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Steampunk music is tough to characterize. It combines aspects of historicism with aspects of futurism, overlapping with recent musical genres such as dark wave, new age, and synth-pop music, but it also combines elements of haunting historicism, using orchestral instruments, Oriental practices, Gothicism, and other elements uncommonly seen in any other musical genre today. Due to the nature of the genre, the best steampunk bands don't all sound alike, and in fact can be hard to classify at all.
Abney Park evokes music groups and genres that make you feel as if you are time traveling into the depths of distant Irish folk music and Celtic rhythms. The most immediate musical influences on Abney Park were the London underground rock/electric scene, and the grunge movement of the 90s in the US. Combining these elements of old history and new edge, Abney Park became one of the pioneers of modern steampunk bands in the 90s, and is largely considered responsible for the development of the genre in modern culture, especially during its peak of interest in the mid 2000s. Though heavily influenced by many different genres, both established and emerging, they are considered one of the few bands whose primary genre and characterization is truly 'steampunk.'
Steam Powered Giraffe
Though less grunge- and punk-influenced than their predecessors Abney Park, Steam Powered Giraffe exemplifies a different crucial aspect of steampunk bands: theatricality. They both perform and record in costume, dressed as robotic Victorian-age characters, evoking the primary aesthetic influence on steampunk culture in general—the combination of industrial, urban culture prevalent in the 1800s, and technological advancements relying primarily on steam power. This theatricality speaks to the appeal of steampunk bands in general as not only creators of auditory music, but as instantiations of a strange, yet sublime aesthetic. They are best characterized as a musical act, rather than a strictly steampunk band, using various visual and artistic media in their performances to evoke this aesthetic.
Metropolis formed originally in the 90s as a heavily atmospheric, 80s funk/rock band. Today, they're perhaps more accurately classed with similarly nostalgic musical groups often called vaporwave. This atmospheric, electronic style is not typical of steampunk bands, but it adeptly combines two of the major elements of the genre: nostalgia and technology. Of course, this band does evoke a kind of technology perhaps more familiar to someone living in the 80s and 90s, a lá the 1982 blockbuster Tron, than someone from the 1800s. That said, the heavy influence of a nostalgic era, and technological advancements that change the aesthetic nature of everyday life permeate this work in a profound and compelling way.
Professor Elemental is one of the most comedic and self aware of the steampunk bands. The Englishman, Paul Alborough, is also heavily associated with 'chap hop,' a sort of stereotypically-British ode to hip hop that focuses lyrically on the kinds of aggressively 'English' elements of culture seen especially in mid 20th century British film and art; such as cricket, class structures, and tea. Through this lens, Professor Elemental performs in character as a steampunk Brit, and has become part of popular culture, as well as the steampunk culture, in significant ways. Rather than merely evoking various periods and themes through musical style, his lyrics are intentionally thematic and funny, making him a popular entertainer for audiences of all kinds.
To return to a more classic and serious conception of steampunk bands, Unextraordinary Gentlemen is certainly one of the most heavily influenced by the arguable creator of the genre, Abney Park. Like Steam Powered Giraffe, this steampunk group puts on an aesthetic face of traditional Victorian dress with an element of the 'uncanny,' the underground, and the technologically subversive. Their music, heavy on dark instrumentals, is decidedly at home in a futuristic Victorian age of dark London streets walked by robots. Also like SPG, they take care to present themselves in costume, alternating characters in his Victorian-influenced style, and characters more reminiscent of the Will Smith film Wild Wild West, a combination of steampunk and the Old West.
Although Abney Park is widely considered the first true steampunk band, they are not the first to adopt significant elements of this genre. In 1991, Rasputina formed from a group of New York cellists. Though incredibly difficult to characterize into a single genre, this is perhaps the very reason they were so influential to the steampunk movement. Without a doubt, their somewhat dark, 19th century themes have developed significantly under the influence of that very genre which they helped found. The three cello makeup of the band creates a distinctly 'chamber music' kind of vibe, while their sometimes trippy, atmospheric musicality brings in that element of the sublime, which makes the band, and the subgenre, so appealing.
Musically another decidedly dark, heavy rock and roll group, Vernian Process takes perhaps the most from traditional conceptions of the steampunk subculture. Their name comes from 19th century author Jules Verne, who is often considered one of the earliest science fiction authors, writing about space travel and new technology in a Victorian age in which such things were still centuries away. It's a reminder that history is a continuous timeline, unfettered by the kinds of designations we make in history class that often separate the two integral elements of steampunk. The Vernian Process, attuned to this importance, was heavily influenced by the work of figures like Jules Verne, who stretch our conception of art and literature throughout time, and its relation to popular genres and technology.
Lyrically, musically, and visually, Victor Sierra is beyond a doubt one of the best and most easily-categorized steampunk bands out there. Their dark, dystopian vibes are evoked by both heavy instrumentals and the use of various historical musical techniques, as well as particularly dark, urban Gothic lyrics and imagery. It's heavy, it's industrial, it's trippy, it's old and new and everything in between, and they know their own aesthetic all too well. As their bandcamp description aptly states, they will lead you down the road of "a future that could have been," preserving aesthetic aspects of the Industrial Revolution with those of urban London and the wild West, giving you even more songs to listen to when you're angry.
Aurelio Voltaire, or just Voltaire, has one of the edgiest acts in the genre, if only for his particularly biting and dark tone of singing voice. The content of his songs evoke the evil, sinister, and malignant themes prevalent in early Gothic literature. He was one of the acts heavily influenced by Rasputina, and developed his own persona as Voltaire in New York. He originally recorded and performed as simply Voltaire, but added the first name 'Aurelio' to the act in order to distinguish himself from other musical acts of the same name which arose after his original rise to fame.
The Cog is Dead
The name itself is about as steampunk as it gets: The Cog is Dead. Gothic Industrialism aptly describes this steampunk band's aesthetic, and they are recent enough to be influenced not only by the disparate aspects of steampunk culture, but also by the explicit definitions that have arisen in the wake of these earlier bands and acts. They are also a prime example of the influence of the 'uncanny' and 'sublime' on the genre, with eerie, metallic instrumentals, nodding at the best goth rock songs ever created, and ranging from dark to folksy that nevertheless make you feel like dancing robots may murder you at any moment.