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 I think that industrial music is a good way to capture the “old” sound without making yourself seem outdated, because it’s got a more serious feel to it (as opposed to sing-song).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?