Thu
Oct 8 2009 2:08pm

The Past (and Future) of Steampunk Music.

A few days ago Brian posed the question “What is Steampunk Music?”, to which many of you replied with your own various ideas of what Steampunk music should consist of.  Well... since I'm heavily involved in the Steampunk music world my self, I figured it wouldn't hurt to give my own interpretation and answer to this question as well. It also seemed quite fitting for my first post here at tor.com.

So to start with let me just say that there is no defining element to Steampunk music. Steampunk music is different to every individuals interpretation of it. The only true definition could be; “Music created by Steampunk fans, or music that Steampunk fans find invokes the atmosphere they expect from a Steampunk setting or aesthetic”.

Ok so that didn't really answer the question did it? Well how about this...

Steampunk music as I see it more often than not consists of a mixture of genres. Usually a mixture of genres from various periods in music history. Be it Ragtime with Punk Rock, Industrial and Neo-Classical, Chamber music and Electronica, Swing and Hip-Hop, or any other variety of combinations. The only constant element that must be present  is some form of vintage (19th or early 20th Century) musical influence.

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Another problem lies in the fact that their are plenty of Steampunk ideas in individual songs or albums, but not nearly as many bands that stick to that formula on a regular basis. Sci-Fi/Fantasy elements have existed in music since the late 19th Century with novelty songs like “Come Take a Trip on My Airship”, but it wasn't until much later that Steampunk started developing as it’s own sound. In the early 70’s, Prog-Rock bands like The Moody Blues, Klaatu, and King Crimson started mixing heavy amounts of classical arrangements into their more rock oriented formats creating what I consider the first signs of Steampunk music.  Next... in the late 70’s and early 80’s artists like Kate Bush, Thomas Dolby, David Bowie, Paul Roland, And Also the Trees, Laibach, The Stranglers, The Damned, and many others began refferencing more esoteric and vintage sci-fi/fantasy influenced themes in both their musical arrangements and lyrics. Finally in the 90’s their was a movement in the Gothic-Rock subculture to a more “Victorian” or “Romanti-Goth” style of music (often labeled simply as “Darkwave” or “Ethereal”), which would prove to be a major influence on the later “Steampunk Subculture” and the musicians who attributed their styles to it (my self included). Not to mention Trip-Hop and various genres of electronic music which often incorporated classical and film music samples.

But that was the past, and now we have a whole burgeoining Steampunk movement complete with conventions, magazines, night clubs, fairs, and all manner of social activities. So who fits the “Steampunk Music” mold in this day and age? Well I’ll tell you ever since 2003 (when I started a project called “Vernian Process”) I’ve been following the development of the scene and its related bands in an attempt to create a network of like minded artists. The first ones I saw appear shortly after I started working on my project were Abney Park, Unextraordinary Gentlemen, and The Clockwork Dolls. But now there are literally hundreds of bands that can and do fit the description of “Steampunk Music”.

A few months ago I started a thread over at the Brass Goggles Steampunk Forum (which I highly recommend if you have any interest at all in this subculture) that I hoped would become a master list of Steampunk and Steampunk friendly musicians that are currently active. Feel free to peruse those lists, you can spend hours listening to all of the artists presented there.

Since the big Steampunk boom back in 2005, there have been a few projects that have popped up that have attempted to filter all of these new artists into one central place for the listening public to find. Among them are the Seattle based “Sepiachord”, North Carolina’s “Clockwork Cabaret”, and “Gilded Age Records”.  All three projects have been working together and cross promoting each others findings so that anyone with an interest in this style can easily find all of these wonderful new artists.

Well that about sums up my thoughts on what exactly Steampunk music is... at least what it is to me. Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts.


Joshua Pfeiffer is the founder of the Steampunk band “Vernian Process”, and co-founder of the Steampunk-centric record label/collective “Gilded Age Records”. When he isn’t working on music, he is probably working as middle management in the video game industry.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
12 comments
Matt Cibula
1. Matt Cibula
All this -- and it's well said and well argued -- but no mention of hip-hop? Scratching (turning the phonographic medium into the actual auditory message itself) and sampling (recycling of other noises, other sounds, other genres) are so steampunk it hurts!
Joshua Pfeiffer
2. VernianProcess
Good point, and actually Hip-Hop plays into the modern Steampunk sound. Check out The Harlem James Gang and Beats Antique for some good examples. Then for the lighter side, there is MC Elemental and Mr. B the Gentlemen Rhymer.
Matt Cibula
3. Emmett Davenport
Very well said, Mister Joshua!
Brady Allen
4. akabrady
Good post!

And I never thought I would become "that guy", but the first sentence in paragraph two, you need to fix your their, there.
Brady Allen
5. akabrady
Oh, and I checked out your music. I like much of what I hear! Keep it up!
Joshua Pfeiffer
6. VernianProcess
D'oh! Thanks for catching that... fixing right now. And thank you, I'm glad you liked our music. =)
Matt Cibula
7. sotgnomen
Katzenjammer! 4 girls that started a band in the hope of learning as many interesting instruments as possible.

Dont really comment much here, but I was listening to them just today and I immediately thought of the What is steampunk music-post. Never heard anything that "invoked the atmosphere they expect from a Steampunk setting or aesthetic". Also, it rocks

Actually no, Kaizer's Orchestra probably invokes it even more, but they sing only in Norwegian, so I dont know if that interests as much..

Anyway, can't recommend them enough.
Matt Cibula
8. Jonny B. Goode
Dr. Steel would be another hip-hop steampunk artist, of course.

Someone asked me at a cabaret a while back to describe steampunk music. And to me, a lot of it (though not all) sounds like Industrial mixed with European folk music, to which each band brings it's own unique element into the mix. And often using "vintage" instruments such as the violin, cello or accordion.
Bob Constans
9. wyrwolf
I can't believe no mention of Abney Park - a real SteamPunk Rock Band who perform in costume.
check 'em at http://www.abneypark.com/
Joshua Pfeiffer
10. VernianProcess
@ sotgnomen

Check out Diablo Swing Orchestra too! I think you'd quite like them.

@ Johnny

Yes Dr. Steel definitely fits. he's like Hip-Hop/Industrial/Mike Patton/Betty Boop all rolled into one.

@ wyrwolf

Perhaps you need to re-read the post? Not to mention you can't walk two feet in a conversation about Steampunk and not trip over Abney Park.
Matt Cibula
11. bhajans
Dont really comment much here, but I was listening to them just today and I immediately thought of the What is steampunk music-post. Never heard anything that "invoked the atmosphere they expect from a Steampunk setting or aesthetic". Also, it rocks

Actually no, Kaizer's Orchestra probably invokes it even more, but they sing only in Norwegian, so I dont know if that interests as much..
bhajans
Matt Cibula
12. Big John Bates
Personally I imagine it being roots-oriented from the art deco period (20's - 30's) which would mean a version of jazz/blues based music in North America. I would expect guitars not synths, acoustic instruments and interesting percussion.

I don't think Goth at all, although I would expect minor keys, unless somehow you think you can stick Tom Waits in that genre (and just because goths like something doesn't make him goth.) So ... I think it would have to include Tom Waits, Dresden Dolls, 16 Horsepower, Kaiser's Orchestra. And just maybe my next album ...

Big John Bates & the Voodoo Dollz

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