When the Artist Becomes Her Own Sculpture
I often see rock and metal acts that have superlative talent. I sometimes see rock and metal acts with talent featuring a player or two with the “X” factor and I make sure to rave about it. Still, I rarely come across an artist with a special brilliance that reinvents the game and makes “genre” irrelevant.
I know, yes, you can sense it, I’m sure. This review is going to be one of those odd philosophical journeys, so before going down the rabbit hole, I want to make my overarching point clear. Robyn Cage is a singer-pianist who is absolutely enchanting on performative and technical grounds. In other words, she’s awesome, she can sell it, and she can fucking play, bro. I’m not really a “bio guy,” as anyone can find that stuff online without me, but for the sake of giving my readers a foothold, Robyn Cage, born Robyn Kemp, was raised in Utah. She was a child prodigy, trained in classical piano. She eventually moved to New York City to try the acting biz (with significant success I might add), then reinvented herself to become Robyn Cage. She has two albums out: Born in the Desert – 2015 and Slow the Devil – 2018. Her songs are expertly crafted, her vocals-rich, and her piano playing-sublime. I would recommend that you buy both records, and I will guarantee you right here and now that you will be pleased. Listening to (and watching) Robyn Cage is like drinking one of those special wines that marks a big event in your life. Sure, as time goes by you will only remember the highlights of the event, yet somehow, you’ll never forget the taste of that wine.
The philosophical problem is that I am a metal-head, writing for a magazine called Metal Heads Forever, and Robyn Cage isn’t “metal.”
Or is she…
Of course, I could get into that old debate about what exactly constitutes “metal” in the first place, and artists like Robyn Cage aside for a moment, it seems we inevitably fail to even mark the definitive differences between metal and hard rock. I have heard many metal-freaks claim that metal is angry as opposed to hard rock, which is happy / rowdy, but they can’t explain the glaring similarities between You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ by Judas Priest (metal) and Hair of the Dog by Nazareth (hard rock). I have heard many metal maniacs make the claim that metal is classically influenced and hard rock is blues-oriented, yet they cannot explain away the clear blues chord-patterning in both Once Bitten Twice Shy by Great White (metal) and Mama Kin by Aerosmith (hard rock). Finally, some of my favorite metal-monster pals have promoted the idea that metal has always had more raucous guitar-crunch than hard rock, almost super-sizing the instrument, yet they would have a hard time distinguishing between the feel and production of the guitar tracks thrown down by 70’s metal pioneer guitarists in Sabbath, Priest, Saxon, and Maiden as compared with those featured in Mississippi Queen by Mountain, Death on Two Legs by Queen, Tush by Z.Z. Top, and the axe-grinders front-running most tunes by Foghat, Styx, Foreigner, Boston, Nugent, Skynyrd, and The Who, as well as those who architected the guitar-heavy progressive thread, like Kansas, Angel, and especially Rush.
And if we are going to complete the idea of metal-merging and cross-borrowing under the more general and humongous rock umbrella, we’d be insane if we forgot to give mention to David Bowie and his breakthrough album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – 1972.
I use the aforementioned adjective to describe this record because it was the blueprint for glam metal (though Wikipedia tells us of others too, like Mott the Hoople, Sweet, Slade, Mud, and Roxy Music). And though there is a significant strain of metal-lovers who would swear the speed guys really defined metal in the 80’s, more specifically, the “Big Four” comprised of Anthrax, Magadeth, Slayer, and Metallica, I would argue that the glam metal that had evolved in that time period was just as important (my “Big Four” on the side featuring spandex and hairspray would be Def Leppard, Dokken, Cinderella, and Bon Jovi). Oh, and by the way…I was in a glam metal band from 1985 to 1987. I played the same clubs as Skid Row and the two Philly/Jersey acts above, sometimes on the same weekend, and I can tell you right here and now, that the supposed “war” between the pretty-boys and speed guys did not exist. I was friends with many playing both styles, and it was more of an all-for-one-one-for-all kind of deal, trust me.
Transition time. And what a segue it is!
I discovered Robyn Cage in my Facebook feed, fronting the band Memoryfield with a cover of Bowie’s Moonage Daydream from the Ziggy Stardust record.
I have watched it thirty times. Ok…forty. First off, the band does a stand-up job with the re-do. The guitar work is executed with exceptional precision, and the players combine for a pleasing presentation both futuristic and tastefully throwback, creating a successful tribute and a simultaneous statement of originality that is universally satisfying.
That said, Robyn Cage is absolutely electrifying. No other way to say it. Robert Plant once claimed that “heavy” never had anything to do with volume, (paraphrased), and this brings us to the central point of the analysis. Robyn Cage isn’t a “metal” artist, but she rocks the living hell out of a song originally given to us by a crucial metal forerunner. Robyn Cage isn’t a “metal” singer, but she makes us feel the vocal as well as hearing it, hitting us in the heart and the backbone the way metal singers usually throw that particular switch. Robyn Cage isn’t a “metal” front-person, but she gives a mesmerizing visual interpretation that is luscious, raucous, daring, and addictive. Hmm. Ok. Yeah. She is a lovely redhead, but that is not necessarily what I am talking about. Sex sells, it is part of it, we all know the game, but this performer offers us more, much more, making portraits out of moments. Sculptures. She is both artist and artwork and she appears to open us to her process as if sharing the point of discovery. Maybe that is her magic. She is a master of choreography, but when she pulls a move it doesn’t look like choreography. It looks like she opened a door to let us see her conceiving the choreography in real time, in its raw and beautiful form.
I believe the discussion, therefore, must move back to genre. Most musicians channel themselves through a genre or channel the genre through their planning, the chicken and the egg thing, but Robyn Cage seems to be above this trivial and common practice. Again, it is relevant here to make reference to Bowie, who had the talent to work the same playbook. He didn’t limit himself to a “brand,” but rather, he utilized aspects, tidbits, highlights, and plot-threads from all different walks of life and artistic mediums to create his own statement. In all, then, Robyn Cage isn’t “metal” or “alternative.” She is Robyn Cage and therefore, she doesn’t merely “play songs” or chase fads. She makes it all “come to her” as it were, and she gives us something fresh, something new.
I had the opportunity to speak with Robyn briefly, and I asked her about genre. Her response was that metal has always been an influence in terms of darkness and dramatic tensions. Intrigued, I asked her to give me samples of her music, and she sent me four videos, all spellbinding. The first was a cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” in which she delivers as a solo performance, singing at the piano, wearing a black cocktail dress and expressive silver jewelry. I like the original. I like this one better. Her vocal is heartfelt and tastefully delivered, and her skills on her instrument are almost startling. Concurrently, the video, while good to begin with, carves its way into being truly memorable at the 2:48 mark where she solos. I sat back at that point and literally said, “wow,” out loud. You will as well, I am sure.
I watched “Born in the Desert” next, as that is sort of her theme song not only as a statement of fact (read her bio), yet also positioned as the title track of her big debut record in 2015. Like the Metallica remake, this is a heart-wrenching slow-burn, set in the desert of course, her piano “dressed” like something out of an old fashioned western. I liked this song too. It was again, ballad-like, showcasing the vocal more than rocking my ass, but there were again, these clever brushstrokes of metal motifs and emblems: a post-apocalyptic feel to the setting, a bathtub of blood she was sitting in seductively, and lyrics that sounded like the plight of every metal musician I have ever talked to – “I’m pushing this boulder up the mountainside / Nothing to show for how hard I’ve tried.”
I enjoyed the video “The Cave,” in that the bathtub symbol is revisited in a still shot behind which the song is played, featuring a bold lead vocal and unique, pretty harmonies with surprising chord-patterning between them. I found the said background vocal in this one to be what surfaced as the special jewel. I usually judge pure audio by the clarity of the pictures it manages to sketch in my head. Here, I saw colored windows with the sun coming through making prisms. Elegant. Intricate. Uniquely vivid.
“The Fallout,” from Slow the Devil – 2018, was the perfect anchor for my Robyn Cage experience, being that it returned to the post-apocalyptic theme, adding zombie makeup and horror-swag, the latter being one of heavy metal’s most recognizable staples. I am a writer of weird fiction, and I have always seen the link between horror and metal, starting with Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper, and being carried on by Rob Zombie, Slayer, Marilyn Manson, Cannibal Corpse, Slipknot and many others. I enjoyed Robyn’s utilization of the horror feel, especially in the sense that the zombie idea was not over-played (too often this type of story just turns into ugly target practice). Robyn and her team of videographers did it right; however, not showing the monster until the end, choosing tonal effect over hyperbole, and dark psychology over cheap jack-in-the-box scare moments. It was aesthetic omission at its very best, and metal or not, it was just a damned good video.
To conclude, I just watched “Moonage Daydream” again, and felt my heart swell. Listening to and watching Robyn Cage feels special somehow, in that it opens you to something new, something real. She’s the artist and at the same time, the work of art itself…and she selflessly and quietly allows you to watch her work her expertise with the sculpture. She makes you fill up, because it is glorious. She wows you because it’s familiar…because it feels like she leant you the hammer and chisel.
Michael Aronovitz is a horror author, college professor, and rock reviewer. He has published (traditionally) three novels, two collections, and more than forty short stories. He just finished his fourth novel and recently published a short story in the Castle of Horror anthology edited by Jason Henderson (author of Van Helsing).
MHF Magazine/Michael Aronovitz