Music and robots are two great tastes that go well together – right? Just ask Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, otherwise known as our funkiest robot overlords, Daft Punk. But why is this? Music is simultaneously a powerful form of individual self-expression and a staple of shared, communal experience so it makes sense that songs have always been a way to explore and to express what it means to be human. Likewise, robots. From android butlers to crazed killbots, robots provide an element of distance that we can use to reflect on ourselves: what makes robots different from us and what does it say about us that the robots we’ve built behave the way they do? And think about the clanking, whirring and beeping sounds typically associated with mechanical invention, you’ve got yourself some great beats and effects right there. Not to mention the fact that robots simply rock.
So it’s hardly surprising that there have been a lot of robot themed songs and albums released over the years, from film and game soundtracks to full robo-rock operas. For a discussion of some of the real classic proponents, like Kraftwerk, check out Robert Bidders’ interesting post Your Petrochemical Arms: A Brief History of Cyborgs, Superhumans and Robots in Pop Music. The approach I’m going to take here is a bit less scholarly. Basically, it’s just a list of robot themed full albums – covering quite a range of musical genres – that I really enjoy. Perhaps you will too. Check ’em out…
5. Xenturion Prime: Mecha Rising (2014)
Xenturion Prime are Hasse Mattsson & Bjørn Marius Borg. Hailing from Oslo & Tønsberg, the band describe their musical style as “Scandinavian Powersynth: a musical hybrid, combining electronic industrial and synthpop with cutting edge electronic dance music and epic orchestral soundscapes.” Among their influences they cite one Optimus Prime. If you’ve seen their – rather cool – logo, this second fact won’t surprise you.
Released last year, Mecha Rising is the band’s debut album and it’s a really great record. It’s got danceable beats but the orchestral elements and the grand scale of the album’s themes give it a much more epic feel than your standard industrial pop album. Mecha Rising isn’t a unified concept album like some of the others on this list, but all the lyrics here seem to explore the notion of a transhuman future:
With every move I make
I can hear the sound of a hundred moving parts
The memories remain
it’s part of the illusion
Like echoes of a broken life
Lyrics from “Second Nature”
Taken in isolation some of the lyrics could seem very dark but the dancey beats, catchy hooks and soaring vocals combine to make the overall tone a lot more optimistic. There are some great songs of space exploration and ideas of uniting man and machine. Even “Radiant” (my personal favourite), which is a post-apocalyptic war song, pounds with such pumping adrenalin that it feels like the soundtrack to the best first person shooter I’ve never played.
Here’s the video for their first single, “Rise” which isn’t that special visually but it’s a great song. I really hope I get the chance to see these guys live at some point!
4. Janelle Monae: The Archandroid (2010)
Monae is a very new discovery for me, suggested by a friend when I was calling for suggestions for this very post over on Twitter. R&B / soul isn’t usually a genre that interests me but I was drawn to the ambitious concepts that inform Monae’s work. The Archandroid represents “Suites 2 & 3” of her Metropolis Concept series, inspired by the seminal Fritz Lang film of the same name. Monae performs from the perspective of her alter-ego, the female android Cindi Mayweather sent from the future to free the robot citizens of Metropolis from oppression. Mayweather falls in love with a human, a union forbidden in Metropolis’ dystopian society, and goes on the run. She is called both to follow her heart and to fulfill her destiny as a messiah for robot freedom.
It’s heady, high concept stuff, which clearly uses the robot analogy to examine concepts of the otherness, and the – sadly all too real – human history of oppression:
She always fights, for her man but not her rights
Even though its 3005
Lyrics from “Locked Inside”
The album trailer demonstrates the epic scale of Monae’s vision and ambition on The Archandroid, while also previewing the record’s more orchestral moments.
Musically, the album is a real kaleidoscope, taking in R&B, jazz, cabaret, Michael-Jackonesque pop, diva soul balladry, prog-rock, orchestral themes and even trance elements. It certainly isn’t the kind of record you can fully digest on just one listen. Indeed, by all accounts it ought to be a pretentious mess, but Monae has the not only the talent but, importantly, also the sense of playfulness to carry it off.
Of course, such genre-bending comes at a price. Most people have preferred genres and musical styles and, however much I appreciate the album’s unified conceit, I doubt I’m alone in finding that, musically, some parts of it are simply more enjoyable than others. Still it’s a fascinating listen and so refreshing to hear a record that takes pop music in an such ambitious sci-fi direction. Even in its most straightforwardly romantic moments there’s a lot more to this story than simply “droid meets boy” and hallelujah to that!
Here’s the video to “‘Cold War.” What a voice.
3. Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory (Mike Morasky): Songs to Test By (Portal 2 OST) (2011)
I have to be disciplined here and not simply go off on too much of one about how much I love playing Portal 2, and how it’s simply one of the best games of all time. But I do! And it is! Mike Morasky’s soundtrack is surely a key ingredient of this success.
Valve are experts in knowing when to let the music dominate play and when it needs to be merely a background effect. In Left 4 Dead 2 (another firm favourite of mine) I still find the musical cues for the different zombies make me prickle with fear even though many hours of play have left me pretty-well inured to the shambling hordes themselves. In game, the music to Portal 2 works in a similarly atmospheric and complementary way. There are some memorable audio cues – like the almost danceable sounds that accompany use of the bouncy Faith Plates – while the overall tone slides from a rather clinical-feeling retrofuturism to eerie industrial neglect.
So, this music is very effective in game, but does it stand alone as a soundtrack? I should probably come clean as quite a big fan of dark ambient and dark electronic music, so my perspective is biased, but I think it does. Soundtrack albums appeal by reminding us of particularly memorable moments from the game or film; Songs to Test By is explicit about this with tracks called things like “The Part Where He Kills You.” But even if you haven’t played Portal 2 (you’re seriously missing out by the way) its music is sufficiently evocative that the soundtrack can take you on a virtual journey through some of the major tropes of robot themed science fiction: from the melancholy mechanoid (via the haunting, discordant piano on “Love as Construct”), through stirring wonder (“Music of the Spheres”) to the more benign, playful robot buddies evoked in the glitchy, chip-tunesy tracks from the game’s co-op component, featuring the adorable Atlas and P-Body (“Robots FTW”).
And then, of course, there’s Jonathan Coulton’s Want You Gone, which – unless you have been locked in an abandoned research facility for the past 5 years – probably needs no introduction.
Here’s “Science is Fun” (audio only) to give you a taster but the great thing about this pick is that the whole soundtrack is available for free and legal download here.
2. Various artists: Transformers the Movie OST (1986)
Ha! You thought this was going to be my number one didn’t you? Well, nope, there is a robot-themed album out there that I like even more than this one (there are two, in fact), but there’s no denying that the Transformers the Movie soundtrack is a bona fide classic. I wonder just how many people first discovered the awesome world of rock music via this album? I’m a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to TF fandom (though making up for lost time I think) but B would certainly credit the bands here (Lion, Spectre General, N.R.G.) for helping to initiate his younger -less-bearded – self in the ways of RAWK!
If the songs of Portal 2 can evoke a robot story that stands quite separate from the world of the game, the opposite is true of the some of the 80s power ballads on this album. Stan Bush’s ”The Touch” is THE iconic Transformers song, but – although it’s impossible to hear it without conjuring mental images of a certain much loved blue and red truck-bot – those “mighty hands of steel” mentioned in the lyrics were not intended to be those of Optimus Prime, or even Hot Rod, but rather Sly Stallone in the film Cobra. Vulture.com have a good article here about the song’s history and the unintended nature of its now unbreakable robot association. “The Touch” and Bush’s other song on the soundtrack “Dare” are both cheesy as hell, but they do inspire and rouse, and they still get me every time.
But there’s more than 80s rock on the soundtrack to Transformers the Movie. The album also gives us numerous instrumental tracks by Vince DiCola which still stand up as great 80s-tinged sci-fi soundscapes. I’m particularly fond of ”Escape” and “Megatron Must be Stopped” while ”The Death of Optimus Prime” goes all out to be a tear-jerker – and succeeds (but then it does have a pretty easy subject to work with in that respect).
So yes this album may succeed mostly from association and from nostalgia but all the same, it succeeds. It’s often the album I play on my phone while walking to work far too early on a Monday morning because (“The Death of Optimus” aside) it always makes me feel better and ready to face the challenges of the day. You could say it has The Touch.
1. The Protomen: (Act I) The Protomen (2005)
The Protomen are an American rock band from Nashville, Tennessee. Their significant contribution to the canon of robot themed music is an original rock opera inspired by the Mega Man franchise. There are lots of Mega Man inspired projects in existence, hardly surprising because the old NES games had some of the best video game soundtracks out there, but the Protomen are notable for infusing their source with such gravity and scale. The story they tell across the course of two albums (with hopefully a third on the way) is recognisably that of the Capcom franchise, but the band have run with it in a very dark and dystopian direction to make music that transcends nostalgia and geeky in-jokes to forge something powerful and unique.
(Act 1) The Protomen is the band’s debut and it’s Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds for the NES generation. Set in a dystopian city ruled over by Dr. Wily and his robot army, the album tells the story of the reclusive inventor Dr. Light who builds a robot, Proto Man, to fight back and free the citizens from oppression. Unfortunately Proto Man is defeated. Grieving, Light turns inward and builds a second robot, Mega Man, whom thinks of a son and tries to dissuade from battle. But Mega Man is haunted by his brother’s death and sets out for vengeance and a showdown with Wily’s army.
Soundwise, this album combines rock and chiptunes; there’s a lot of distortion which works really well to reflect both the robotic themes and to give a sense of the crumbling neglect of the city Wily rules. The album takes a very murky view of humanity, there is a refrain throughout from the human inhabitants of “we are the dead” and the general populace are shown as lacking the agency and determination to support Light’s creations and rise up. It’s a bleak, but immersive sci-fi setting and it works brilliantly.
In 2009 the band changed their logo (see above) and expanded the story with a follow up album, Act II: The Father of Death, which is actually a prequel, dealing with Wily’s rise to power, and how he betrayed his former friend, Dr.Light. In keeping with its more human focus, this album is less electronic and more guitar-led. The vocals are also cleaner and less distorted: “Breaking Out” is a Springsteen-esque power ballad, and “Light Up The Night” (in which Light and Sniper Joe join forces to try to sabotage Wily’s control tower) is high up my list of all time favourite songs. This album really sets the scene – depressingly, really – for the more primal, post-apocalyptic sounds of Act I. I’m not sure which of the two albums I prefer; possibly Act I, fractionally because I love chiptunes and the because the 8-bit influences work so well here, but the two records work so well as a pair it’s hard to choose between them.
Hopefully, one day the band will get round to releasing the mooted Act III, which is meant to pick up Mega Man’s story after the end of the original album. However, the band seem to be operating on Valve time when it comes to this and instead have released a couple of covers albums in the past few years. Their latest, The Cover-up, still continues the robot theme: their version of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” imagines fighting robots rather than Russians and the album also includes a pretty kickin’ version of “Mr Roboto” by Styx. But it just isn’t Act III.
One day, I hope Act III will come. I’ll be ready, although I suspect that the conclusion will not be a bright one for us meatbags. We are the dead.
In the meantime, here’s Hope Rides Alone:
Which robot themed concept albums or soundtracks would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your suggestions!
There are a lot of brilliant one off robo-songs, and mech-inspired videos out there too. That might be a topic for another post…