In a world lit only by fire
Long train of flares under piercing stars.
I stand watching the steamliners roll by.
That’s the first stanza of “Caravan,” the opening track of Clockwork Angels, the new album from rock supergroup Rush – introducing listeners to the steampunk land of Albion. The concept album tells a fantasy adventure of a young man’s journey across a landscape filled with mechanical contraptions, alchemical coldfire, steamliners, lost cities, a strange carnival, pirates, a rigid Watchmaker and a “freedom extremist” who called himself the Anarchist.
In a groundbreaking crossover project, I wrote the novel of Clockwork Angels in close collaboration with Neil Peart, the lyricist and drummer for Rush. The twelve songs give snapshots of the story, like scenes in a movie trailer; but music is different from prose, and there was so much more to tell, and the characters and settings needed room to grow.
[Read "Rockin that Steampunk" on Tor.com]
I don’t know about you, but I spend so much time in a world of gears, cogs, pith helmets and imaginary robot butlers, I sometimes forget that there are people out there who see life quite differently. Hard to believe as it may be – there are some folk who haven’t ever pretended to pilot an airship, pulled on a scarlet corset or even polished their own goggles! How many of you reading this have had to fumble and mumble through a contrived explanation of exactly why you are wearing those brass wings and enormous top hat to some unassuming by-stander?
Earlier last month, I checked out the newest music video from PROPS!, a hip-hop artist based in Seattle and enjoyed his use of the steampunk aesthetic. More than “insert gears here,” it told an engaging storyline, featured local talent, and the song itself — about romantic longing and loss — seems more appropriate for a steampunk music video than, say, an autotuned command to “turn me on.” I had the opportunity to interview both PROPS! and the director of the music video Paul Maupoux, both relative newcomers to the scene, about the experience filming “The Taste of Heaven.”
Frontier stories are complicated ones, partly because they occur at the cultural crossroads of the world. Settlers and the places where they live are cast in narratives as either dens of adventure for independent thrill-seekers, or as an ominous presence populated by self-centered opportunists (usually white and Western, and often male) with colonial intents. What becomes lost are the lived-in experiences from those excluded from these tales: in this case, the story of Susannah Hawes, the focal character in Jordan Reyne’s concept album How the Dead Live.
The title for this article is from the album’s first song “From Gravesend,” and aptly describes Susannah’s position as a New Zealand settler in the nineteenth century. Though her circumstances as a settler had political and economic ramifications, her perspective doesn’t belong in either camp of the adventurer or the conqueror. Instead, Susannah is simply there, alone and isolated, fearful of the land she has chosen to live in. In this sense, she is a lonely immigrant in a world in which she doesn’t quite belong, one that seems as frightening as the roaring violent sea she watches from her home.
The precariousness of Samantha’s position is captured with dark starkness in Jordan Reyne’s video for “The Proximity of Death (Blue Eyed Boy).”
Jordan Reyne’s music has been described as “antipodean steampunk” and with good reason: she uses found noises from 19th-century factories and integrates them into her music. The creaks, clanks, and hisses add a layer of roughness to her elegant songs, like grit that gets into a factory hand’s clothes at the end of the day. Her voice and style reminds me of Tori Amos, and like Amos’ work, How the Dead Live evokes the sense of quiet dread and wonderment as a woman seeks out a new life, knowing that her presence is insignificant to History and feeling Death’s whisper in the wind.
Dark stuff indeed, but beautiful as well. After the jump, Jordan and I talk about the inspirations for her music, the difference between “dark folk” and “folk noir” and playing concerts on Second Life.
In exploring the range of music that has been classified under the steampunk umbrella, Psyche Corporation would be on the more Gothic side of the spectrum. The one-woman musical singer behind the band, Psyche Chimère possesses a versatile voice, and her music ranges as far as the imaginative topics she sings about. At turns Psyche Corporation moves from evocative and theatrical, as with“Part of Her Design” or “Beast”; to the darkwave dance beats of “Institute” or “The Crime”; to whimsical but edgy storytelling like in “The Ceiling” and “Wonderland.” (You can listen to her music on her MySpace, Reverbnation, or last.fm).
Psyche Corporation’s music, however, has struck a chord with the steampunk community, and she has performed at steampunk events around the country, including The Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey, Dorian’s Parlor in Philadelphia, the Steampunk Salon run by the Brooklyn Indie Mart, and in conjunction with Steampunk Canada & the Toronto Steampunk Society for Canada’s Fan Expo. Psyche Corporation’s next steampunk performance will be at The Anachronism at Webster Hall in New York City on November 21st.
Just in time for Halloween, however, Psyche Chimère stopped by the blog to talk about her darkly-tinged music and her career as a musician in the steampunk community.
Image courtesy of Coyote Run
I first heard Coyote Run while at Wicked Faire, but didn’t have a chance to see their full set until Steampunk World ‘s Fair. My friend Max had practically leaped out of the hallway where we had been talking, exclaiming, “I have to go Coyote Run is playing–!” My friend in question tends to be very enthused about a lot of things, and from what I had gathered from him before his sudden dash was that Coyote Run was one of the best gypsypunk bands he had ever seen and so it was absolutely imperative that I go see them too. I watched their set and was quite impressed with their crackling energy and great sense of showmanship. And, surprisingly enough, I also found out that they don’t identify themselves as steampunk, or even as gypsypunk, but as a Celtic rock band. That in itself is very interesting, considering the variety of international instruments they play and the range of genres they incorporate into their music.
For some examples of the type of tunes they play, I recommend checking out their YouTube videos Whalesong and But For Blood.
Afterward, I got in touch with Coyote Run’s lead singer David Doersch to talk about their versatile sound.
Steampunk music comes in various interpretations and styles, from Rasputina’s lilting southern gothic to Sunday Driver’s Indian-infused world folk and Vernian Process’s melodic steamwave instrumentals. But few bands can embody steampunk’s post-modernist mix of eclectic, rip-roaring energy as the ladies and gentlemen that make up Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. Today being the Fourth of July, the US holiday marked by parades, parties, and fireworks, I thought it was only apt to feature some big, incendiary music on the blog, and ENSMB is as big as steampunk bands can get.
Steampunk’s Big Band, Emperor Norton’s Stationery Marching Band
The band professes that their origins stemmed from esteemed eccentric Emperor Norton’s final deathbed revelation:
Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico
Before passing from this plane in 1880, Emperor Norton, I, revealed to his followers that he was no ordinary mortal man, but instead a manifestation of the absurd and unusual forces of the universe. He offered them the chance to follow him on his crusade to unsettle and disturb that which had become bland and banal. A grand parade ensued and continues on through time and space, bringing in its wake a glorious commotion that encourages all to join in the jubilation and make of this world what they will.
ENSMB is the progeny of this bizarre cavalcade. They dance at the edge of reason, sing the song of society’s fringe and drum out whatever din you are called to march to. Emperor Norton is not dead; he is waiting to be awakened in each of us.
Saxophonist and ringleader Handsome Chuck (the gent in the bowler and spiffin’ side-whiskers in the first row, right-hand side in the above picture) offered some insights into the workings of steampunk’s most mobile musical group.
Carnival Catalyst over at The Steampunk Empire first brought my attention to Sunday Driver, and later that same day, I read Libby Bulloff’s glowing praise for their work and smelled a snowball effect coming on. And, boy, do I like making snowballs. So I checked out their site and brought In the City of Dreadful Night from iTunes to hear for myself and was blown away. From the fusion spin on traditional Indian chant in “The Gayatri Mantra” to the smooth-to-edgy variations in “Heroes” to her darkly whimsical jazz croon of “Rats,” lead singer Chandrika “Chandy” Nath gives a strong and varied performance on this album, with strong instrumental support from band members Joel (Guitar & Sitar), Kat Arney (Harp, Clarinet(s),Spoons), Matthew Sarkar (Tabla – though recently Rahul Ghosh has taken his place), Melon (Bass), Chemise (Guitar), and Scot Jowett (Drums).
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Chandy—with the occasional pop-in answer from Joel—about their music, their band, and their views on steampunk.