Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a speculative-fiction theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
From a musical standpoint, steampunk is a funny thing. The suffix “-punk,” as we all know, was lifted from cyberpunk, which itself was lifted from punk rock. And yet, there’s no intrinsic musicality to either cyberpunk or steampunk. Many bands have since claimed kinship with these subgenres, but that’s seldom been reflected in the actual literature. For me—a self-identified punk for the past 20 years—that feels odd, especially seeing as how the word “punk” still perks up my ears and carries an overwhelming musical connotation.
Rasputina, however, don’t call themselves steampunk. They don’t have to: Every music critic and blogger that writes about the group does that for them. Of course, the corseted and cello-wielding band came to prominence back in the mid-‘90s, long before the term “steampunk” had acquired any real pop-cultural currency. Wisely, the band doesn’t exactly distance itself from steampunk, either—despite the fact that when they do mix speculative fiction into their lyrics, such as on their new song, “Holocaust of Giants,” it winds up being far less easy to pigeonhole.
“Holocaust of Giants” appears on Rasputina’s brand-new album, Sister Kinderhook—which, by the way, is excellent—and it’s one of leader Melora Creager’s most blatant spec-fic-themed songs since her 2006 solo EP, Perplexions. That earlier disc featured amazing tracks like the gorgeous, science-fiction nightmare “Girl Lunar Explorer” as well as “Warbots” and “Itinerant Airship,” two of the steampunkiest compositions Creager has ever crafted. Then again, Creager has never been shy about flirting with elements of alternate history, gothic oddity, and anachronistic esoterica.
“Holocaust,” however, is only distantly related to steampunk. Despite the vague 19th-century feel of the opening lines (“When I was nine years old / Way back in Ohio / The hired man was digging up a well / On my father’s land”), the song isn’t tied to a specific era at all. In fact, as the song progresses, it feels more like a timeless work of magic realism—one akin, perhaps, to J.G. Ballard’s early short story, “The Drowned Giant,” in which the corpse of a humongous man washes ashore one day (which ultimately spurs the normal-sized humans of the town to become far more monstrous than the goliath they’ve discovered).
In the case of “Holocaust,” though, the fantastical scenario is its own kind of weird. After her father’s hired hand unearths a “gravel-encrusted skull” with “double rows of very sharp teeth” and a “massive jaw measured twenty-five feet,” the young narrator uses her Bible learning to deduce that “a race of giants lived in the Northern Hemisphere / Ten thousand years ago they lived right here […] The Bible speaks of this / There were giants in our midst / But they slaughtered one another in a meaningless war / Thank your lucky stars that we don’t do that anymore.”
More than Creager’s taut cello and harrowing vocals, it’s the bleak irony of that last line that really resonates with me. Clearly Creager, via her wide-eyed, 9-year-old narrator, is commenting on the fact that modern-day humans, in our mad egoism and hubris, are just as likely to bring about our own extinction as were the mighty giants of old. In that sense, “Holocaust” is a nice, harsh, bracing dose of good old-fashioned apocalyptic pessimism. Now that’s what I call punk.
Jason Heller is a regular contributor to The A.V. Club, still plays in a punk band, and has written more than few music-influenced science-fiction stories of his own.