Is there a steampunk musical genre?

Recently there’s been a little ruckus in the steampunk music community. The lead singer of the band ‘Abney Park’ made the claim that some acts calling themselves steampunk should not be. He then suggested that he was making this claim because there is a genre of music called ‘steampunk’ that includes his band, a few others such as Rapskallion, Tankus the Henge and others. These bands, he claimed, use ‘the same elements musically speaking’ and could be called a genre.

Others took exception to either what he said or how he said it and internet arguments ensued. That’s all very boring, I’m not going to address it.

But I wrote a dissertation on genre distinctions in heavy metal at uni, so I feel like I can address his premise. He’s claiming that those bands represent a genre. Do they share musical elements that are unique to their genre? Is the Abney Park frontman correct?

Let’s define terms

What is a musical genre? Let’s take punk. It has an aesthetic of course, a way of dressing that we all recognise but that’s not enough to make a band punk. Dressing Abba in punk outfits wouldn’t make them punk if they didn’t also change the harmonic language, melodies, instrumentation, lyrics and performance style.

The term ‘steampunk’ is only tangentially connected to the punk style of music, coming as it does from the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. We can be reasonably sure about the sort of things a steampunk aesthetic or narrative might contain, and I think it’s unquestionably the case that all these acts look the part and have lyrical content that fits with a steampunk aesthetic. It’s that neo-victorian, retro-futuristic, alternative history, cogs-and-brown kinda vibe and it’s there in spades.

Of course it’s there in spades for both those acts that Mr Brown has said are steampunk and those that are not. So our only choice is to discount the visuals and the lyrical subject matter and look at the music in isolation.

What is genre not? Genre is not a box. You don’t define a genre then force bands into that category and argue about whether band x is neo-danceatronnica or face-pulse-nerdcore. Well, clearly lots of people do, particularly on the internet, but that doesn’t tell you anything.

Instead think of genre like an archetype or template. There’s an imaginary punk band that is totally punk in every way and you use that to compare to real world bands (none of whom will be perfectly punk to everyone) as an analytical tool. Yeah, I guess The Clash are pretty punk, you say, but then they have elements of reggae in some songs so what does that tell us…. and so on.

Some examples of what might be steampunk

Abney Park – Circus at the end of the World

This song has a simple minor key chord progression that doesn’t change throughout the song. After a brief intro we get two verses interspersed with a string refrain. After that that we have a sing-along ‘la’la’la refrain, which is presented on its own then with the violin hook.

The instrumentation combines modern goth rock forces with some older folky ideas, as can be heard in the fiddle parts.

Rapskallion – Never turn your back on the sea

Once again we have simple minor key harmony, albeit with a little more variation.

The instrumentation is more typically folk: acoustic guitar, drums, bass, accordion, woodwind and fiddle. Oh and what appears to be a panpipe solo. I like this track, it has a nice hook though for my taste there’s only enough variety to justify half the length.

Tankus the Henge – Recurring Dream

I hadn’t intended to express personal preferences, but I really like this track by Tankus the Henge who I hadn’t heard prior to starting this blog post. But opinions aside, what do we have here?

Well there is a bit of a violin melody but this has both got more going on harmonically and, unsuprisingly for what sounds like a British act, a bit of a music hall vibe going on in places.

I really enjoyed this track. Thank’s Tankus!

And it kinda reminded me of Mothertongue, a band on the same label as me who also have a British vibe, some nice trumpet melodies and a a similar energy and vocal style. Someone on the Music for Steampunks facebook page recently mentioned Cardiacs, a band whose attitude to groove, chord choices and song structure can be heard in a great many British bands.

Oh and Rapskallion reminded me of a few acts, including Sanjuro, the band of a guy I did my teacher training with.

And that’s a problem for the premise we’re testing. If you discount the
visuals and lyrical content, which we have to do to even get started, what are you left with? Is it possible to define an imaginary steampunk band that would represent the ideal?

Well, you could say they’d fit into western pop music, would be likely to play in a minor key and make use of elements from early 20th century popular music, possible music hall, possibly folk. You might up date that with more modern grooves, eg rock beats. But Rapskallion don’t do that. Little violin refrains seem to be common too, and male lead vocals.

Is that enough? The Beatles fit into most of that list, Nick Cave fits into some, Mothertongue, Sanjuro, Cardiacs all share some elements.

It’s not enough

Is it enough to set them apart from BB Blackdog who the Abney Park singer explicitly said were not steampunk?

What You Need by BB Blackdog is a classic rock song, and it is fair to say it doesn’t share musical characteristics with the songs above.

But I also think you’re pushing it to claim either that the first three acts are similar enough to belong in the same genre or that they are unique. If they are steampunk, why aren’t all the other acts that sound like that but not wearing top hats and goggles not still called steampunk.

In conclusion

I think it’s reasonable to say that the premise that the Abney Park frontman put forward isn’t sustainable. It’s not total nonsense, there is a bit of a crossover, but to go so far as to say it’s something unique and that musical acts slightly further away shouldn’t also be called ‘steampunk’ is to be frank a bit silly.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Steampunk is a genre of fiction and an aesthetic that has developed a whole host of cultural practices around it. One of those is music, and people in different parts of the world have approached that with the tools – musical and extra-musical – they have.

Some of my own music is steampunk in two ways. It has lyrics about steampunk stories, and there are hints of blues scale and Gershwin style harmony in places, albeit well hidden.

Would I claim to belong to a musical genre called steampunk? No, and I don’t think anyone can claim that. And I also don’t think anyone should make that claim, or get worked up about it. Genre isn’t there as a tool to put things in boxes.

A Tale of Two Gigs

On the 28th and 29th of September I played two gigs: the Summer’s End Prog rock festival and the inaugural Steampunk Convivial at the Crossness sewage works.

I’m very glad there is no obligation to choose a favourite because both were great gigs.

The weekend also got me thinking about the tension between being an artist and having to afford boring but necessary things like food and a home. I travelled to Summer’s End with amiable man-mountain and certified good-egg Matt Stevens. We talked about the difficulties of being a musician, chiefly the economic realities. I have never attempted to make a living from my music and don’t particularly see why any artist should expect to – this is culture not commerce- but it was interesting to consider as we travelled on far too many trains to Chepstow.

Summer’s End consisted of two sets: one ‘busking’ in the middle of Chepstow, the other on the ‘acoustic stage’ (actually a section of Chepstow school dinner hall) between the full band sets.

Here’s a vid:

And here’s a review.

I enjoyed playing, but more than that it was great to catch up with friends and meet in the flesh several people who I’d previously only known on facebook. There was a very genial atmosphere and lots of lovely people – much like at the Crossness Convivial.

Here I performed as part of almost a cabaret that included steampunk morris dancing, umbrella fencing and of course the ubiquitous tea-duelling.

There are differences between prog crowds and steampunks – the clothing being an obvious one: band t-shirts versus the full retro-futuristic, neo-victorian be-goggled glory of the steampunk. More than that, steampunk is a cultural wosame that clearly appeals to a wider demographic: there were far more young people and women in attendance at Crossness than Summer’s End.

However there are also real and joyful similarities. Both are sub-cultures that are fuelled by enthusiasts. Steampunk has its costumes, model makers, tesla coils and tea-duellers but prog is equally as vibrant. Instead of silly costumes, prog has podcasters, collectors and of course musicians (all right, and a few silly costumes).

In both there are products for sale – cds, records, tickets and endless things with cogs on but make no mistake there is no-one making money from any of this (in the sense of cold-hard capitalism. There are very various lovely little niche businesses). This is culture not commerce. And it’s bloody marvellous.