I’ve mentioned steampunk music a few times before in this column, but I’ve never really explored it systematically. I’ve deliberately not included most of the more obvious bands (like Abney Park, Vernian Process, Sunday Driver, etc.) since they are so well known, although there are a couple I felt the need to mention, and there’s one band most people will recognize even if they’re not into steampunk. Of course this list is not even remotely exhaustive (although I will probably explore more bands in the future). So, without further ado, here is a very brief exploration of steampunk music.
Steam Powered Giraffe
The premise behind Steam Powered Giraffe alone should be enough to convince anyone to check them out. They’re a group of “robots” (well, actually humans with pretty extensive make-up) who perform highly theatrical songs, combining mime, steampunk, and vaudeville. They’ve also created a rich back story for their characters, including a comic (which, sadly, hasn’t been updated since January 2012). The Spine, so named because of his titanium alloy spinal column, is the front man, backed up by Rabbit, the “clockwork creation,” and Hatchworth, the “mustachioed mechanoman.” Rounding out the band are the humans, Michael Reed, the “one man band” and Steve Negrete, their sound engineer.
Musically they have a definite musical theater and vaudeville feel, with wonderful harmonies. Their songs are about “Brass Goggles,” “Steamboat Shenanigans,” pirates (“Captain Albert Alexander”), and other steampunk tropes. The lyrics often tell stories, especially about the back story of the robots. But the band really should be seen to be fully appreciated. They clearly put thought into the look of their performances, including moving like robots while playing. I’d love to go to a live show, but I don’t think they come anywhere near Florida (at least not in the near future).
One aspect of the band that I find intriguing is their “Engineer-eteer” program. It’s on a site called Patronism.com. The idea is that you can subscribe monthly to help support the band. In return, you get to stream all of their music, plus you get exclusive updates on what’s going on with the band. I haven’t yet made the commitment to a monthly subscription (you can subscribe for as little as two dollars per month so I have a feeling I will do so soon), but it’s a really cool idea.
The Lisps – Futurity
The Lisps are an indie band from Brooklyn who integrate sci-fi into their music. Futurity is a Civil War steampunk musical that they’ve performed several times (sadly, nowhere near Florida). I can’t comment on the performance of the musical (I’ve read mixed reviews online), but I really enjoy the music.
It’s not necessarily easy to piece together the story from the lyrics, but I’ve done some digging to fill in gaps. Julian Munro, a Union soldier, wants to create a “steam brain,” an artificial intelligence that he hopes will end the Civil War (and all war). To help him, he enlists the aid of Ada Lovelace (via letters back and forth), the original computer programmer who worked with Charles Babbage on his Difference Engine. They each have their own battles to fight along the way (his clearly being the Civil War; hers being with her mother who doesn’t want Ada to end up like her father, a dreamer), and, of course, fall in love.
The music is quite different from most other steampunk music. It’s more of an Americana meets indie folk style that fits the time period quite well. I went through a phase in grad school where I listened to a lot of old ’60s and ’70s folk music, so I already have an affinity for this type of music. Thus it has sort of a doubly nostalgic feel for me. Standout tracks include “The Meaning or the Medium” (in which Ada contemplates the nature of humanity), “Steam Brain” (which pops into my head unbidden quite frequently), the celebratory “Blacklick Creek” (even if it’s religious, I can still appreciate it), and “The Machine that Creates Peace” (I can really picture this one; it reminds me of so many other scenes from other stories). I got my copy during their Kickstarter campaign, but you can pick up a copy of the CD or vinyl from The Lisps’ store.
The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing – This May Be The Reason Why The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing Cannot Be Killed By Conventional Weapons (Explicit)
OK, maybe TMTWNBBFN are a pretty obvious inclusion into a steampunk list. TMTWNBBFN, however, aim to put the “punk” in “steampunk” (as pretty much every review out there no doubt has also said). As a fan of both punk and steampunk, I have to approve of this effort, even if the band can’t quite get the grammar of their name correct (I know the name comes from a graffito possibly written by Jack the Ripper, but I am, after all, an English teacher). “Victoria’s Secret” has to be my favorite track — it’s not about underwear, but instead about the secret that Queen Victoria had to keep after Albert died.
With references to Nikola Tesla, Prince Albert, the less well-known Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who suddenly became more famous in the US during the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony in London) and R.V. Pierce, M.D., TMBTRWTMTWNBBFNCBKBCW (even the abbreviation is ridiculously long!) will educate as well as entertain. Also: there’s plenty of Cthulhu. So, yeah, if you don’t check it out the Elder Gods will be angry. Oh, and if you haven’t checked out their first album, make sure to rectify that as soon as possible. It’s just as good as this one.
Rush – Clockwork Angels
Like nearly every geek my age, I’ve been a fan of Rush for a long time. So obviously when I heard they were releasing a steampunk album, I was excited. There’s even a novel written by Kevin J. Anderson to go along with it that fleshes out the story of the album. I haven’t had a chance to read the novel yet because I’m busy reading four or five other books at the moment, but it’s not that difficult to piece together the gist of the story from the lyrics. I’m actually looking forward to filling in the gaps by reading the book in the future.
Owen Hardy, the protagonist, longs for adventure in a stratified society ruled by the Watchmaker. He travels to the main city, Chronos City (I think that’s right), to see the “Clockwork Angels.” He then joins with a carnival and falls in love with one of the acrobats, but he’s idealized her and she rejects him. Then he is confronted by the Anarchist, who he met briefly earlier. Because of the craftiness of the Anarchist, Owen gets framed as a bomber. Attempting to escape, he next travels to the semi-mythical lands of Cibola, one of the Seven Cities of Gold. He sees the cities, but nearly freezes to death. He becomes shipwrecked due to a false light designed to lure ships to their deaths. He’s the only survivor. Disillusioned, he returns to the city, and he somehow manages to maintain his love and optimism, becoming philosophical in his old age. Or at least that’s the idea I got. I’m sure some of my details are incorrect.
Musically it’s exactly what you’d expect from Rush: prog rock with plenty of great musicianship from all three members (plus orchestral pieces). If you’ve ever been a fan of Rush, this will be right up your alley. And if you haven’t, but you’re a fan of steampunk, perhaps this will be the album to turn you on to this truly legendary band.