Last year, I wrote a little piece for Tor.com about the music of steampunk. Looking over it now, it’s easy to see that I had far more questions than answers, and also that steampunk music was very much in flux at the time. That still seems to be true now. The two pervasive eras of influence on steampunk, musically speaking—the gypsy jazz and darker folk music of the 1920s and the haunted side of the pop music of the 1980s—have something in common in vibe and attitude: In both, you can trace a running thread of despondent yet hopeful urgency, a response to some sort of decadence, whether it’s the people wallowing in it or the people left out.1 But practically speaking—that is, at the level where you’re putting your band together and deciding which instruments should be involved in your sound—these two eras are very hard to marry.
Imagine them side by side on a stage. On one side you have violins, accordions, tubas, cimbalons, banjos, and a bunch of other instruments that fell dramatically in popularity to the guitar’s hegemony just a few years later; on the other side, you have drum machines, synthesizers, and piles of effects boxes (especially chorus and reverb) to make the guitars and basses sound not all that much like guitars and basses. The sounds of these genres are united in what they aren’t—namely, guitar-centered music2—but after that the differences start to pile up. The timbres, tonalities, and conventions of the genres, separated as they are by several decades and often several thousand miles, are really different from each other. Even on a practical level, it’s hard for them to play together, starting from the fact that one genre developed as it did in part because it needed to work without electricity, and the other genre needed electricity to work at all.3
So maybe it’s right that a previous post on this blog listed Vernian Process as the beginning of steampunk music. If they’ve been at it the longest, it makes sense that their newest album, Behold the Machine, puts steampunk’s diverse musical influences together more seamlessly, to these ears, than its peers do, and also suggests what could lie ahead, both for the music and for the band itself.
Vernian Process starts with its feet firmly in one corner of steampunk’s musical territory, the stretch of land from the 4AD of the 1980s to Projekt and beyond, hither and yon across the landscape of darker pop music, from dream pop to industrial.4 And some of the cuts on Behold the Machine—”Unhallowed Ground” and the first half of “The Exile” in particular—show that they know their way around. They have the right gear and they know how to use it, and they’re as good as anyone at doing so.5 But the members’ musical heroes range farther than that, from prog rock to metal to classical, and several of the songs on Behold the Machine are flush with ideas inspired by them. Especially Pink Floyd. Misters Waters, Mason, Wright, Barrett, and Gilmour are setting the controls for the heart of the sun in the spacey epicness of Vernian Process’s instrumental breaks; I am told that the second half of “The Exile” is an overt homage to Floyd, combining elements from “Sheep,” “Echoes,” and “One of These Days.” And the title track of Behold the Machine takes a cue from the theatricality of some of The Wall’s more operatic moments: The band there—Martin Irigoyen on guitars and effects, Peter J. Zarate on bass and effects, Free Fargo on bass and drums, Brian Figueroa on keys and guitars, and Kyle Thomas on keys and accordion—is in full orchestral mode, with singer Joshua Pfeiffer prowling the same ground Roger Waters did between fascist dictator and carnival barker on “In the Flesh.”
But throughout, Vernian Process does its own thing, too. “The Alchemist’s Vision” is a pop song that swerves in unexpected and intriguing melodic directions. And everything clicks in “The Last Express,” a five-minute number full of wonderful, dynamic shifts in texture, rhythm, and instrumentation that hang together to give the song a long and engaging dramatic arc.6 This sensibility pushes against the constraints of the conventions of popular music—even as liberally defined as it is here—and in its most exciting moments, Vernian Process breaks free.
Not all of these experiments succeed. “Into the Depths” has an organ riffing briefly on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (yup, this organ piece) and their take on “The Maple Leaf Rag” (yup, this rag) sounds first like an old recording and then a little too close to a MIDI recording (is it a MIDI recording?). The joke was good the first time around, but on repeated listening, they were the first tracks I started to skip. And “Queen of the Delta” sounds too much like world music, in the homogenizing, uninteresting sense of that term. It’s not bad—not like the lousy music in Avatar, about which nobody should get me started—but it’s less sure-footed, not up to the high standard of the other songs on the album.
The experiments that do work, however, are my favorite tracks on an album of many strong tracks, and they are also the places where Vernian Process’s own voice emerges most strongly. Nowhere is this more evident than on the final two cuts, “Into the Aether” and “The Maiden Flight,” which together clock in at over fifteen minutes of—just as the titles promise—ethereal, soaring, gorgeous music that it’s hard to imagine anyone but Vernian Process writing. These are the cuts I’ll listen to again and again, probably most often in headphones; I’ll put them on, close my eyes, and go away with them, wherever they’re headed.
But where are they headed? The album’s title here is apt, for in its extended instrumentals, Vernian Process suggests how the various parts of steampunk’s musical influences can be put together to form a single, larger machine—Steampunk Music 2.0, if you’ll allow the term. In such a style of music, electric guitars, synthesizers, and drum machines could share the stage with sousaphones, harpsichords, and Stroh violins, forming an unlikely yet ridiculously versatile orchestra, capable of playing longer, more complex pieces of music that still rock like the 1980s and swing like the 1920s. Even if they don’t take on such a project themselves—though they certainly could—Vernian Process shows that it’s possible, which should inspire us all.
1 Oh my goodness, am I oversimplifying. Please bear with me.
2 You could argue that the synthesizer-based music of the 1980s was the first real threat to the guitar’s hegemony since the six-string’s occupation of the kingdom of Western popular music. In 1983, in some circles, a bunch of people who should have known better were probably arguing that electric guitars and drum kits were dead, excepting as sources for MIDI samples or occasional flourishes to color the music. Of course, hair metal changed all that. All right, fine, I pretty much just made all that up. But maybe you know what I mean.
3 Now, I’m not saying that the musicians who played dark, dreamy pop in the 1980s couldn’t play acoustically. They could, and did. I just mean that the sound of the genre is electric, electronic, amplified—that is, really hard to make without burning some fossil fuels, or setting up a pretty big array of solar panels and wind turbines.
4 Again, oversimplifying; I have left so many people out, I know. (Last year, I even said that when I heard them, they reminded me at first of Actually-era Pet Shop Boys.) Apologies to those that go unmentioned.
6 On the other hand, guitarist and producer Martin Irigoyen did list Mr. Bungle as an influence.
Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review and the author of Spaceman Blues (2007), Liberation (2008), and Lost Everything (forthcoming, eventually). He has recently been playing in a small music group composed of banjo, accordion, and cello.