Jul 7 2010 5:17pm

Frequency Rotation: Rasputina, “Holocaust of Giants”

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.

Alex Brown
1. AlexBrown
Forgot all about this band...bringing back some wonderful memories :) Off to the record store to quell some Rasputina needs...
Mithril Wisdom
2. Mithril Wisdom
Wow, this was not what I expected. Usually, when I think about spec-themed music, I think of power/folk metal. This was a nice surprise. I'll keep an ear out for more Rasputina in future.
Mouldy Squid
3. Mouldy_Squid
Ahh, Rasputina. I wondered whatever happened to them. I had their first album just after it was released and I thought they held huge promise despite the fact they weren't really all that accessible to a wide audience that was quickly becoming enamored with manufactured pop and "indie" rock. I simply loved the grotesque and chilling "The Donner Party". I am glad to see they are still making music.
Jason Heller
4. JasonHeller
The band has been on a slow but steady track since those big-budget, major-labels albums in the '90s. Much more gritty and stripped-down. Melora's songwriting just keeps getting better, I think... The new disc is great, but I highly recommend the abovementioned Perplexions solo EP, especially for its strong SF/fantasy bent. Now I just need to figure out why I've never seen these guys in concert yet...
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
Jason @ 4: I feel the same way about Two Ton Boa as you do about seeing Rasputina in concert. Now that they're sorta touring again I'm definitely going to see them...if they come my way.
Jason Heller
6. JasonHeller
Now that's a name I haven't heard in a while. I'm a longtime fan of that whole Olympia / K Records / KRS scene. Did you ever check out that New Bloods album that came out a couple years back? So good.
Richard Fife
7. R.Fife
A-holy-gorram-hell. That is all. (read also: this is awesome)
Michael Grosberg
8. Michael_GR
I wonder if the lyrics are a reference to that hoax picture of a giant skeleton found in a dig that was circulating around a few years ago:

The music I associate with steampunk, for some reason, is the Gypsy punk of Gogol bordello and to a lesser extent Vampire Weekend.
Richard Fife
9. R.Fife
I'd imagine the lyrics are a 9 year old girls take on one of the first dinosaur fossils to be unearthed. Ohio, as I recall, is a rather good digging spot for some of the nice, large species that would have had 25 ft jawbones.
Tristan Elwell
10. Elwell
Discoveries of of biblical "giants" were all the rage in 19th century America, and double teeth were a common theme. Unfortunately, none of the purported double-toothed skulls remain (if they ever existed), and the only evidence is contemporary written accounts (
Then most famous "antediluvian man" is the Cardiff Giant, who now resides in Cooperstown, NY, not all that far from where Melora Creager lives.
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
Jason @ 6: I think I downloaded it but lost it in one of my many Great Virus Purges...I'll have to track it down again...

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