Airship Pirates and Clockwork Quartets
It may be of little concern to the bureaucrats who drew up the Trade Descriptions Act, but it’s an undeniable fact that there isn’t much punk in steampunk. At least not of the three-chord thrash variety spat out by the snotty, glue sniffing, safety pin and spiky hair, pogo-till-you-puke brigade who stormed the barricades back in ’76, or ‘Rock’s Year Zero’ as the NME would have it. Back then it was ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and the wholesale slaughter of the dinosaurs of corporate rock. Now it’s more like anachronistic fashion accessories in the UK and US as the likes of Abney Park, Sunday Driver and Vernian Process describe a dystopian fantasy world through rose-tinted goggles with a sentimentality that would make the late Bill Grundy doubt he could goad them in to saying something risqué about Queen Victoria.
No, steampunk acts in the new millennium are disarmingly polite, even reverential to the past, musically and lyrically speaking. The punk element refers solely to their anarchic fashion aesthetic, which inspires devotees to rummage through attics and antique shops in search of cast-off corsets, lace-up boots and discarded bits and pieces from fictitious eccentric inventions.
It’s the Victorian explorer look mashed together with the ‘shabby genteel’ appearance of your local body snatcher.
Thematically speaking, their music is visionary in a retro-futurist way and as image conscious as any popular music genre that preceded it—but is it significant, or merely an elaborate sideshow until the Next Big Thing comes along?
If one can disregard the Victorian trappings and the ubiquitous airships, which seem to adorn every album cover and glide soundlessly through the sepia-tinted videos, and instead evaluate the music on its own merits, it could be argued that Abney Park and their contemporaries are a logical development from the New Romantic movement of the early 1980s. Yes, implausible though it may sound, steampunk bands owe more than a nod to those ruffle-shirted dandies who delighted in pretentious names such as Spandau Ballet, A Flock of Seagulls and Visage and partied like it was 1999.
For one thing, in the engine room of every steampunk contraption worthy of the name beats a modified drum machine propelling the track as steadily as the rudimentary rhythm boxes beloved of Ultravox, Classix Nouveau and their contemporaries. To this are added throbbing keyboard lines, ethereal pads (a wash of sustained chords) and the occasional pulsating sequencer to provide a backdrop suggestive of a parallel universe populated by automatons and wheezing, steam-driven machines.
And like the New Romantics before them, this throbbing pulse often proves irresistible to those New Victorians who are not too inhibited to take to the dance floor. But what truly sets Steampunk apart from mainstream rock or pop is the conspicuous absence of self-indulgent guitar solos.
Take Abney Park’s first authentic Steampunk offering ‘Lost Horizons’ (2008), for example. Having assimilated a smattering of world music and Industrial influences in the preceding years, it wasn’t such a large step for this former goth outfit from Seattle to morph into a mutinous crew of self-styled airship pirates utilizing trance-dance drum machine patterns and brassy synthesizer sounds interwoven with mellifluous violin lines and the odd slab of abrasive guitar to underscore the macabre narratives of their captain, Robert Brown. Brown is at the helm of Abney Park’s mighty dirigible and he provides the narration for their nautical adventures to uncharted lands inhabited by mad scientists, clockwork dolls, twisted romances and sinister secrets—but there is also a glimmer of mordant humour to some of the songs on subsequent albums such as ‘Victorian Vigilante’, ‘To The Apocalypse In Daddy’s Sidecar’, ‘Space Cowboy’ and ‘Throw Them Overboard’, the latter of which refers to the good captain’s habit of jettisoning human ballast to see him through stormy waters!
There’s an epic quality to much of the band’s music giving the impression that we are listening to the soundtrack to a movie that has yet to be made. But that can’t be far off, for already the band have created a board game and inspired a novel (‘The Wrath of Fate’, 2012) recounting their adventures in their time-travelling contraption.
In contrast to the prolific Abney Park, their San Francisco-based counterparts Vernian Process (whose name pays homage to Jules Verne) take the creative process at a far more leisurely pace, if their modest output is anything to go by. Their debut album, ‘Behold The Machine’ (2010), was four years in the making, although it was certainly worth the wait. It’s a rich kaleidoscope of primary-coloured sound that draws on a diverse range of influences from prog rock and neoclassical to darkwave electro pop, and all shades in between. The unquiet spirit of Dead Can Dance, Fields of the Nephilim and The Sisters of Mercy haunt such tracks as ‘Unhallowed Metropolis’ and ‘Into The Depths’, while Danny Elfman appears to have inspired their follow-up ‘single’ ‘Something Wicked’, which in a parallel universe would have provided the main theme for Ray Bradbury’s darkest fantasy ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. So roll up, roll up! Step this way and see the bizarre exhibits of the dark carnival presided over by Joshua Pfeiffer, vocal funambulist extraordinaire and master of ceremonies of the greatest show on this or any other Earth. File under symphonic punk perhaps?
However, if you’re on the search for steampunk with all the snotty, in-your-face attitude left in (and not a synth in sight), you couldn’t do better than to seek out The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. Their cheekily titled debut, ‘Now That’s What I Call Steampunk Vol 1’ (2010), which—while giving a two-fingered salute to those endless ‘Now…’ chart compilations—takes the starched collar steampunk aesthetic by the scruff of the neck and gives it a good seeing to. Both ‘Now’ and its sequel of sorts, ‘This May Be The Reason…’ (2012), are chock full of irreverent three-chord thrashers with much shouting, drunken barracking from the backbenches and splashing cymbals, which distances them from the airship-and-goggle brigade by several social strata and a half. Musically it’s a grown up version of The Toy Dolls, but in place of the Dolls’ knockabout comic strip humour TMTWNBBFN are sharply satirical as they gob all over everything the Victorians held dear from good manners (‘Etiquette’) and self-sacrifice (‘Blood Red’) to modesty (‘Tesla Coil’) and the monarchy (‘Victoria’s Secret’). It may not be strictly steampunk as the mainstream defines it, but it is arguably more true to the term than many of their contemporaries, and it might even have raised a smile from the sullen old sovereign herself had she had the good fortune to own a gramophone.
Have Airship Will Travel
Taking inspiration from Jules Verne’s ‘Voyages Extraordinaires’, every steampunk band worthy of the name pursues the themes of exploration and adventure to dark continents and uncharted regions of their New Victorian empire. Consequently, world music has become an essential ingredient to evoke the exotic settings described in their songs. However, restrictive copyright laws have made sampling prohibitively expensive and as many of the bands are independent and self-financing, some have chosen instead to collaborate with ethnic musicians who can bring an authentic multi-cultural flavour to their music.
Sunday Driver’s debut album ‘In The City of Dreadful Night’ (2008) and their follow-up ‘The Mutiny’ (2012) features traditional Indian instruments and the translucent voice of Chandrika Nath who enunciates to thrilling effect, so that every word of their intriguing tales can be heard even when the largely acoustic backing becomes frenetic. Comparisons with Kate Bush, The Divine Comedy and the folk rock ensembles of the late 60s and early 70s are not entirely unjustified, although none accurately convey the ‘last glory of the Raj’ ambience that their music evokes.
The overall mood is gentle, seductive and hypnotic with droning sitar and pattering tablas welded to rhythmic acoustic guitars and snake charming woodwind, but beware – there is a sting in the tail of ‘The Concubine Waltz’, ‘Naked Bodies’ and other tracks. Gadzooks, it’s enough to unsettle the memsahib.
Beats Antique are not strictly steampunk, although they certainly justify a stand at the Great Airship Exhibition, had there been one. By blending Middle Eastern influences with electronica they have produced a sub-category of steampunk that might be best described as Victorian tribal fusion—the ideal accompaniment for the intrepid explorer perhaps.
Turkish, Balkan, gypsy and hip hop ingredients are sautéed and served with sultry 20s jazz to fill the air with an intoxicating spicy essence that is positively illegal, or ought to be. Every copy comes with a free pith helmet and butterfly net.
The same could be said for Steam Powered Giraffe, who perform snappy, pitch-perfect close harmony songs in the guise of a trio of automatons and have been labelled ‘family friendly’, which is one way of saying the average SP fan might find their albums a trifle bland, like selections from ‘Steampunk – The Musical’. But it only proves that SP is an all-inclusive community and not just for goggle-wearing grown-ups.
The lighter side of steampunk is exemplified by the Florida collective known professionally as The Cog Is Dead. Their ‘Steam Powered Stories’ (2010) is programmed to play like a 1930s radio serial with each song in a different style and bookended by news announcements. Imagine ‘Sgt Pepper’ interspersed with offerings from The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and The Ruttles for light relief and you’ll have some idea of what you might be letting yourself in for.
It’s an eclectic and erratic mix, but a lot of fun if you’re in the right frame of mind at the time and particularly if you’re a fan of Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’. And frankly, who isn’t? To be brutally honest, the darker songs (‘The Depths Below’ and ‘The Death of the Cog’) work best, while the Disneyfied ‘My Metal Boy’ and ‘Doctor Franklyn’ suffer from a cloying sentimentality that Spielberg and small children might find touching, but not the hard-core steampunk aficionado.
Burton’s favourite composer and long-term collaborator Danny Elfman is cited as a seminal influence by many steampunk artists, most fittingly by Dr Steel, whose best known song ‘Back and Forth’ might have been lifted from ‘The Corpse Bride’ with its cartoon chorus and jazz-tinged carnival calliope, but it’s his ‘Ode To Revenge’ and B movie-styled videos featuring his robot backing band that cement his steampunk credentials.
The good doctor’s unethical musical experiments have seen him attempting to fuse genetic material taken from bar fly balladeer Tom Waits with the Industrial strength rock of Nine Inch Nails, but fans prefer to think of him simply as Marilyn Manson’s mad uncle.
His English equivalent is personified by the well-mannered Professor Elemental, whose cut-glass public school accent brings the much derided art of rapping onto the steampunk stage. No four-letter rants against urban decay, police brutality and exploitation of the fairer sex from our professor. No, sir. The topics of his ever-so-polite and ticklishly humorous raps are quintessentially English—distilling the pleasures of tiffin (‘Cup of Brown Joy’), village life (‘A Fete Worse Than Death’), patriotism (‘I’m British’) and privilege (‘Splendid’). The professor is never short of words or a pithy put down, so no further endorsement is necessary. As Ian Dury once said, ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’. What-ho Professor. Or is ‘ho’ strictly Politically Incorrect in your parallel universe, too?
And then there are the artists who flirt with the genre but who aren’t committed to it full-time. The Clockwork Dolls are a case in point. Their debut album, ‘Dramatis Personae’ (2009) is steampunk chamber opera performed by a string quartet ornamented with luminous female vocals, rippling piano arpeggios and trippy beats, and if that sounds too genteel for your taste, then rest assured there are more raucous offerings when the scene shifts to a music hall and an East End saloon where a bawdy siren belts out a ballad to the accompaniment of an accordion. Why, you can almost smell the stale beer and sawdust.
Striking a similar theme are the Clockwork Quartet whose serialized chamber opera ‘The Watchmaker’s Apprentice’ is appearing one track at a time on YouTube to squeals of delight from the steampunk cognoscenti, but is yet to see a conventional CD release. But then that is so indicative of the steampunk aesthetic, isn’t it?
The list of bands who consider themselves to be truly steampunk is a long one and is continually expanding as the movement is far from running out of steam, if you’ll pardon the pun. But it is a confusing picture, because many bands now prefer to post their music on the internet rather than take the traditional route of releasing it on CD, so they exist only as a live act or in the virtual world of downloads, which is quite appropriate for a genre that has its existence in a parallel universe.
Paul Roland, April 2013
Posted on April 6, 2013, in music, Paul Roland, steampunk and tagged abney park, beats antique, clockwork dolls, dr steel, music, steam powered giraffe, steampunk, sunday driver, the cog is dead, the men that will not be blamed, vernian process. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.