The city is on the brink of collapse. An army of robots led by a power-hungry scientist watches your every move, monitors your every activity. You’ve lost the love of your life, your career, your reputation and your will to live and you’re barely halfway through Act II.
It’s right where The Protomen want you.
For those unfamiliar, you’re in the midst of what is possibly (nay, probably) the greatest rock opera you’ve never head of, an epic story of greed and corruption and misery loosely based on the original Mega Man series. But don’t let that fool you; while the origins of their tale relate to late-’80s video games, their sound is wholly their own.
It’s part of their genius and it’s precisely what you’d expect from a group of nine musicians who grew up on pixels and 8-bit, all the while blasting Queen and Meatloaf. The appeal is broad, loud, theatrical and nerdy–both technically and culturally. It’s part of what makes them the perfect act for an event like MAGFest.
The audience–many wielding arm canons and Mega Man helmets–urged its way to the stage in anticipation; fans of gaming and rock and roll meet somewhere at MAGFest, a nexus of music and video game culture at National Harbor just outside our nation’s capital, and they knew what to expect from The Protomen.
Their master of ceremonies, the jumpsuit-clad K.I.L.R.O.Y., wandered to the egde of the darkness where the stage met the masses. He raised his arms. He bellowed for the audience to help The Protomen fight for justice in their ongoing battle for freedom. He would soon be followed by lead vocalist Raul Panther, keyboardist Commander B. Hawkins, vocalist and keyboardist Gambler KirkDouglas, bassist Murphy Weller, drummer Reanimator Lovejoy, vocalist/guitarist/maraca player Turbo Lover, guitarist Ringo Segundo and lead guitarist Sir Robert Bakker. (Though it should be noted that almost all play many, many more instruments than those listed.) Got all that? Moving forward…
Queen played softly overhead as the nine slinked onstage in their uniforms of black and red, each with their traditional robot-silver face paint or accessories, part KISS, part bandolero, part pantomime. To the utter joy of myself and any others raised on science fiction (at a convention, I’d wager it’s almost everyone), they launched subtly into a cover of “Flash,” the raging Queen-penned anthem for the 1980 film Flash Gordon. FLASH! AH-AHHHHH! As the chorus soared, I grinned. (Admittedly, the original was an alarm clock on my phone for many a month until a boyfriend begged me to end his early-a.m. heart palpitations. Admittedly, I knew at that moment I’d found some kindred spirits in the band when the show began.)
From there, somehow, it only got better. The Protomen streamlined their way through a tight set of ballads of good versus evil, some from their synth-punk self-titled Act I (the tale of Mega Man’s fight against his evil brother Proto Man), many from Act II, the prequel outlining how the dystopia-cum-robot-apocalypse had fallen to such an extent.
Their albums are all at once a beast of a different nature and a fitting counterpart to their live show. Act II is comprised of musical stylings everywhere from Springsteen to something from a Ennio Morricone score, and their shifting voices, characters and stage personas slip in and out of these nuances effortlessly. Their records are slickly produced (in the case of the aforementioned, by Meatloaf’s own producer Alan Shacklock) and their live set, while tight, is somehow wild and free. They pace the stage, they raise their fists in salute and defiance, they stomp, they clap, they walk to the edge of the audience and wail–so much so, in fact, that guitarist Ringo’s fingers were slick with blood for much of the performance.
In addition to their Act I/Act II material, the set included a cover of Roy Orbison’s “I Drove All Night,” a little preview of an upcoming album of covers, and “Hold Back the Night,” a long-anticipated track from the equally-long-anticipated Act III. And in the true fashion of fans with all the heart and hunger in the world, much of the audience knew the lyrics and shouted alongside The Gambler though their latest song has only been released through live recordings.
The most unfortunate part of the evening came, as is typically expected in a festival setting, when the set was cut short due to time constraints. As if this could stop The Protomen. After the line died down at their merch booth (the line which, even an hour after forming, never decreased from its original length), they grabbed their instruments and headed to MAGFest’s jam space.
An announcement on Twitter gathered what must have been 40-50 fans around a much smaller stage for a group-effort performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (well worth the wait). The synth part of the band’s signature closer, “Due Vendetta,” was played on a plastic cat keyboard so the song was punctuated with “meow meowmeow meow meow, meow meowmeow meow meow.” This was easily the highlight of the performance on a night full of highlights.
Would I fight alongside The Protomen in a test of will and morality against a fascist robot regime? Absolutely. And after hearing Acts I and II (available here), you would too. Until then, here are some more shots from Saturday’s show…