Let’s get this over with:
And now that I’ve posted that, let’s have some fun:
Because steampunk is at its best when it embraces the ridiculousness of its own concept.
Steampunk is most sublime/ a lot of punks won’t like this rhyme/but they’re too busy trying to define it, when all the rest of us want to play!
And I’ll leave it at that.
Wait, I have one more thing: all of the bands and artists in this spotlight are 100% independent and self-produced. You can find them all on Bandcamp and/or Patreon.
Let’s start with the grandaddy of the modern steampunk music scene, Abney Park (https://www.patreon.com/abn…
I’m not going to spend a lot of space on Abney Park, because A) I’m not a huge fan of them and B) they’ve drifted off the scene a lot in the last few years. They’re at an awkward point in their careers where they’re too big to do Steampunk conventions, but too small to command anything but niche private venues. They seem to still be very popular in Russia, for what it’s worth. Anyway, Abney Park is generally considered the granddaddy of the modern steampunk music scene. If you find yourself at a steampunk convention and wonder what’s up with the bellydancer aesthetic, that’s thanks to the influence of founding member Nathaniel Johnstone and his wife, Tempest (whom we will get to later). Abney Park is the first band to adopt role-playing steampunk personas and develop their own lore, casting themselves as a motley crew of airship pirates and building multiple concept albums and even a board game around their world. Abney Park started out as a industrial/darkwave goth band in the late 90’s, which evolved to a tribal/world fusion sound before moving into the burgeoning steampunk scene in the mid-2000’s. You may have seen them on MTV around 2006, and their song “Sleep Isabella” was featured on an episode of True Blood. Helmed by a
douchebag man with Bart Simpson-esque hair and an utterly ridiculous vocal affectation, Captain Robert (Robert Brown), Abney Park has outstanding production quality and talented musicians, but lyrics that are the equivalent of steampunk refrigerator magnet poetry. Credit is due to them for laying the groundwork of the steampunk music subculture, but I wouldn’t start with them if you were looking to get into the scene.
Steam Powered Giraffe (https://steampoweredgiraffe… :
Founded in San Diego in 2007 by identical twin siblings David and Isabella “Bunny” Bennett, inspired by Shields & Yarnell’s robot mime comedy sketches and musical influences from ELO to Meatloaf to Lady Gaga, Steam Powered Giraffe have been a staple on the steampunk convention and small theater scene for the last seven or so years. Starting as buskers in Balboa Park and performing summers at the San Diego Zoo before leaving to develop on their own, the band has come a long way in defining their concept, look, sound, art, following, and overall brand. From a rich backstory that involves the genesis of three robots created by a mad industrialist to serenade a reluctant love interest, the band’s personas include the core group of “The Spine” (David Bennett) “Rabbit” (Isabella “Bunny” Bennett), and sound engineer Steve Negrete. Former members include founding members Jon Sprague (“The Jon”), Erin Burke (“Upgrade”, who appears in early videos but does not appear on any albums), Samuel Luke (backing drummer and “Hatchworth” from 2011-2016), as well as the founding non-robot backing members Michael Reed, who directed the band’s early sunshine pop sound, drummer Matt Smith, and an ever-changing corps of “Walter Girls” who perform skits with them onstage, manage the band’s merchandise and publicity, and serve as secondary characters within the lore. The current lineup consists of David, Isabella, and Bryan Barbarin, who joined the trio as “Zero” in January 2017. Initially considering themselves entertainers first and musicians second, each robot’s distinctive look and character archetype was a heavy focus of the early days, which got them the attention of the steampunk community:
Around 2014, the transgender Isabella (birth name Christopher Andrew Bennett, but at that point only referred to as Bunny) made her decision to transition both her character and her everyday life from a male to a female full-time. This was met with a veritable Hindenburg-level amount of panic and controversy from their fans, the ashes of which are still smoldering today, but nevertheless, she persisted. Isabella made her debut as female!Rabbit in the video for “I’ll Rust With You”, from the album MK III:
Isabella continues to refine her character, her voice, and her look, in both the band and her life.
In 2015 Steam Powered Giraffe released the ambitious double-length concept album The Vice Quadrant a complex rock-opera set in space that includes a satellite in love with a planet-sized apple, multiple generations of mad scientists, the three robots, a space cowboy, a Lovecraftian evil in the heart of a black star, a malevolent cosmic being called the Daughter of Space, an obnoxious baby robot giraffe, and sweet songs that employ the romance of particle physics:
2015 also brought Steam Powered Giraffe their highest-profile gig yet, as they were hired to provide the soundtrack for the video game SteamWorld Heist. The album also provided an opportunity to re-record old favorites with higher quality audio and vocals from their early albums, like “Honeybee”.
Steam Powered Giraffe also contributed the cheeky theme song for the character Montana from the game Battleborn in 2016:
Professor Elemental (https://www.patreon.com/pro…
You need a bit of incentive/ you need to get my attention/ be a bit inventive/ be a bit Jim Henson — “Back in the Swing of Things (91 Remix)”
Speaking of cheeky, here comes the good professor. A pioneer in something called Chap-hop that I’m not even going to bother to try and define, Professor Elemental (Paul Alborough) is a character 100% immersed in the cartoony land of airships and teatime and kitschy victoriana and all of the silly archetypes inherent in the subculture with tongue lodged firmly in cheek and an unhinged, pipe-chomping smile. Elemental’s gravelly, self-deprecating, bouncy rhymes, in collaboration with his producer Tom Caruana, is frequently mixed with samples from 1930’s British swing and is like a shot of pure sunshine to the soul.
Fans of Phineas and Ferb will be familiar with Professor Elemental’s rapid-fire summary of the steampunk world in which he inhabits:
A fixture on the British steampunk scene but a rare sight at American conventions, he is beloved for his goofiness and his giddy embrace of the steampunk community.
All in Together Now:
Professor Elemental has of late been collaborating with Steam Powered Giraffe and The Cog is Dead.
The Cog is Dead (https://thecogisdead.bandca…
Established in 2006 in Daytona Beach, Florida, the band currently consists of lead singer and guitarist Jon Sprocket (Jon Mondelli), bass player Bradley Harrington III, and Renate Goodwin on drums. Their ascendance has been slow but steady, and they are big in the southern steampunk music scene with their zydeco and bluegrass-inspired rock. Like Steam Powered Giraffe, the band works hard to establish an online presence and engage with fans. With an emphasis on storytelling lyrics, the band unfortunately suffers from the inverse of the Abney Park problem: great songs, naturally charismatic lead singer, uneven vocals.
2016 saw the release of their most polished album, Carnival of Clockwork, which shows the growth of Sprocket’s vocal and guitar skills.
Unwoman, alias Erica Mulkey, is a cellist and singer and all-around talented chanteuse who performs all over the west coast but is dear to the bay area steampunk scene in particular. She does not take on any persona and can arguably be categorized as more chamber pop, darkwave, or goth than steampunk, but her performance aesthetic and dark fantasy lyrics have made her a diehard favorite with the steampunk community. Looping from an electric cello, the “un” in her stage name indicates a one-woman band who is in full control of her sound and her art. If you have the chance to see her perform live, don’t pass it up.
Beauty over Industry, which she wrote in tribute to the steampunk community:
Unwoman has also made several excellent cover albums of late, interpreting pop songs into her dark cello style.
Heavy in your arms (cover):
Nathaniel Johnstone Band (https://nathanieljohnstone….
Ah see, I told you I’d get back to Nathaniel Johnstone and Tempest! A former member of Abney Park, Nathaniel Johnstone fronts a huge revolving ensemble (which occasionally includes fellow Abney Park alum Jody Ellen) to tell stories inspired by fairy tales and myths with a middle eastern/rock/world fusion sound.
Johnstone’s wife, Tempest, (Laura Tempest Zakroff) is a famous tribal-fusion belly dancer who performs onstage with the band. Tempest’s look has informed much of the steampunk bellydance aesthetic that is a signature of the west coast steampunk style.
Dogwood, government name Kate McKnight, is a rising star in the steampunk music scene. Performing solo as Dogwood when not performing with Nathaniel Johnstone band, her tiny stature and booming voice make her someone to keep an eye on.
And that’s it for now! Other bands on the steampunk scene that I didn’t get to are Lee Presson and the Nails, Vernian Process, The Men Who Won’t Be Named for Nothing, Foxtails Brigade, and probably more than that. If you have any questions, ask away!