Steampunk is a word which refers to an aesthetic which has been around for decades. Jules Verne is often cited as the Father of Steampunk Rock, as it combines aspects of the futuristic with those of the Victorian Age, (or sometimes The Old West).
It’s only since the 1980s that its enthusiasts put a name to it. Think of the steam engine time machine at the end of “Back to the Future III”. Steampunk is an attempt to envision how Victorian Age/Old West visionaries would have imagined technology in the future.
Somewhere along the line, someone decided to make music which sounded like Steampunk looked. Like the aesthetic, the musical genre of steampunk rock has existed, though “on the fringe of musical society”, for quite some time.
Though just like the advent of many musical forms, its timeline is a bit muddy, especially since the music is inspired by different times and places. But the sound of modern steampunk rock bands, good ones, anyway, stays true to the original juxtaposition of vintage and futuristic. Think the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” meets Evanescence. Industrial Rock from the time of the Industrial Revolution. Nine Inch Nails in a top hat and a monocle.
But enough hypothetical mash-ups. There is a whole sub-genre for the interested fringe music enthusiast to peruse. A whole diverse discography from BB Black Dog, to Steam Powered Giraffe, to my new personal favorite, Abney Park. Or for those of you who are more into pop, there is the “steampop” of Alex the Kid.
To hard rock purists, don’t worry. Contrary to the name, this is not punk rock by any stretch of the imagination. The guitars are not steam-powered. The amplifiers are not acoustic megaphones. But it is infused with the sound of Victorian chamber music, and pure visual aesthetic helps to make it what it is. Just as some bands call themselves punk just because of the way they dress, steampunk rock is, in a large way, a visually unique experience. But somehow that is okay. After all, many musical genres came about as a way for people to express themselves, and that often comes out in a very specific look. In this way it is akin to Goth rock in many ways but with a bit more tongue-in-cheek. Then again maybe Goth is tongue-in-cheek too but who can tell? But I digress.
Steampunk is not like the swing music trend in the late-90s wherein the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zipper found an audience. Those bands attempted a 100% re-creation of the sound of the 1920s. Steampunk, at its best, is an amalgamation of two worlds into one.
Steampunk rock comes straight out of an imaginary world, in which the technological advances of the modern world never fully manifested. As though history somehow branched off into an alternate dimension around 1850 or so. As a history enthusiast, I am intrigued by this glimpse into a far-fetched might-have-been universe. In this way, steampunk rockers are a bit like Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts as there is an RPG aspect to it, but these RPGers can play music.
Abney Park’s “Steampunk Revolution” is an appropriate introduction to the genre as I think they bring the rock element to the form much more fluently than the others listed above, and the song itself literally announces a new trend in music. Though Steampunk rock is not new, in announcing a revolution, I think Abney Park is making an attempt at bringing this genre to the forefront. With its violin solos and trombones in the mix, “Steampunk Revolution” is enough of a nod to a certain time and place, but with the heavy guitars digging in whenever they feel like it, it has enough intensity to remind you that this is the 21st Century. Or is it? Or does it even matter?
Another band called Steam-Powered Giraffe takes things a step further, as they look like a band of androids from the Victorian Era. And their melodies and harmonies would fit in there very well, especially on a track called “Honey Bee”. But other tracks delve into just enough of the Goth, techno, and what the hell, even New Wave, to make them, not bridge, but embrace the gulf between the old and the new.
Other “steampunk rock” bands either play purely Victorian style music, or sound very much like your average modern Industrial band but simply play the part. But it is the fine natural balance of both that makes good steampunk rock something that truly makes you feel like you’ve been taken away to a strange new (old?) land.
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