It was a lovely night. Just the right temperature for a brisk walk in a hoodie. The distribution of leaves still clinging the trees and crunching under foot was perfect. The streets were quiet enough to make me feel like the mayor of downtown but not so empty as to feel deserted and eerie. Dry Cleaning was playing in my headphones. I needed this solo nighttime walk as much as I wanted my crowded destination. It’s important to find the right balance of people and solitude.
It’d been a year since I was at The Brick. I was out of practice. I showed up just before eight o’clock and claimed a booth in the back. The opener took the stage right on time. I slipped up to take photos. But it was only soundcheck – the band wouldn’t play for another hour. So I pulled out my laptop and colonized the table. I read the graffiti, edited photos from the previous night, and bought a pity ginger beer from the waitress whose table was definitely going to be a financial underperformer. I hate that The Brick does that to its waitstaff during shows.
A very traditional three-piece version of Bacon Shoe began at nine o’clock. Live drums, live bass, and our emcee, Lethal D (aka John Bersuch). Throughout the years I’ve seen the band with strippers, with elaborate costumes, and always with sizzling bacon. There was none of that. This was a new era for the band… well almost – the drummer did wear a cloak and a mouse mask. As one does.
In a short twenty-minute set, Lethal D dropped his rhymes with a slow and steady delivery. His lyrics are humorous, but there is more than novelty here. Between songs he played a part--sort of the hapless also-ran. Simultaneously self-effacing and boastful. One moment he was awkwardly confessing his sexual attraction for robots, while the next declaring, "that song ripped." Often the extremes came together – after concluding "Check the Mic," he admitted to the audience, "I almost fell over twice, because the beat was so hard." He had a point. The live bass of "Low - T" and "Mouse Drummer" did set a nice groove. The pair were augmented with a sampler that provided occasional accents – sometimes in the form of hype vocals, other times keyboard elements. My touchpoints are slim, but those who remember the minimalist and easy beats of MC 900 Ft. Jesus will find some comfort here. The set concluded with "My Best Friend Monkey" – a song that Lethal D said needed no further explanation. And then he explained at length that the song was about what his life would be like if he had a best friend who was a monkey. He stressed they would do things together, but nothing sexual because that would be weird. And there is the line. Bacon Shoe is weird, but not monkey-fucking weird.
There was a long delay between acts. I expected as much. In fact, after seeing the headliner numerous times over the past twenty-plus years, I couldn’t imagine how it could play at all without being already backlined or being the sole performer. But a lot has changed since the last time I saw the band in twelve years ago.
First a bit of context. Actually, a lot of context. Captured by Robots is the project of Jay Vance. After finding disappointment in stints with both the Blue Meanies and Skankin' Pickle, he made a logical leap that still baffles even twenty years after I first spoke to him about it – he figured if the people in his band were making him miserable, why not build a band of robots to perform alongside instead? And he did. He developed proprietary midi-based controllers and used air compressors to drive automatons to play analog instruments. He could control the robots. And on stage the robots would "say" the misanthropic things Vance felt. He took the role of JBOT, a human "captured by robots," forced to play music for their entertainment and his torture. Over the years, the number of robots grew and shrunk. A horn section dubbed the "Headless Hornsmen" came and went. And I wish I knew the fate of the loving Ape Which Hath No Name. All the while, the guitar-wielding and drumming robots got more complex. Through it all, the gimmick reigned supreme. A tour playing funk songs one year, and playing classic rock tunes the next. It was a party. And soon Vance grew to hate it.
And that takes us to the present. Captured by Robots is still a spectacle but no longer a joke. Only two robots flank Vance today. Both are extreme. Gtrbot666 plays bass and guitar. Mechanical fingers strum and fret frantically. Drmbot 0110 is superhuman. Faster and more capable than any sentient drummer. The relationship between JBOT and his robotic captors has changed as well. The lengthy interactions and backstory are gone. I guess it’s no longer necessary as the robots don’t spew the sociopathic things to a helpless JBOT any longer. Now JBOT screams them at the audience. Captured by Robots is now a grindcore band that happens to have robots as members. The party is over, and JBOT wants everyone dead.
The current tour is titled "The Funeral for the Human Race." The ceremony began with an open coffin carried by audience members. It was propped up at the back of the stage allowing a glimpse into the coffin at a shroud scrawled with "Hugh Manity." Flowers were thrown from the crowd. Soon JBOT appeared. In chains. Wearing rags. Filthy. He quickly removed sheets unveiling bony skeletons roasting on stagecraft flames at the back of the stage, then pulled the shroud from the coffin to expose a rotting corpse. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The stage then exploded into the screams and cacophony of grindcore. The punishing genre isn’t known for its hooks, for its melodies, or its guitar solos. Captured by Robots held true to that course. The lyrics were unintelligible, but song titles like "Fuck the USA," "Fuck It All," and "Suffer" definitely provided clues as to their content. Between songs JBOT espoused a leftist screed rife with nihilism. The Christo-fascists have taken over and there’s no hope. Humanity must be eliminated.
But like witty misanthropes before him (Oscar Wilde, Bill Hicks, Franz Kafka), Vance is happy to entertain himself. During the set, JBOT shouted that abortion was a fundamental right and then gruesomely ripped a fetus from the prop decaying corpse. The umbilically attached fetus even got to sing along before being stuffed back into the cadaver. The ghoulish remains would later be slung over JBOTs shoulder as he roamed the audience. In other songs it was violently shaken in its coffin or dumped ceremoniously onto the stage floor. In a more tender moment, it would serve as his dance partner. Its final voyage came when its heavy coffin was passed from the outreached arms of one fan to another as it surfed around the room. The club’s irksome column and low lights were a problem for the unsteady reach of the patrons, and nearly spelled disaster more than once. After a few laps and thirty-five minutes, the show was over.
After the set Vance was at his makeshift merch booth selling t-shirts, patches, buttons, and more. He wore a N95 mask while graciously thanking fans for coming. It’s just possible that Vance isn’t quite as set on the destruction of the human race as JBOT, but there’s no doubt that he’s frustrated with the way we treat one another. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed since the band’s conception.