The Cactus Club, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Ranting Robot Metal? Cynical Cyborg Metal? Political Machine Metal? I am truly at a loss about how to describe this band – and I’m not even certain it can be called a band! Captured! By Robots was one guy on stage with two robots. The human spoke and sang; the robots played drums, guitar and bass. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. But if Captured! By Robots were in town again tonight, I would be there!
The human, JBOT, has been involved with this unique band for 20 years. The original premise was that musician Jay Vance assembled robots to be his sidemen because he was so unlikable that other musicians wouldn’t work with him. Once the robots were completed, things didn’t go well. The machines became self-aware, took over the group, and made Vance their slave, renaming him JBOT. They toured extensively as a metal band, placing JBOT in chains and a mask — intentionally humiliating him in front of other humans, while the robots sought world domination. After experiencing Captured! By Robots’ live set, I’m inclined to believe that story.
A few years ago, the robots allowed JBOT to perform without a mask, but the shackles remain. Around his neck is a large dog collar and both arms are in chains. None of this impeded JBOT’s movements. He repeatedly leapt into the Cactus Club audience — at times fiercely pacing, and at other times racing around the room before hurling himself back onto the stage. JBOT sometimes writhed on the floor as he screeched dark lyrics; he often interacted with the robots in verbal one-upmanship. Never was he dull.
JBOT had to be lively to keep the audience’s attention, which was understandably drawn to the two life size robots — one playing a drum set, the other a twin-neck instrument for Captured! By Robots’ bass and guitar parts. JBOT (as robot architect Vance) must be praised for creating and programming these intricate and powerful machines. The robot guitarist (named GTRBOT666) was especially impressive, with the bass neck of the instrument strung with two strings that were plucked by a metal hand. The guitar neck had its strings set in an open tuning. Capos placed above various frets would hammer-down on the guitar’s neck to produce appropriate chords throughout a given song. It was remarkable.
This was literally a metal band. Two of Captured! By Robots’ members were created of once-shining metal, and they performed nothing but Vance’s original metal songs. The trio rocked and they were loud. When drummer DRMBOT 0110 played, the room shook But these robots didn’t merely play: Their movements were programmed to imitate true human nuances. Guitarist GTRBOT666 moved his head and body in ways that convinced the audience that this might indeed be a true life form. The subtleties of movement were striking. Once they kicked into a tune, as with live musicians, it was all business — both for the robots and for the human.
JBOT played the role of front man. He had a rapid fire speech pattern that matched the intensity of the robots’ music. Between songs, he railed hardest against the current political administration, but he also skewered the pampered rich and lamented that his beloved San Francisco has become an unaffordable place to live. This articulate and clever performer had done his political homework, for JBOT called out several Wisconsin politicians by name, as well as high profile local law enforcement officials.
Another major theme of the outbursts was the end of civilization: JBOT gives us about six more months. These attitudes were reflected in the songs “End Times,” “So Sick,” and “The Wicked.” One number was a warning to politicians: “You Lie, You Die,” which JBOT used as a springboard to implore his Milwaukee audience to “take sides in political battles” because “we are now engaged in class warfare.”
It wasn’t all venom. JBOT spoke of his commitment to rescuing neglected rabbits, and he complained humorously about his crazy neighbor Debby. But it was mainly political: “I fear cops and rich people, not immigrants!” Somehow, though, he kept even the most intense rhetoric entertaining Maybe it was his self-deprecating delivery; maybe it was the brevity of these between song exhortations. Whatever the reason, JBOT’s comments on society provided more enlightenment than lecture.
Early in the set, JBOT told the audience that he had just enjoyed two days off, so he was not feeling as cynical as usual for this Milwaukee show. I can only guess what Captured! By Robots is like when JBOT is angry. I suggest you find out.
Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon. Captured! By Robots is on tour until mid-April.
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