Step aside Metallica, Slipnot, Megadeath, and Iron Maiden, the age of lightweight meatbags playing metal is over. Make way for Compressorhead, the band assembled from spare parts of abandoned machines and fronted by the 350kg Mega-Watson. No divisive lapses into sentimentality with Compressorhead! What can be more authentically heavy metal?
In the video of Compressorhead powering through Motorhead’s Ace of Spades, below, Mega-Wattson is backed by the four-armed two-legged drummer Stickboy, the dextro 78-fingered guitarist (Fingers), the more humanoid bass player, Bones (2 legs, 2 arms and articulated fingers), and, Hellgå Tarr, the rhythm guitarist and the only fembot in the lineup.
That’s seriously impressive animatronics, but does the band really play? Of course they do. With the assistance of Stickboy Jnr who operates the highhat and cymbal, Stickboy plays his drums. Similarly, the guitars are real and plugged into amplifiers (Fingers plays a Gibson fly V!). Sadly, Mega-Watson is voiced by recordings of a meatbag vocalist. Meatbag is the term for humans in Compressorhead’s mythology – like Gorillaz, the band, and each of the members, has a backstory.
The band is the brainchild of two Berlin-based artists Frank Barnes and Markus Kolb. Along the way, they linked up with Stock Plum, an electronics engineer and Miles van Dorssen, an engineer based in Sydney. In 2013, Barnes invited Canadian musician John Wright (Nomeansno & The Hanson Brothers) to become the “musical director” of the group. The video below shows Wright working out a drum part with Bones. Usefully, the video clearly shows Bones's impressive fingerwork as he plays his instrument.
How does it work? As the name Compressorhead implies, the robots are powered by compressed air. Without getting too technical, each of the movements needed to play the instruments is manually programmed to correspond with an instruction from a Midi file. Midi files are the sheet music of the digital age – they contain the instructions for playing music, much as piano rolls were fed into a self-playing piano (pianola).
With Mega-Watson, it’s a little different as he doesn’t actually sing. Nonetheless he is programmed to perform an impressive array of movements. Mounted on tracks, he can move around a stage, he has a retractable mohawk, and his teeth pulsate.
The Compressorhead project began when the self-taught Frank Barnes built Stickboy in 2007. Barnes moved to Berlin in the 1990s as a member of a punk band. With the fall of the Soviet Union, this was a time when East Berlin and West Berlin were reunited. One consequence was that a significant number of machines became redundant. Equipment from hospitals, offices, and factories in East Berlin was discarded, and cars that could not pass the Western roadworthy tests were abandoned by the roadside.
This abundance of free parts inspired Barnes to experiment with robotics. Stickboy was Barnes’s tenth build. Earlier robots demonstrate the sense of play that informs his work. They include a boxer/bouncer who lashed out at customers as they entered a nightclub, a legs only “topless” dancer, a headless baseball batter, and a trapeze monkey that suffered from occasional incontinence.
Compressorhead has performed hour-long concerts around the world, and videos of the band are popular on YouTube. Now if only Frank Barnes and his collaborators could get Mega-Watson to sing for himself …
Compressorhead's Ace of Spades cover is dedicated to Lemmy Kilmister. If you want to see more from Compressorhead, you can subscribe to their YouTube channel or visit their official website for more information.