Review: A Night of Queen

The Protomen Present: A Night of Queen is an odd album. It's a live showcase but a dated document, and it's also an equal mix of flaws and strengths.

I can't think about this album without thinking about the live event. I was there when The Protomen originally pulled this gig off back in 2010 in Nashville in honor of their retiring friends, The Evil Bebos. The show was staggering, the evening overwhelming. I took (really terrible) video of every song that night and watched them repeatedly at home for like, a year. Because of those videos, my memories of the night are thick and strong. My view of this CD is going to be kind of skewed accordingly.

I remember when Panther came marching out for the intro in a big swirly red cape and how we howled from the floor. When Turbo Lover glided around the stage in white tux and tails, then ripped it off to show the now infamous black and white bodysuit. When Murphy tore his shirt off — twice. When K.I.L.R.O.Y. terrified us with his white spandex pants. When the crowd completely lost their shit between and during solos and songs. I remember us singing along with Bohemian Rhapsody, start to finish, as loud as we could until we were all hoarse. Everybody was nervous but excited, nobody knew if it was really gonna work; everybody roared with joy when it did work, again and again and again. And everybody was dead tired afterward. As a one-off event, it felt special, and it was special. It was a magic night; a night of tribute.

Any recording of a night like that just can't help but lose a little of that magic. I was surprised how many flaws from the live set were left in; dropped notes, slightly missed cues, warbly vocals. It's a testament that so many of those little flaws are familiar; they're there in my videos and they're there in the CD, too. The band could have cleaned those up in post-production; the fact that they didn't is actually a testament to their integrity. As the group itself says in the liner notes, they basically took a recording just to prove that they'd done it in the first place. That's what this CD sounds like to me, a cleaned up personal document rather than something that had ever been really intended for mass production. But there are other production choices that feel odd.

There are places where the drums overpower everything- seriously, get it on a system with a good subwoofer - then abruptly seem to disappear. The vocoder effects have been enhanced in places, sometimes a bit too loud. A gap in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody, pretty entertaining when it happened live, has been excised from the CD and a couple of other bits of stage banter were removed too, but an incomprehensible monologue from K.I.L.R.O.Y leading into I Want It All is still in there, as garbled on CD as it was live. In the live show, the mic Panther was using for vocals blew out (visibly and hilariously) between Somebody to Love and Princes of the Universe. I hear that in the CD; the first six tracks sound slightly different than the others.

The crowd sounds very watery, muddy, distant and far away, shoved to the edges of the songs when they're allowed in at all. There was no floor mic'ing at the time, as far as I know, so any crowd noise you hear in the CD seems to be only as much as the stage mics caught — it comes off eerie and ghostly. There's a lack of closure between performance and audience in the mix; the band is at 11, the crowd is at a 3 and held at arm's length. It's particularly telling in Bohemian Rhapsody; you get a hint of the actual crowd's singalong, but it should be much, much louder.

If you're looking at this as an example of the Protomen's live performances, be aware it's not entirely a fair representation of how the group sounds today. They've been doing Queen material as part of their set for the last two years, and they're much smoother and tighter with the material now. Any live performance of Princes of the Universe they'll do in 2012 will blow the 2010 version off the stage, frankly.

That's what I mean when I say that the CD is dated. With a two-year delay between the event and the release, the CD is not state-of-the-group-in-2012; it's state-of-the-group as of 2010. And two years can be, for this band, a significant gap. In 2010, second lead guitarist Ringo Segundo was still fresh to the group, had only been touring with them a couple of months; in 2012, he's performing Under Pressure with a hilarious wig on as "David Bowie", and is familiar enough with the core material to drop improv riffs live. The group is just a different beast now.

To make any direct comparisons between the Queen originals and the Protomen's versions is inherently unfair. Any post-show appraisal of the individual songs has to be balanced against their nervous energy that night and the fact that it was their first time playing each and every one of those songs live. The Protomen altered the tempo of some songs to better suit their range and ability; really noticeable with Death on Two Legs which comes off kind of rushed and breathless. I Want It All falls flat. On the other hand, Somebody to Love, Hammer to Fall, Under Pressure, and Don't Stop Me Now just sit there being all perfect, and Show Must Go On, the set fake closer, thunders even if the ending synth line is dragged out longer on the record than it was live.

The good news is that the group really pulls off their ambitious idea — what band today would have the sheer brass balls to not just drop 3 or 4, but 16 Queen songs? In a row? Most bands today would give up after half a set. What vocalist other than Raul Panther could even handle it? What guitarists other than Ringo Segundo and Sir Robert Bakker would be insane enough to not only drill for a month and study and replicate Brian May's performance techniques, but even play with 10 pence coins as picks to really go the extra mile and bring out the perfect blistering solos? What drummer could nail down almost two hours of this and keep it heavy and constant apart from Reanimator? There is no other band working today that could muster the level of energy required to pull a daring act like this CD off. For that, The Protomen deserve all the hype and applause they can get.

That very musical fury kind of makes the CD an exhausting experience, though. Stripped of late-night anticipation, the full audio call-and-response of the crowd, and the hype of being present in a room with a shitload of talented young musicians powered by nerves and something to prove, the CD version of the event comes off rather like a brick wall to the face. Every song is supercharged and cranked to max, with too much bass and too much bright, leaving no resting place for the listener. At the live show, there were chances to catch your breath, chances to feel and respond, an organic kind of flow. Things broke down and were fixed; there were gaps enough to process the amazing song you just experienced. On the CD, all those organic pauses are gone, so all the songs are equally demanding to the listener; the net effect is that everything starts bleaching together by about the 8th track.

This is sort of the show we saw that night, but not quite. It lacks a living rhythm. Maybe a live Protomen album can never be fully complete because they're not there in the room, and the energy of the group's physical presence is as important as the sounds they make. Maybe the magic is in the feedback between the adoring crowd and the band leaping off their equipment and hurling their bodies around the stage in total abandon. Fortunately, they're doing the set live again in June in Nashville. Go to that. See that. Get the fullest expression of The Protomen experience.

This isn't a definitive Live Protomen Document. It can't be; it wasn't meant to be, either. That shouldn't stop anyone from getting the CD in any case, and the group should be applauded for even releasing it in the first place when they didn't have to. And for every doofus who wants to pigeonhole the group into "that Megaman covers band" status, this album serves to rightfully kick their ass and show the musical strength of the group in "real music" areas; basically a crossover album and something that can only further their reach. I'm glad this is out there; there's too much of the group's history locked away in hidden places as it is. Far better to have an imperfect but sincere document of a moment in time than nothing at all.

— The Archivist 2.0 (who definitely wants it all.)

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