Steampunk: Back to the Future with the New Victorians
Non-Fiction | History
April 1, 2015
Credited with cofounding the movement with his Edwardian/Victorian themed albums, Paul Roland traces the history of the genre, drawing on exclusive quotes from leading writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers in the field.
What began in the late 1980s as an underground community of science fiction and fantasy aficionados with a fetish for Victoriana now pervades almost every aspect of popular culture from music and movies to comics and computer games. Written by one of the godfathers of steampunk, this cultural history includes exclusive interviews with key figures including Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder, Kris Kukski, Chaz Kemp, Professor Elemental, and Abney Park. This account demonstrates that steampunk is much more than a retro-futuristic fashion statement or a subgenre of science fiction. On the surface its adherents profess a penchant for neo-Victorian fashion, fanciful clockwork accessories, and have a desire to live in an alternative reality inhabited by airships and eccentric inventions. But the literature, art, music, and movies of this burgeoning community offer a radical and irreverent reimagining of society the way it might have evolved had history taken a sharp detour prior to the industrial revolution giving us a world without electricity, the infernal (sic) combustion engine, and the technology that we take for granted today. The world of steampunk as explored here is the elegant gas lit world of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, of Michael Moorcock and their literary antecedents for whom the digital age never dawned.
Today's feature is going to be a little different in that I'm featuring a book that traces the grassroots of Steampunk and it's influence. This genre isn't just exclusive to books, it's a movement, a lifestyle, and continues to inspire different people in many creative ways.
I give you Paul Roland to tell us more about the Steampunk music.
Steampunk & Music
by Paul Roland
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.
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.
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.
NOTE: The article is quite lengthy so if you're a Steampunk enthusiast and would like to read the full guest post, you may find it HERE.
Paul Roland is a former Editor of ZigZag magazine and has been a freelance feature writer and reviewer for numerous national publications since the early '80s including Kerrang!, Sounds, Which CD?, Total Film and The Mail On Sunday. He is the author of 35 books including Cosmic Dancer – The Life and Music of Marc Bolan, Dark History of the Occult, The Crimes of Jack The Ripper and The Curious Case of H.P.Lovecraft. He is also a cult indie recording artist with more than 15 albums to his credit including Danse Macabre, A Cabinet of Curiosities, Re-Animator and Bates Motel.
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