While continuing to pay homage to its literary origins, noughties’ Steampunk has evolved into a veritable subculture in its own right. Dark aesthetics, combined with a flare for antique fashion, laboratorial curiosities, cybernetics, and the reengineering of all manner of rogue mechanicals, were always destined to appeal to the goth, punk, cyber and industrial contingent. But Steampunk has also cast a wider net; its ‘period’-feel seducing anyone with a soft spot for Victoriana and alternative histories.
Fans have now come to embrace Steampunk, or ‘Steam’ as it is sometimes known, as a culture, a community and a lifestyle. ‘Neo-Victorianism’ infiltrates every aspect of their lives, from fashion to interior design to transport to music.
However, while it is fairly easy to label what constitutes Steampunk attire – corsets, petticoats, suits, goggles, laced boots, etc – Steampunk music is less well-defined. Online discussions list artists as varied as NIN for Closer, the train-like beat of the piano giving it a new world feel, Tom Waites for his use of distortion, electronics and accordion, Björk for her fusion of electronica, roaring twenties’ big band sounds and industrialism, and even Queen for their music-hall spirited, A Day At The Races. And while purists cite classical music or early nineteenth century recordings played on a hand-cranked gramophone, most aficionados agree that any modern performer whose music or stage show evokes a sense of the Victorian era can be classified Steampunk.
Yet even that margin is too small. To do the Steampunk music genre justice, we need to acknowledge a theatrical mélange of artists and artistic styles: gothic, new world, vaudevillian, Brechtian dark cabaret, Eastern European, chamber music, vintage jazz, and more.
Below is a taster of just some of the artists classified Steampunk:
In 2005, Seattle’s Abney Park released Taxidermy which showcased new versions of songs from previous albums, three live tracks and two covers. This album also heralded a switch in stylings from goth/industrial to Steampunk. Reinventing themselves as roving time travellers and airship pirates, the five-strong group continue to attribute their new, eclectic sound to the strange instruments and exotic musical influences lifted from the numerous locations and eras they have visited. In their own words, ‘Expect clockwork guitars, belly dancers, flintlock bassists, Middle-Eastern percussion, violent violin, and Tesla powered keyboards blazing in a post-apocalyptic, swashbuckling, Steampunk musical mayhem.’
recommended tracks: Airship Pirate, Sleep Isabella, The Secret Life of Doctor Calgori
Visit www.abneypark.com for band news, event details, and a market place selling Steampunk attire including leather flight helmets, airship crew dogtags, safari clothing and other gear.
San Francisco’s Vernian Process take their name from the works of 19th century author and one of the forefathers of the science fiction genre, Jules Verne. They describe themselves as a Darkwave band influenced by Victorian scientific romance and contemporary Steampunk. Founder, Joshua A. Pfeiffer, has made it his intention to take listeners on a cinematic journey, encompassing ‘Industrial complexes, angelic cathedrals, misty cobblestone alleyways, ancient forests, war-torn ruins, deep undersea caves, rotting clock towers, and all manner of timeless dreamscapes.’
In 2008, Vernian Process started work on the soundtrack for the steampunk themed videogame, Shades of Violet: The incredible Adventures of Violet Vendetta for Fly Games Studio.
Visit www.post-punk.com/vernianprocess.html for more information.
Unextraordinary Gentlemen have their roots firmly in the Victorian fantasy fiction genre. The bass guitar is used to represent a ‘punk’ element, a drum machine conjures up the steam-driven engine, and keyboards introduce sounds reminiscent of Victorian-era instruments such as strings, brass, and piano. Guitars and live drums are banned. They describe their sound as post-punk, synth-pop, industrial and experimental, and cite artists such as Nick Cave and Tom Waits as their major influences. Their songs range from the darkly humorous to the dour and the self depreciating, but all are infused with a sense of dramatic flair and spectacle.
recommended tracks: Mr. Soot’s Little Black Book, All You Want, Black Iron Road, Frozen Mood
Visit www.unextraordinarygentlemen.com for more information.
The Vagabond Opera exists in homage to all aspects of bohemian cabaret. Theirs is truly a spectacular Spectacular, with belly dancing, neo-classical opera in eleven languages, kitsch Americana, Yiddish theatre, and European bonhomie. Originating in Portland, USA, the six-piece ensemble features trained operatic tenor and soprano vocals, accordion, tenor and alto saxophones, cello, stand-up bass, drums, and, on occasion, a burlesque hoola-hooping fire performer.
recommended tracks: Marlene, Svi Te Terran, Goodnight Moon
Visit www.vagabondopera.com for more information.
Cellist Melora Creager played with Nirvana and, after founding Rasputina, toured with Bob Mould, Porno for Pyros and, most notably, Marilyn Manson. In 1997, the band’s EP Transylvanian Regurgitations was remixed by Manson.
A 3-piece mostly comprised of cellists, Rasputina describe their sound as chamber-rock. Their appreciation for antiquities is reflected in a love for Victorian apparel and period stylings for publicity shots and stage shows. Hard to pigeonhole, their music is bewitching dark and angelically ethereal.
recommended tracks: Transylvanian Concubine, Cage in a Cave, Coraline on the Neil Gaiman tribute album Where’s Neil When You Need Him?
Visit www.rasputina.com for more information.
Other recommended listening: The Peculiar Pretzelmen, Skeleton Key, Decemberists, The Birthday Massacre, The Dresden Dolls, Johnny Hollow, Beat Circus, Bat For Lashes
Their inclusion here may be arguable, but in some aspects, Steampunk is all about the fusion of world music with futuristic sensibilities. No one does this better than New York’s Gogol Bordello, a multi-ethnic Gypsy punk band from the Lower East Side who are renown for their theatrical stage shows. Their Eastern European sound blends accordion, fiddle, and saxophone with an eclectic punk cabaret to create a feast for the ears and eyes so appealing that Madonna cast them in her 2008 film, Filth and Wisdom.
recommended tracks: Wonderlust King, American Wedding, Start Wearing Purple
Visit www.gogolbordello.com for more details.
A classical piano major, Sarah fashions a truly unique sound that is part vintage jazz singer, part vaudevillian pianist, part crystalline vocals. Twice Juno and twice Gemini Award nominated, Canadian Sarah is a performer, artist and poet with a world-wide fan base.
recommended tracks: Pilgrim, Last Year’s War, Lucky Me
Visit www.sarahslean.com for more details.
Other sites of interest:
www.clockworkcabaret.com – a weekly music radio show.
http://steampunkworkshop.com – detailing steampunk projects.
www.brassgoggles.co.uk – blog reporting on all things steampunk.
www.steampunklab.com – for inventions of a curious sort