On Tuesday, November 12, Compressorhead performed a concert at Union Square in Manhattan. Compressorhead is a band of robots who perform rock music. For those of you that follow my #metalmonday series on twitter, you’ve probably read my occasional tweets about Compressorhead; they are physically a metal band, more than any other band in the world, so of course I’ll mention them whenever they pop up in the news cycle.
Compressorhead’s band members consist of:
Stickboy, a four-armed drummer
Fingers, the guitarist who boasts 78 fingers
Bones, the bassist
These three robots actually tour worldwide and play concerts wherever they (or their makers) are hired to perform. I was excited to finally get a opportunity to hear them rock out. So on a cold November night in NYC I found my way to Union Square to see what these mechanical musicians could do.
Now when I told my roommate about my experiences the next day, his response was: “well what did you really expect?” Which is to say that Compressorhead did not live up to the image I had of them in my mind. Once I arrived they were on break so I snapped a picture and then stood among the dozens of other people scrambling to take their ow shots of the band. It was almost comical to see everyone with their phones taking video and photos.
While the band was on break there were a couple humans tuning guitars and performing routine checks on the robots–basically doing all the stuff that guitar techs do. It was odd to see the three mechanical players in stillness as the canned music plays out of the stage speakers. I got a sense that this was not going to be as awesome as I thought, and once they got to playing it was clear I had expected way too much from Compressorhead.
As I watched them, they reminded me of Chuck E Cheese animatronics more than a metal band. They performed routine moves along with the music and there was certainly an obvious lack of agency. Additionally the music they performed was not really metal music. The tunes that really stuck out were “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Love Rock n’ Roll.” Both these tunes were played with no vocals; this really drew my attention the playing of the robots. In addition to the animatronic style of performance, there was a distinct lack of phrasing on the part of the bassist.
Is it ridiculous to berate a band of robots for their bass player playing with a lack of phrasing? Yes, it is. However, what was most bothersome about this performance, which I didn’t realize until a few days later, was that this trio of machines played tunes that almost any first year high school rock band could do. If I’m gonna hear robots do music, lets hear them play stuff that humans cannot ever hope to play. Your guitar player has 78 fingers! I want to hear huge six voice chords that are impossible for a human hand to play. Give me epic shredding that makes Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen sound like beginners. This is the legacy of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano compositions, now finally for heavy metal band. Bring it on.
But alas, these robots did not perform things impossible for humans. And like the humans who also play in rock bands, they need guitar techs too.