Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Abney Park: Lost Horizons (2008)

Lost Horizons, the 2008 release by the once-Goth band Abney Park marks their first conscious effort at producing the ambiguous spectre of "Steampunk music." Given that Steampunk developed from a literary and cinematic genre to a style of fashion for people and computers, there has been significant debate over what exactly constitutes Steampunk music. For the most part, the only unifying factor between the varities of synth-pop and neo-folk are the outfits of the bandmembers. In that sense, Steampunk bears more similarity to Japanese Visual Kei as a genre defined less by any similarity in the music and more by the extravagant fashion of the bands themselves.

Despite appearances as the crew of the good airship Ophelia, Abney Park telegraphs their roots through their take on Steampunk. Like any proper Goth band, they have a visceral distaste for being referred to as such: call them a Goth band and they will be quick to correct you. They are a Steampunk band, though their take on Steampunk music seems to be Gothic synth-pop with airship pirates as a subject matter. The headline song on Lost Horizons bears that very title, Airship Pirate, and unfortunately doesn't seem to know what it's doing. As with other consciously "Steampunk" songs on the disk, like The Secret Life of Doctor Caligori, this attempt at a genre sound beyond a genre look can swing from awkwardly-exercised good clean fun to just plain awkward to listen to.

About the only one that works particularly well is the Dresden Dolls-esque Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll, which is at its best when joined to its live performance, as seen here at The Edison bar in Los Angeles:

Where Abney Park shines is in the tracks that hearken to their beautiful and accomplished fusion of Gothic synth with Middle Eastern motifs and Classical instruments. Without the pretense of singing airship pirate shanties, Abney Park are simply amazing Ethnic Fusion artisans. The standout track is Sleep Isabella, which recalls the soaring rhythms of their previous album, The Death of Tragedy. That disk was one of the best Goth albums in recent memory and shows Abney Park at their most inspired. Despite however much they may want to be rollicking airship pirates, their muses are evidently William Shakespeare and Joseph Campbell.

Sleep Isabella compares quite favourably to Death of Tragedy's best songs, like Dear Ophelia, The Wrong Side and Stigmata Martyr. I Am Stretched on Your Grave is another notable track that trades in danceability for an interesting rendition of a 17th century Irish poem. She and The Dark and Twisty Road are also quite good.

The trajectory of Abney Park seems to be towards refining their idea of Steampunk music. Given this reviewer's preference for synth-pop, their idea is in a way better than neo-folk drenched in cabaret stylings. Given the above criticisms, it would be even more prefered if they let go of the gimmick as anything more than a visual style and followed where the music actually took them. However, they wouldn't be the first Goth band caught up with trying too hard to make songs about awkward subjects, be they vampires or airships.


Kevin said...

I nominate Portland, OR based The Decemberists for official "steampunk" sound: they have the costumes, ethos, and they manage to include old-fangled language and subject matter without making their music sound contrived or trite. More folk than synth-pop, but the newer albums are more modern sounding. Their new album, "The Hazards of Love" listens like a epic rock opera based on a tale of iniquity & redemption.

Cory Gross said...

There seems to be as much debate over what constitutes Steampunk music as over what constitutes Steampunk. I suspect that's because, as I said in the review, Steampunk music seems more like Visual Kei in that it's a genre defined more by look than sound.

But then, I'm an outsider: I listen to Goth, some Industrial and New Age, both new and old Post-Punk, and vintage grammophone and 78's. I guess for me, "Steampunk music" are rags and organ rolls from 1910 ^_^