Science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction manifests itself through song in a lot of different ways. Witness the awesome power of the filk or goth genres, the folk/pop sci-fi noodlings of Jonathan Coulton, instructional albums from the likes of They Might Be Giants, or the fandom outreaches that result in Wizard Rock, Time Lord Rock, and, oh my god of course this exists, Twilight Rock.
Around these more direct artists exists a host of musicians who love good stories with bad robots (to use a general example) but prefer to let that excitement suffuse their material without referencing it so immediately. They invoke sci-fi/fantasy in order to evoke it, letting it creep in around the edges of their songs, lending their music an often haunting quality.
Violinist, noted whistler, and indie rock classicist Andrew Bird would feature heavily in this kind of mix. At least once an album, he assembles a song that calls forth a speculative tableau and makes it personal. On one record he offers “Imitosis,” in which a frustrated scientist sees playground bullies and the ultimate loneliness of the human condition in his petri dish. On another album “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” frames him and his significant other as Enigma-style codebreakers who can no longer communicate with each other. “Tables and Chairs,” a particularly rousing closer on yet another album, paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic world in which we can all finally relax, for there are tables and chairs, pony rides, and dancing bears. And that’s not all, oh no, there will be snacks.
Some of you may remember the velvety-voiced musician Poe from her two releases in the late 1990s, the second of which is a companion album of sorts to her brother Mark Z. Danielewski’s wildly fractured novel House of Leaves. “5 1/2 Minute Hallway” would almost certainly qualify for this mix, being a very literal song about a hallway that is constantly changing its length. In the song the situation unnerves Poe tremendously, for if something as mundane as a hallway can’t go right, then nothing in her life can.
There are many, many others that belong on a mix like this. The Dresden Dolls and/or Amanda Palmer evoke the genre heavily, and cello-rock outfit Rasputina often seem borne straight from a steampunk alt-universe. In a harsher sense, The Pixies (well, Frank Black) used to kerrang on and on about UFOs and dystopian rockers like The Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice continue to circle around to the subject of time travel and moon colony bloodbaths every so often. We’re just scratching the surface here.
What we’d be absolutely remiss in ignoring, though, is this gorgeous ballad about the Columbia Shuttle disaster by indie rockers The Long Winters. “The Commander Thinks Aloud” (below) captures the majesty of space travel in a gloriously chaotic sense, leaving you with a taste of the wonder that actual astronauts must feel when they leave the atmosphere of their home planet. The song turns tragic, as it must, but there’s beauty in that as well. Sometimes your heart is supposed to fall to pieces.
Your turn! What songs or artists would you include in a sci-fi/fantasy/speculative-evoking mix of this type?
Chris Greenland is really into free snacks and will accept an apocalypse if that’s what it takes to get them.