Oct 28 2010 12:35pm

Behold the Machine: The Vernian Process and Steampunk Music 2.0

Vernian Process

Last year, I wrote a little piece for 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.

5 Except maybe the Cocteau Twins, who, as the years go by, have emerged in my brain as producing perhaps the best that the genre had to offer. Even now, I still swoon.

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.

Maria Brown
1. MarieEmBee
I started listening to Vernian Process back in the spring after having encountered SP for the very first time at a Con in the Bay Area. Imagine my surprise when I found out VP were offering the first version of this album as a free download?! They have since taken the feedback from their fans and colleagues to perfect the album they released this October, and I, for one, was more than happy to line up and buy the finished product when I saw them live for the first time earlier this month in San Francisco. This is a band that engages and listens to their fans, and I appreciate how VP involves their fans in their process rather than expecting us to be passive recipients of the finished product. This interaction adds a layer of value and emotional attachment to the finished product and, at the end of the day, shouldn't music be a visceral, multi-dimensional experience?
2. VP_Martin
Thank you Brian and Marie for the kind words. It is immensely rewarding to see that people are taking the time to listen to what we have created with endless amounts of passion, love, effort and inhumanly long nights. We always value everyone's imput and are very serious when we describe VP as an "artist collective". The invaluable participation of Unwoman in our stage shows, the gorgeous cover art from Myke Amend and the fans' input for some of the lyrics on the album are a faithful testimony of that.
We hope we kan keep making music, and we hope not to let you down with our future releases.

Thank you,

~Martin Irigoyen
Brian Slattery
3. brianslattery
And thank you, Martin—and the rest of the band—for making such an interesting and delightful record!
Janus Zarate of Vernian Process
4. Janus_Zarate
As with Martin, I'm grateful for your honest review. At the end of the day, only two things matter in our musical pursuits: loyalty to our fans, and loyalty to our art. I'm pleased to see our efforts are not in vain, and I can't wait to get back into the studio again to continue working on the next album!

~ Peter "Janus" Zarate
Vernian Process
Brian Slattery
5. brianslattery
Well, thank you again! Also, I owe you an apology: Josh emailed me to point out that the name of the song isn't "Unhallowed Ground," but "Unhallowed Metropolis." Let the record clearly show my stupid error. I have no idea why my brain did that.
6. Conscientious Objector
Might I refer you to Darcy James Argue's Secret Society's "Infernal Machines"? Charles Mingus' "Let My Children Hear Music"? Combustible Edison's "The Impossible World"? Perhaps even Squarepusher's "Hard Normal Daddy"?

I would argue that much of what self-consciously tries to be "steampunk" music (e.g. Vernian Process, Abney Park) is rarely more than mediocrity dressed up to fit the aesthetic. With all due respect to Mr. Slattery, "Behold the Machine" is a waste of anyone's time. It is a marginal, forgettable blip.

The examples I name are not trying to be steampunk at all (Secret Society is only loosely branded "steampunk music"), yet they organically convey an appropriate spirit of retro-futurism. For those who, like myself, are disappointed by what typically passes for the music of steampunk, I highly recommend you tune your ears to the above.
Brian Slattery
7. brianslattery
There is a place for anonymous criticism—say, political dissent in Soviet Russia, or under other totalitarian regimes. But with all due respect to Conscientious Objector, when talking about books, music, art, etc., it is my opinion that those who seek to criticize and be taken seriously should start by using their real names.
8. VP_Martin
Hello, Conscientious Objector.

I fully respect your opinion on our material. It is ok for people to dislike what we do... after all, if we all liked the same things, art would be stale and utterly useless. People have different opinions and preferences and we welcome that wholeheartedly; but to state that someone's work is "a waste of anyone's time" seems a little absolute, don't you agree? Some people will like it, some will not, some won't care... and that is the way it should be. I have never gone so far as to think my personal tastes should apply to everyone's needs. However, if you have such a strong opinion on our album, it must be because you have heard it in its entirety, which we appreciate deeply.


~Martin Irigoyen
(Vernian Process)
9. VP_Josh
I find it highly amusing that we always get compared to Abney Park, when the only thing we have in common is a Steampunk theme. Everything else about our two projects couldn't be any more different from each other.

And in our case i can honestly say you must not have listened to our album at all if you feel it is "mediocrity dressed up to fit the aesthetic". This couldn't be further from the truth. Our album doesn't sound like anything ever created before by any musicians As Mr. Slattery aptly pointed out it is an amalgam of various styles and influences without ever sounding like any one thing in particular. Yet sounding completely like "our" vision of Steampunk in a musical form.

That there is the key word "our" vision, not your vision, not someone elses vision. But ours. We feel we accomplished what we set out to do with this album, and the next one will take things in a completely new direction. And I guarantee you it will be anything but mediocre.

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