Like a phantasmagorical video game character, nostalgia can take the strangest shapes: Monday night at Local 506, for instance, it will be embodied by a rock opera that further fictionalizes the Mega Man games that became so popular in the late '80s and early '90s.
Already set in an imperfect future dominated by cyborg violence, the Mega Man mythos has been further augmented with doomsday grit á la Blade Runner or Ghost in the Machine. The band responsible—Nashville's The Protomen—is a 10-strong prog-rock orchestra, sporting all the elaborate costumes and props of a full-blown stage musical.
"Almost every venue we visit has a space-related snag," says the bass and synth player Murphy Weller. (The Protomen don't give their real names, befitting a band based on a video game.) In the past, members had to spread around the room, often offstage, just to make the spectacle work. Some ceilings, Weller says, were too low for the band's amps to stack properly. Yet after stints at gaming conventions, stage time at Bonnaroo, the expected CMJ and SXSW showcases and a San Diego Comic-Con set at the invitation of Capcom—the company responsible for the Mega Man franchise—the band has largely graduated from space-related logistical headaches. "As we tour more and more," Weller says, "we're dealing with fewer venues that are hard to manage."
After all, there's a major market for this stuff: Countless college students in the early '00s bonded over a lifelong love of video games, particularly classic titles like The Legend of Zelda, Contra and Mega Man. The Protomen were all game lovers who met at Middle Tennessee State University, where they studied recording technology. Their two common interests—8-bit graphics and rock epics—merged.
"The scene in Murfreesboro has been reputably strong and very supportive for a very long time," Weller says. Just outside of Nashville, the town supports both traditional venues and a vibrant house show scene—with some show houses going so far as to run radio publicity. Yet The Protomen formed before the passage of a law that banned patrons under the age of 21 in venues that permitted smoking; that ordinance drove younger music lovers to throw their own shows, Weller says. The Protomen never played Murfreesboro's show houses, because the band had already moved to Nashville. So they have always been a nerdy, nostalgic component of commercial rock 'n' roll. This stuff isn't meant to be sequestered in living rooms alongside dusty gaming consoles.
Indeed, the music largely cuts a middle line between Rush and Dream Theater. Though these bands, and The Protomen, compose sonic epics based in fantasy worlds, the newer band's abandonment of elves and wizards in favor of pixelated robots speaks to video games' societal impact. Spending on interactive entertainment is projected to top $74 billion by the end of the year, per tech research firm Gartner. The Wii Fit has in part replaced aerobics videos when it comes to home exercise, and faux-aged Nintendo tees share Target racks with the entrenched logos of familiar Marvel and DC comic heroes. Rather than be the Dungeons & Dragons of its generation, gaming is now a lucrative, widespread industry.
Sure, the band is headlining this year's Nerdapalooza, an Orlando festival celebrating nerd culture. But The Protomen are part of a pop cultural shift that continues to bridge video game and music culture, as with the Rock Band and Guitar Hero brands. Thanks to the heightened melodrama and flashing lights of The Protomen's rock opera, that movement is one hell of a sight, too.