over Light never having told Mega the truth behind what happened to Proto - much less the angst that "breaks" Mega once he's forced to kill the brother he never knew and always looked up to as a legend - the total lack of their mutual sister is a suspicious one, to say the least. Proto Man was actually introduced into the canon after Roll,
The second question raised is "What was Wily trying to recover?" The dialogue between Light and maybe-Roll imply that the two don't know each other, and it's entirely possible that in this interpretation of the story, Roll is actually Wilys creation - not Lights. If this guess is even remotely true, it brings up the possibility of Roll being in a replicant-esque existence, unaware that she herself is a machine, perhaps built to such a high standard that most people would never know to begin with - Roll by way of Maria, minus the fact that Maria was kind of an evil robotic psycho.
But again, at least some members of the band swear that The Cover Up is the "Hollywood" retelling of the real story as presented in Father of Death. With that in mind, it's possible that track 8 marks a break in continuity - that rather than Tom being arrested at Emily's grave, he got back in his car and escaped Wily's police entirely, going on the run with The Reporter. This would place everything that takes place up until the last track in a separate non-canonical timeline in which The State vs Thomas Light never happened, though more or less everything else that occurs through the album does. We all know that motion pictures "based on a true story" tend to take the headlines and fuck up everything in between, so could this be a clever meta-commentary on Hollywood's usual methods? Considering everything that's gone into this album existing in the first place, I wouldn't put it past them.
Regardless of what this record "means", I'm satisfied by its existence. I'd recommend to anyone out there who can appreciate just how gloriously silly and occasionally beautiful post-MTV movie soundtracks could be, and doesn't mind a badass cover of The Trooper replacing every instance of "The Russians" with "The Robots". That's how The Protomen Roll, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
The dog is named after Geddy Lee and pals.
Just in case you were still wondering.