Considering my interest in music and near inability to sit in silence (I have iTunes on all the time), I have been to a surprisingly few concerts. But the once I was at most recently will forever be in my mind.
It wasn’t large, maybe 150 people, but as the doors opened and people flooded in it was just amazing to see the variety. There was a little girl about seven twirling around in front of the seats, her parents in the third row. And I had past an infant in a stroller on my way up the aisle to the standing area in front of the stage. Not to mention, once the music started I witnessed the best fist pumper ever: a skinny old man, and I mean like 86 old, with wispy barely there white hair and decked out in a Victorian suit. He was shorter than me, but actually jumped while pumping his fist while I just bounced on my toes.
The band in question? Abney Park.
You…probably haven’t heard of them. But that’s okay, I’m here to introduce you to new music ^_^
They were the closing act during the one day of a Steampunk Expo I attended. Steampunk, being a subgenre of science fiction that takes place in an alternative history version of the Victorian Age where things are powered by steam. Think steam powered computers, flying machines, robots. Staples include gears and airships. (For visual reference, try the anime movie Steamboy. If books are more your thing, read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan.)
But the thing about steampunk is that it’s no longer a genre of books or movies, it’s also a sort of revived life-style and décor (google Neo-Victorian if you’re interested). People create steampunk covers for their iPhones, decorate their houses with gears.
The looks of steampunk are pretty standard and identifiable. The sounds, not so much.
Airship Pirates was my first introduction to Abney Park and steampunk music in general. It’s interesting mix of electronic sounds with a rock beat, with a steady drum motif and a bit of the fiddle. As far as lyrics go, it’s just about the adventures and practicalities of being a pirate, who sails the skies and not the seven seas.
Which means they don’t have to worry about getting seasick.
But Abney Park’s vibe isn’t consistent. Other songs have the feel of old Irish ballads or bar songs, still others feel like electronic new age music. And then you have the song Beautiful Decline which sounds like African tribal music in the beginning, but goes on to have a slow, melancholy feel as it talks about things falling apart and nature taking over again.
And it’s not just Abney Park that seems unable to settle on an idea for the sound of steampunk. Listening to the steampunk channel on last.fm half of the songs don’t even have as steampunk as a main tag. (Last.fm creates radio stations by how users tag songs, not how the site compares them, like Pandora’s music genome project. Which is why Pandora doesn’t even recognize this type of music as a genre, it’s too small.) Instead, you see labels like electronic, experimental, ambient, darkwave, neoclassical, industrial, gothic, and a bunch of others.
You’ll hear Saluki Regicide & Mystified’s track Astrolabe, which is a collection of dock sounds (creaking boats, bells, lapping water) with electronic beats in between the ambient noise. And then you might hear Descence, which is sung in French by Life’s Decay, along side a simple violin and piano line. Clockwork Dolls would come up for sure, they’re well known in the steampunk world and a stellar female vocalist. The Flying Dutchman by Von Thronstahl comes up every time I listen to the steampunk station, which is an amazing orchestral piece.
The shouts of the crewmen just add so much to it, don’t you think?
Because the sounds of steampunk are pretty varied, it’s hard to tell what unites it all. To be honest, it’s not the music at all but rather it’s subject. All of the songs are about things particular to the steampunk genre and many of the artists perform and photograph in steampunk attire.
Because ultimately, steampunk is it’s own type of lifestyle. It’s not just about books or movies or music. It’s about living a certain way, and the music of the genre does it’s best to capture that.
And what way is that? It’s about living in a time surrounded by the impossible, proving that incredible things can happen, dreams come true, imagination turns into reality. Oh, and airships and goggles too. And what better way to share that world than through music.