Sepiachord is a gathering place for a certain kind of musician, performer and/or artist, all of whom work within the loosely-defined borders of what’s known as steampunk. According to Wikipedia, “steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used – usually the 19th century and often Victorian-era Britain – that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy.” The fictional inventions of authors like H.G. Wells appear as if they were common items, and close attention is paid to clothes, architecture, customs and atmosphere. Anachronisms abound – indeed, they’re kind of the point. The shock of seeing a technological item that greatly resembles a modern computer in the hands of a corset-clad wench is part of the fun. There are dozens of variations, depending on which elements the creator decides to emphasize.
Steampunk has been around for a couple of decades, at least, mainly as the rubric of science fiction novels (the work of K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers and William Gibson), comic books (Girl Genius, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the eponymous Steampunk) and under-the-radar films (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Perfect Creature). Recently it’s made inroads into the mainstream, specifically major motion pictures (the spectacular failure Wild Wild West, the massive successes Sherlock Holmes and Hellboy) and TV (the recent “Punked” episode of Castle).
All that said, what does it have to do with music? Steampunk as a musical style is more difficult to define, as there are as many variations as in fiction and film. But there are certain elements one can pinpoint that indicate an affinity for the genre. Waltz tempos are common, as is a melodic sensibility more informed by vaudeville and cabaret than rock – the 20s and 30s have had more impact than the 60s and 70s. Instrumentation tends to be acoustic, though it’s hardly exclusively so, and the guitar takes a back seat in favor of less rock-oriented noises, particularly brass and accordion. Subject matter takes in almost anything, though there’s definitely a gothic, often macabre sense of humor running through much of the work. A lot of these bands list themselves as “jazz,” “Americana” or (more applicably) “other” on their MySpace pages. Whatever you call them, most of them have a similar feel, even when they sound different from each other, and A Sepiachord Passport gathers a fine batch of musicians together that lets the listener find the commonality for him/herself.
Most prevalent, if not exactly dominant, is a cabaret feel, as if the seedy club scene of Weimar Berlin had been transplanted to the dark alleys of the Pacific Northwest. “Thief Song,” performed by Miss Maime Lavona the Exotic Mulatta & Her White Boy Band, is a prime example – a clever lyric about a thief of love, the metaphor extended but not belabored, delivered in a clear, straightforward alto, a horn-driven, nostalgic arrangement, and occasional profanity (“Why am I screwing such a prick?”) to remind us that it’s not 1929. Rhubarb Whiskey‘s love song “Lilacs From Canada,” black tape for a blue girl‘s “Rotten Zurich Café* and Huxley Vertical Cabaret Nouveau‘s “Early Chill” follow suit, with similar success. Tiger Lillies‘ “Roll Up” puts its cabaret stylings through a gypsy strainer, adding a piercing, androgynous falsetto for delivery.
Things take a darker turn on the same smoky stage with Circus Contraption‘s “If I Told You Once,” as a Gene Austin-style crooner liltingly tells the tale of a Bluebeardesque serial killer who blames his victims’ unfortunate fates on not knowing any better than to get involved with him. Singer/comedian Veronique Chevalier weaves a similar story on “The Dance Master,” adding white slavery and other unsavory activities to the mix, while the Magnificent Seven cuts out the middleman and goes straight to the grave with “The Last Waltz.”
It’s not all a gaslight fantasy version of the Kit Kat Klub, however. The Clockwork Dolls‘ “The Ballad of Black Jack Jezebel” sounds the way you’d think from its title – like a spaghetti western onstage at a drag club, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by way of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The Peculiar Pretzelmen‘s “Hammer Nails” is essentially folk rock, albeit driven by banjo and what sounds like a bass clarinet, while Bakelite 78‘s “Aurora Ave Motel” is a (sleazy, sexually charged) C&W duet. In concert with Miss Sadie Bell, Professor Elemental also brings the smarm with “Sweet Cold Colation,” which piles euphemism on top of euphemism in a mélange of sex, food, hip-hop beats and upper class accents.
While lyrical acumen is a mighty weapon in the steampunk world, there’s room for wordless expression as well. The best instrumental is by Nathaniel Johnstone, multi-instrumentalist for goth/steampunk rock icon Abney Park, who leads the Brazilian Surf Mafia through a mandolin-led romp that marries a Middle Eastern melody to a flamenco rhythm. “Kibosh On Your Scene,” by Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, is indeed a march, performed by what sounds like a New Orleans brass band reimagined for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Both Sxip Shirey‘s “Mehenetta” and Toy-Box Trio‘s “Stamp Collection” make use of toy instruments, the former mixed with electronics and the latter exclusively, for a pair of cluttered tracks whose charm wears thin fairly quickly.
Some tracks are more obviously accessible to an audience more comfortable with rock. While Bat Country‘s “Knockin’ On My Coffin” and Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys‘ “Off With Her Head!!!” aren’t rock per se, the gravely vocals and catchy melodies will certainly appeal to fans of, say, Tom Waits. The Men Who Will Not Blamed For Nothing (winners of the Most Unwieldy Band Name award), go straight for punk rock with “Charlie,” a witty tribute to Charles Darwin and his detractors that sounds like the classic folk/punk track for which the Dropkick Murphys have long been striving. Blackbird Orchestra‘s “Hollowland” is unambiguously rock of the widescreen alternative variety – it’s not terrible, but its connection to steampunk is undetectable, unless the bandmembers are friends with the compiler.
Unity is definitely a plus on A Sepiachord Passport – there’s a sort of thematic atmosphere that allows these disparate musicians to stand side-by-side under a common banner. With a few exceptions (seriously, what is Blackbird Orchestra doing here?), nearly every band here would elicit a knowing “Yeah, I get it” if you were told it was a steampunk artist. Yet, there’s enough variety to keep you from nailing exactly what that means, or, worse, getting bored over the course of 20 tracks. A Sepiachord Passport accomplishes the goals of any good compilation album – it piques curiosity, displays a scene’s creativity and, most importantly, consistently entertains.