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Steampunk is a subculture that gets it style from the Victorian period of history (late 19th century), in effect the period of time in which the steam engine was invented. I’ve seen some steampunk movies, tv shows, artwork, fashion, but I’d mostly ignored steampunk music. I knew what it was going to be, and I just wasn’t interested. Having researched a bit more in depth for this post, I can confirm: most of it is bands playing their take on what 19th century music could be if it had modern musical influence introduced to it. Beyond that, it’s hard to explain. There’s some cabaret, some industrial, some music I can only describe as “Pirates of the Caribbean”-sounding. Steampunk is a genre you have to be in the mood for.

Running down the main bands I checked out:

Abney Park. (shown in article picture) These guys seem to be a standard steampunk band. Their visual aesthetic is entirely 1800’s, and everything about their sound is designed to sound “old”. When it comes to musical innovation, I don’t really see anything there. They perform simple songs, sing-songy in nature; kind of reminds me of a broadway musical. Seems like they put on interesting live shows. I think they’d really appeal to someone that enjoyed steampunk as a subculture, but they don’t appeal to me.

Doctor Steel. Steel is actually rather creative, for this genre. He takes an industrial angle into steampunk, which gives him a lot more musical liberties than the bands that just aim for cabaret. Again, he has an entertaining character so I’d imagine his live shows are a lot of fun to “steampunks”. He’s more accessible to someone who likes industrial music. I think that industrial music is a good way to capture the “old” sound without making yourself seem outdated, because it’s got a more serious feel to it (as opposed to sing-song).

Vernian Process. Again, not a band I ended up being a fan of. I liked them more than Abney Park and less than Doctor Steel. I’m not sure if they’d agree, but I felt like they had an 80’s vibe to them because of the instruments they used, and their singer reminded me of The Cure. On the one hand, their music is actually more complex than their contemporaries, on the other, I don’t really like 80’s music, so I didn’t get into it. It was at this point in my foray into steampunk that I started to think that these bands are better if you listen to the lyrics instead of just the music.

Beats Antique. It was also at this point that I found a steampunk band with no lyrics at all, and they turned out to be my favorite of the bunch. I don’t even really know how these guys qualify as steampunk, because they remind me of the Morocco section of Epcot more than anything. I assume the justification is just that they’re going for the “steampunk” of Arabia. Nonetheless, they have a lot of the features I personally enjoy in music: complexity in song structure, depth (multi-layered songs, not just a few instruments/synths all playing the same chords/melody), and serious tonality. It’s just nice to hear a band doing something you don’t hear every day. I’ll toss out one of my favorite songsby them so far.

The Cog is Dead. I was definitely not expecting these guys while I looked through different steampunk bands. They’re the only group I found that seemed to take a folk path, and I found that interesting. They can’t help but include some cabaret songs here and there, but I think fans of the genre who haven’t heard these guys might find most of their songs refreshing.

Those are 5 fairly different steampunk groups to look at. On my part, I haven’t ended up listening to full albums by any steampunk groups. I haven’t been impressed enough by the music. I was impressed by the community interaction, though. A lot (if not all) of these bands seem to be independent, with their own websites and youtube channels. They respond to user comments, and seem to appreciate their fans. That’s different from what you get with VEVO artists on Youtube.

Do I see steampunk “taking off”? Not anymore than it has. It’s a subculture, and I’d expect it to stay that way. There will always be some artistic works that make use of it, and there will always be people that enjoy that art. I can’t see anyone getting to mainstream status doing only steampunk. I could see a mainstream artist doing a song with steampunk elements, though. Or Lady Gaga might wear a steampunk costume. It certainly has the visual flare for that kind of thing. But do we really want everyone to walk around with monocles, pocket watches and random cogs on their person just because someone like Justin Bieber did it?

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27 thoughts on “Steampunk’s contribution to music

  1. Abney park is called the quintessential steam punk band and maybe by definition that might be true but i found that they borrowed too much from the cheesy uncool elements of steam punk such as sea shanties, sing-along and pirates rather then focusing on the cooler technological industrial themes.

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  2. All in all I ended up feeling like I was in a saloon or on a deserted island rather then in a steam powered airship from Last Exile. Dr Steel as you said focuses much more on the industrial aestetics. Check out Doctor Steel “Land of the Lost”. this one kinda reminds me of Rage Against the Steam Machine.

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  3. Vernian Process is kinda steampunk meets post-punk/new wave hence the term steamwave…. but yeah if you dont like bands from the eighties then you wont like them. I liked what they were trying to aim for, which was add more electronic effects to steampunk to make it seem more technological.. but their choice of synths and production just sucks.

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  4. Beats antique are awesome and yes you definitely hit the nail on the head. I don’t know if I would consider them steam punk however.

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  5. No doubt they have a very organic feel that borrows from Egyptian, Arabic and Turkish influences and subtle electronics and dubstep elements that compliment instead of overwhelm it.

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  6. I would probably consider this more tribal or world fusion. I think steam punk is still deeply rooted in Victorian era America, Britain and the Caribbean. But very good find none the less!

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  7. I agree somewhat with your statements about its mainstreamability – but i just think that the producers/pioneers of the genre are comparitively pretty shit. For instance dubstep didn’t really take off until drum and bass artists started crossing over. I think once they get the right balance between the cool elements of the victorian era and industrial that doesnt sound so nine-inch-nailsish, add subtle electronics and emphasise the punk/emo/goth/cyber feel instead of the pirate feel then they will be on to something.

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  8. Sorry about all the comments. Spam detection is a bitch. If you want anymore ideas on fresh styles of music maybe you could look into interesting world of Psy music. It started out as Goa Trance and Psy Trance but has since crossed over into more genres including elements of hiphop, tribal, dubstep, glitch and funk. As an aestetic Psy tends to strike a balance between heady cerebral music and hypnotic psycopathy.

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  9. A lot of recordings use punchy bass drums, repetitive multilayer-ed instrumentation and also tend to borrow a lot from old world Egyptian and mesoamerican themes. If you liked Beats Antique I think you’ll strike an accord with Psy. Probably the quintessential band in the genre is Infected Mushroom but there are many more. Bird of prey is probably my favourite in the genre soundcloud.com/bird-of-prey

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  10. “Sea shanties,” that’s a term I was looking for when I wrote this. I just went with Pirates. As for it taking off, I’m just saying that steampunk has been around for a long time, and it IS already a part of our culture. People have had exposure to it, but it hasn’t become a massive trend in all this time. If it did, I’d ask “why now?”I’ve listened to a lot of psytrance, actually. Again, it’s debatable whether I have much to say about it. It’s trippy. I had been looking for a band that used a didjeridoo + electronica, and I actually managed to find a few jumping off from goa. I think Beats Antique might use one in a couple songs, too.

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  11. One thing to keep in mind regarding most of the material from Vernian Process. It’s almost all very, very old. Our album Behold the Machine is almost entirely (except the songs The Exile, and The Maiden Flight) retrofitted instrumental solo arrangements from 2006-2007, with vocals added as an after thought. The project started as my solo experimental thing in 2003, but in 2008 I met Martin Irigoyen our guitarist and producer. He took a bunch of the material i was working on and turned it into proper song arrangements. I come from a DJing background, and am entirely self taught as a musician. So Martin was the perfect balance for what I wanted to create. Everything on BtM was recorded off of Logic, with real guitar and bass. I was also just learning to sing at the time, and I personally dislike my vocals on 80% of that album. As far as the 80’s influences, well that’s because we’re all fans of 80’s Post-Punk/New Wave/Industrial/ and Goth. Which we have no shame in admitting to. In fact, I’m quite proud to carry on that tradition. But we’re equally influenced by a wide range of other genres from all kinds of time periods.We started recruiting more members in 2009, and now we are a 6 person strong team of live musicians.Our new material is much different. You can hear it in our newest single “Something Wicked (That Way Went)”, notice how much more organic it sounds in comparison. We’re hard at work on our first proper album as a full band. Every song is being written live too. No more sitting at a workstation arranging material.I hope you’ll give our new album a chance when it hits later this year. And thanks for including us in your roundup. Any press is good press.Cheers,Josh

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  12. I’m glad I wasn’t wrong in detecting that 80’s influence. Thanks for the history, it is a useful explanation.I’ll definitely check out your new album. I’m interested to see what innovations you’ve made.

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  13. Wow. Its not everyday an actual member from the band replies! First off I apologize for saying your synths and productions suck. I do however feel they let you down on some of the tracks and that the idea and the originality is there – it could just be so much sweeter with a more polished production. But as a producer/DJ of a similar background to you – you’ve gone alot further then I have so major kudos for actually getting out there.Now neither me or jszigeti are steampunks, however we are musicians and we were discussing the genre of Steampunk music as a whole which I personally believe will take off in one form or another, commercially speaking that is. Most of the bands I have heard seem to try to strike a balance between victorian era music(sea shanties, saloon songs, circus music, romanticism) with elements of industrial, punk, goth and EDM. At the moment however I am struggling to find music with a sound that is perfectly matched to aestetics of a steampunk universe.It always winds up sounding too much in one direction or the other. I believe the band that becomes the most successful in the genre is the one that will truly capture the steampunk fantasy… but do it in a cool way.

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  14. I appreciate the post-punk influences in your album and I think you should definitely stick with those influences. As I said.. I definitely appreciate the direction you are trying to take. Now I dont want to tell you how you should write your music or criticize it but what I will say is while I think “Something Wicked (That Way Went)” is definitely a more polished production and a good listen, I believe it is moving away from what made you stand out from the pack in the first place.

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  15. But it doesn’t make me feel like I am exploring the new worlds in my steam powered airship with goggles strapped around my forehead. Abney Park – The Wrong Side Vernian Processed Mix does however.

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  16. So my advice is stick to the cool of the victorian era.. the beauty and mystique of stringed instruments (think abney park – sleep isabella).. use chord progressions that make me think words like “epic”, “adventure”, “discovery”. If you want to give it a more quirky, bar-fight, victorian urban feel you might want to listen to the sherlock holmes theme which I believe does it well. Approach rock from a post-rock angle but keep the energy of post punk. Use old world industrial elements (sounds of steam, hammers, cannons) intertwined with subtle but present electronic soundscapes. Emphasize the bass which will in turn ephasize the grandeur of the track (think inception score). And stick with the cure/new order vocals. I think they work with your voice. Circus/Pirate/Cabaret vocals get annoying quickly and is one of the things that annoys me about Abney Park.Best of luck with your new album man.

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  17. Cool, thanks for the replies guys. yeah our new material is all over the place, Something Wicked is definitely one of the more straight forward “rock” style songs (and we specifically released it as a teaser for the new album, because it’s very simple and catchy), but we’re also working on some epic Prog-Rock (a three part song called “The Consequences of Time Travel”), Electrotango, Spaghetti Western Soundscapes, Hot-Jazz, Victorian Waltz (with lots of modern touches), and all kinds of other fun ideas (Reggae/Ragtime.. Raggatime!?). It all just sounds so much more organic, now that we have a full band and a practice space to write in. feel free to add me on fb: http://www.facebook.com/vernianjosh and I’ll do my best to keep you up to date.Cheers!

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  18. Also, I forgot to mention, Mr T.: All of your suggestions for the progression of our sound, are exactly the kinds of things we are doing on this new material. So good job, reading my mind 😉

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  19. Interesting commentary and an introduction to a couple of band names I wasn’t familiar with. My personal take is that I came to steampunk when I heard Abney Park and went “heh, that music provides a soundscape to my childhood readings of Edgar RIce Burroughs, Jules Verne, et al.” I do think steampunk does owe at least some of its success to appealing to an element of childhood stories of derring-do. It is interesting that you label the sea shanty approach as a cliché, wheras I would posit that this actually is in keeping with the neo-Victorian aesthetic that the band and followers intend. I do have to declare interest at this point as being a)British b)a folkie and c) a steampunker. Sea shanties do play a central part during the Victorian period, being the age of the tea clippers, the primacy of the Royal Navy and its own impetus to technology, and the start of organised documentation of ‘folk’ music of the time. This is easily spotted in the rise of the music hall and such hypbrids of time as Gilbert & Sullivan. I would venture to suggest that it is difficult therefore to dismiss as a trope of the genre.I would also reccomend looking at the British contribution to steampunk, which is somewhat less than formal. For example look at Ghostfire, Professor Elemental, The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing, BB Blackdog and Sunday Driver. The genre is a mishmash, with a broader aesthetic than Goth/INdustrial, yet is not divorced from that source either. I would ocusel against searching for a singular checklist of elements, as that would strap down the scene. For example, look at how Blutengel moved from being a vanguard of Industrial/EBM to effectively being a parody of the genre. I don’t think steampunk is mainstream enough, simply through the relative miniscule size of the scene meaning that there are not enough cudtomers for the talent and potential talent to sustain development.

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  20. Personally I’m a big fan of both Abney Park and Vernian Process. I don’t really know the others listed, I may look them up.Abney Park’s Airship Pirates actually inspired me to write a Steampunk novel, which will be out in a few months.But then I do like 80’s music…

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  21. Well I think you ned to do a little more rsearch.Yes you have Dr Steel (already retired) Vernian Process, Abney Park (wich use to be a kind of dark wave band before go “steampunk”) wich use the pirate style wich btw is out Victorian Era…you talk about The Cog is Dead…Ok you´re not a steampunk but you´re a musician, so I suggest try Escape the Clouds, Victor Sierra (from france) and Coppelius (from Germany) You will surprise…

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  22. Guys, don’t think I’m insulting steampunk just because I didn’t fall in love with these few bands. I typed in steampunk music, and I listened to what the internet gave me.Adam: The reason I don’t like sea shanties is because they are inherently sing-songy. It’s just not a tone I enjoy, and it is most definitely one of the most basic forms of music. It bores me, as much as it might be entertaining to others. I liked some of the other sounds that steampunk bands incorporated into their music, just not that. I do of course recognize that steampunk is a very broad term to apply.JDH: I had no idea what to expect from either band, and I just came away thinking they were both alright, but not my cup of tea. Like I said, it sounds like if you listen to their lyrics, it can be a lot more interesting of an experience.Inmunsapa: Again, those are not my labels; they are widely considered to be steampunk, and often are self-proclaimed steampunk artists. My post is merely an overview of music I’d never heard of before, directed to others who have also never heard it. Your three suggestions would certainly qualify as unique amongst the bands mentioned in my piece, but the ones in my piece are also unique amongst themselves. It’s all useful material for someone diving into the genre.

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  23. One thing you’ll notice about the Steampunk community, they are very, very protective of their scene. Personally I think your blog post, and following comments were all very intelligent, and well thought out, especially as you have mentioned that this sub-culture is pretty new to you. I respect that you give your honest opinions on each act. It’s refreshing to see the critical side. I’m so used to these types of posts from fans of bands, where it’s nothing but gushing about how great they are.All of the things you guys pointed out about our project, are things that we have been actively trying to resolve. I just wish more artists could take creative criticism, and use it to improve their work, instead of getting butt-hurt and ignoring it.

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  24. Good to see heaps of positive comments! As jszigeti pointed out, I think there is a really good sense of community in the steampunk scene which is great and something Ive not really seen to this degree in any other scene. And I also really appreciate you guys educating us non-steampunkers and supporting forums like this because at the end of the day it doesnt matter what scene or style of music you follow – we are all lovers of music at heart. And we wouldnt be talking about steampunk if we didnt find it fascinating to say the least. Will definitely be buying your album when it comes out Josh. Looking forward to it! 🙂

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