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The Protomen are a band hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, and are known primarily for their adaptation of the classic 8-bit NES Megaman series into a modern rock opera. As is typical of the rock opera genre, heavy emphasis is placed on the conceptual story of the album in addition to its musical content. The Protomen succeed in transforming the mindless platforming video game into an in-depth study of a conventional Joseph-Campbell-esque hero.

The music tells the story of Megaman, the android savior of the remnants of the humanity, who live under the heel of Dr. Wily and his team of robot lieutenants. People who are familiar with the Megaman series are probably already familiar with the premise of the story; what will most likely surprise them, however, is the rather dark direction that the Protomen take the Megaman franchise. Wily’s regime is notably Orwellian, and humanity is oppressed to the point that it may be beyond saving. The central focus of the story is on heroism; Megaman’s brother and predecessor, Protoman, is hailed as a hero by the ignorant masses, but is struck down and killed by Wily’s forces in full view of the public. The masses return to their cowering ways, unmoved and unchanged by Protoman’s act of defiance against the established authority. Megaman wishes to take up the mantle of the champion and avenge his android brother, but Dr. Light, creator and father-figure of the two brothers, opposes the decision after witnessing humanity’s unwillingness to fight for themselves.

Megaman is eventually successful in his solitary crusade against Wily’s regime, but only through self-sacrifice and the cost of his own idealism. He is forced to confront a rebuilt Protoman, who sides with Wily after being embittered by humanity’s lack of courage following his sacrifice; “I’ve given everything I can/ There are no heroes left in man.” Megaman defeats his brother, but when the crowd praises him and condemns the fallen Protoman, he is disgusted and leaves mankind to fend for itself against Wily’s remaining forces.

The music is typical rock material, with lots of heavy guitar work and synthesizers occasionally slipping in 8-bit sounds for nostalgia’s sake. Musical references to the themes from the NES games are scattered throughout their songs. Live performances are done with members of band wearing motorcycle helmets modified to represent the various characters in the opera, accompanied with wild hand gestures done in time with heavy guitar riffs. Despite the goofy nature of the subject material, the band seems to take itself very seriously, and rightly so. The Protomen provide an insightful, mature spin on what most would consider childish source material without relying on cheap gimmickry to appease its original fanbase.

“Tom, listen to yourself then listen carefully to me.
If you replace the working parts, you get a different machine.”

The Protomen’s second album, Act II - The Father of Death was released in 2009. It was produced and engineered by Alan Shacklock which resulted in a much cleaner and easier to listen to album than their previous effort. In addition Act II utilized a wider range of musical styles, from a vibrant, yet mournful, salsa to almost swing-esque big band music to a pounding, punch dancing, 80’s power ballad, each tailored to fit specific scenes.

Act II is actually a prequel expanding upon and slightly altering the sliver of canon back story between Dr. Thomas Light and Dr. Albert Wiley. The above quote from the song The Good Doctor, which is the second song on the album (or possibly the first as track 1 is listed as Intermission), sets up a theme that is repeated through out the album’s story as well as can be seen in the first album. Take something that works; change it to fit your purposes.

Plot (contains spoilers, some material taken directly from liner notes)

The story begins with Dr. Light and Dr. Wily before they finish the completion of their first robot Guts Man. They had both approached the project with the same goal in mind, making hazardous working conditions safer for the common man, but they maintained different philosophies of how that should be done. Dr. Light wanted to have his creations be used as tools to ease the labor of the working class.

“They’ve waited so long for this day.
Someone to take the death away.
No son would ever have to say,
My father worked into his grave.”

Dr. Wiley on the other hand believed in the ultimate frailty of man, and that for true progress to be made, men would need to step aside but should still be able to reap the benefits of labor.

“They’ve waited so long for this day.
There is no price they wouldn’t pay,
For someone else to lead them.
Don’t turn your back on me!”

Ultimately Dr. Wiley’s arguments won out. However, he wanted insurance.

While Light is out wandering the streets, pondering the choices he's made, Wiley takes Guts Man and has the robot murder Light’s lover Emily Stanton. When Light finds Emily dead he blames himself for creating the machine that killed her. Light is framed for her death but is acquitted; meanwhile Wiley, speaking from screens across the City foreshadowing his rise to an Orwellian dictatorship, inflames the City’s populace, telling them that the old systems have failed them if a murderer can get off scot-free.

Light flees the City and Wiley gets decades to reshape it to his ideals. The City’s populous lives comfortably, not having to work as robots perform all the labor, but anyone who makes a dissenting remark disappears. Children tell stories about a red-eyed assassin called “Light’s Monster”. The City becomes more and more a gilded cage with Wily at the controls.

A young man, Joe, who had grown up under Wily’s regime flees the city looking for freedom. He finds Light, but they are followed by Light’s Monster. Together they destroy it. Light, now obsessed with revenge, convinces Joe to take a bomb to Wily’s tower and destroy the transmitter, whereby Light can sneak into the City unobserved and kill Wily.

Joe is caught in the blast and falls lifelessly from the tower, and unfortunately it was all for naught as, though the transmitter was destroyed, Wily had a back-up in place. And a plan. Transmission screens around the City talk of insurgent forces and threats to the safety of the City. People are sent back to their homes as an army of robots marches out to impose order.

Light’s grief over creating the robots and Emily’s death comes rushing back compounded with fact that he just sent Joe to his death.

“Emily a crowd has gathered here,
And once again they fail to see.
You can’t just set the world at someone else’s feet,
And not get trampled underneath.
And I think somehow Joe knew it.
He paid the price he thought he had to pay,
But Emily, that debt was meant for me…”

As he listens to the screams around him, Light finally reads a letter from Emily that he’s carried since the night he found her dead. In it, she talks about her suspicions of Wily, and that she wanted to stay but had to leave because the City needed Light more. With that, Light’s resolve to set things right returns.

Act II taken along with the events of the first album shows that the story of Dr. Thomas Light, like a greek myth, is the story of a man who keeps trying to fix the world, but everything he does makes it worse.

Presentation

I got to see a performance at Emo’s in Austin last August and it was well worth the ticket. That night I watched seven performers crammed between instruments on a tiny stage whip the audience into a frenzy, raising fists in defiance of a fictional oppressive regime. They performed a spattering of songs from the two albums, though not all of them in sequential order.

Their first encore was a near perfect cover of Queen Princes of The Universe, which was a spectacular treat, followed by another album song.

The concept of the stage productions and retelling of the story is that the performers are members of the guerilla freedom fighters spreading word about the struggle against Wiley’s iron grip of the City. They dress mostly in blacks and fatigues with make-up reminiscent of futuristic war paint and some masks. For a few songs they pull out two modified motorcycle helmets, one designed after Protoman’s aesthetic, the other after Mega Man (this one is even wired for distorted sound), when the lead singer is reprising the role of either of the robot brothers.

They even stay in character while doing interviews.

One of the issues I had with the first album was that the lead singer, Raul Panther, sang all the parts; Narrator, Protoman, Mega Man, Dr. Light, kind of like a really geeky version of The Who’s Tommy. At times it was unclear who was talking especially for the first three (Dr. Light’s voice is done is a growly baritone). For Act II they brought in more singers for other parts; Dr. Wiley performed by Turbo Lover, and Emily performed by The Gambler, and while Raul Panter also voices Joe the quality of the recording now makes it easier to differentiate between the characters he sings.

Controversy (Because there always is some)

While the story of the albums is based on the Mega Man video game franchise, this is only used as a foundation. Only general characterizations were sourced, and, like the story, the band has taken these and altered them to suite the needs of the work. No music from the games is used in the production of the albums. Only Dr. Light, Dr. Wiley, Protoman, and a few of the other Robot Master are ever named. Mega Man is never called by name. The band isn’t endorsed by Capcom, so the whole project exists in a legal grey area of copyright law.

When asked about how they feel about this, the band has generally commented that either Capcom doesn’t know about them, does know but doesn’t care, or is waiting till the band starts making money before making contact…probably with a cease and desist order.

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