Embracing Steampunk’s Core Principles

By T.K. McNeil |

No matter how innovative or original a culture or style might be, it is next to impossible to avoid some degree of stereotype or cliché. Few places is this truer than with Steampunk culture. Once one of the most interesting and original genres going, particular aspects of the Steampunk style have come to define the culture, particularly to those furthest removed from it.

As with the visual art, there is a lot more to the music of Steampunk than might first appear; the general view being epitomized by bands like Abney Park and The Clockwork Quartet. The Quartest is an electronica band with the look of Steampunk but little else and what can best be described as ‘Victorian nostalgia.’ Somewhat more representative are acts such as The Cog Is Dead. One of the more advanced groups in terms of musicianship, The Cog Is Dead has a rock ‘n’ roll attitude to go with their brass goggles and cog gears (one they augment with surprising and invigorating touches from the past). These include big band horns on the track ‘Burn It Down’ and well placed strings in the tragic love ballad ‘A Letter To Michelle’.

TheCogIsDead

On the slightly darker side, closer to Steampunks Goth roots than most, are Unextraordinary Gentlemen. Comprised of vocalist Malcolm, bassist/keyboardist Professor Mangrove and violinist J. Frances, the band has a look — black pin-striped suits that give an impression somewhere between a serial killer and a mortician — and a sound to make Bram Stoker shudder. This comes across most clearly in the tracks ‘Skeleton Goes to Town’ and ‘Black Iron Road.’ It’s a song, with its creepy percussion, prominent plodding bassline and deep, crooning vocals, that owes as much to Bauhaus as anything. They also do not neglect the more literary aspects of the Steampunk culture, being named after the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and their stage personas being based on a fairly elaborate fictional world. One detailed in the Unextraordinary Encyclopedia on the band’s website.

professor-elemental-profile
Professor Elemental

Someone else bucking the trend is Professor Elemental. More associated with the Geek-themed Chap-Hop genre, the Professor does things a bit differently, adding the accoutrements of the mad scientist to the usual ‘what-ho chaps’ Chap-Hop persona. A potent mix that is both original and funny without being overly silly or mocking. One of the best examples is ‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted,’ which is a harrowing yet still silly tale in which the Professor and the listener have time-traveled to the future and are being hunted for sport by robotic huntsmen. The heart-warming all-for-one anthem ‘All In Together’ is a bit gentler.

While much of the Steampunk aesthetic originates in the pre-electrical era, room for electric instruments in the associated music remains. Not only in terms of instruments like guitars and synthesizers, but also digitally based music sources. While bands such as Abney Park catch flack for being electronica bands in disguise, it’s not because their music is mostly electronically based but more how they use the technology. A band who has never had their loyalties questioned is Clockwork Dolls. Best described as either Neo-Classical or Electro-Symphonic, the Dolls composer, arranger and all around mastermind Sam Lee manages to construct massive, epic, shiver-inducing symphonic compositions using only synthesizers and computer playback (at least on their first album Dramatis Personae). Their second album is closer to the Steampunk relative Dieselpunk, based in the Diesel-based technology of the inter-war period through to the 1950s.

Someone else using technology to great effect is Emilie Autumn Liddell, better known to the world as Emilie Autumn. Alternately described as ‘Fairy Pop’, ‘Fantasy Rock’ and ‘Victorian Industrial,’ Autumn’s music can be difficult to pin down. While the ‘Fantasy Rock’ monicker might be tempting, especially considering she shares a surname with the inspiration for Alice In Wonderland, ‘Victorian Industrial’ is most accurate. Despite some nods like the tracks ‘Shalott’ and ‘Castle Down,’ Autumn is very much a hybrid.

Classically trained in violin and piano, Autumn mixes traditional instruments with modern programming like that found on synthesizers, samplers and drum-machines in a way that is all her own. There is seriously little chance of her ever being mistaken for Rufus Wainwright or Nine Inch Nails. The best example of this is the track ‘Misery Loves Company.’ Not only is it among the most accomplished of Autumn’s vocal performances, far from clashing the violin and harpsichord parts blend with the samples and drum-machine beats in way that not only works but seems almost natural. This is particularly true of the drum-machine, set in such a way that it mimics the thump-hiss of a piece of steam-powered machinery. Evoking the past with methods of the future and thereby embracing Steampunk’s core principles.

 

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