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Entries in steampunk (4)


Quick Review: James P. Blaylock's The Aylesford Skull


A Langdon St. Ives AdventureFrom Amazon:  "It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives - brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer - is at home in Aylesford with his family. However, a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives.  When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit... "

I had come across the name James P. Blaylock several times in my reading, usually associated with Tim Powers, usually connected to the emergence of Steampunk.  I had always meant to get around to checking him out, and now I can say I'm sorry I waited so long.

James P. Blaylock's The Aylesfore Skull, to me, was more of a throwback to pulp's thrilling adventures than the steampunk it claims to be.  Gadgetry and airships were a part of that tradtion long before folks at sf conventions started wearing pith helmets.  That being said, I really, really enjoyed this book.  From the mysterious prologue to the mad dash of a plot that followed, the story constantly rushed forward.  Things would slow down just enough to tease my curiousity once more before another mad dash would set forth.  I enjoyed the steampunk elements, but they never got in the way of the story, which can happen in so many books labled as "the newest epic in the xxxx-subgenre."

I did happen to glance upon a review that didn't like Blaylock's characterization, claiming it tended to be shallow.  I disagree.  I knew enough about Langdon St. Ives (think part Sherlock Holmes, part Professor Challenger) to want him to thwart the evil plans of Dr. Narbondo.  Again, following in the pulp tradition, you're not going to find any Hamlets running around London in these types of stories.  When the protagonist was thinking back to a previous adventure in the first chapter, I knew this had to be a series character.  One look on Amazon confirmed as much.   To find the deeper St. Ives, perhaps one needs to read more of his earlier adventures.  I'm sure you'd find some interesting tales and tangents, but what is in this volume serves.  Everything in here works as a stand-alone yarn.

One of the great joys to me of this book was Blaylock's writing. The prose often reminded me of the best of those turn of the century writers. It was elegant and refined but never stuffy and awkward.  He is defintely a writer I will be following in the future, just as St. Ives is a character I definitely want to revist. 

Several, if not all, of the St. Ives adventures are available in ebook format at Amazon.com.

(Full Disclosure: Titan Books provided Nerdbloggers with a preview copy of this novel. We received no payment or compensation for this review and find the act of writing paid reviews pretty scuzzy).


Have a Holly Jolly Steampunky Christmas

So it’s that time of year when you hear holiday songs and CDs by practically every artist under the sun as done one.  Some make sense – like any country artist you can think of – and some don’t – think Judas Priest.  Some artist, you just don’t think of when you think of Christmas CDs.  To me, Abney Park is one of those artists. 

Abney Park have been the leaders of the steampunk music movement since . . . well . . . since people started wearing pith helmets to cons.  The whole point of artist like Abney Park is to create a musical soundscape equivalent to a H. G. Wells or Jules Verne novel.  It’s looking back to the Victorian age while looking forward to the future – if that makes sense.   

Now, jumping to Christmas CDs – I’m very picky about the ones I buy, and I always follow two criteria: do I like the artist and/or does it have a version of “O Holy Night”?  The first criteria is super important to me.  I must thoroughly enjoy an artist to dish out money.  I’ll buy almost anything by Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby or any of the classic artists where every song is guaranteed to be good.   Of more “contemporary” artist, I’ve enjoyed Jimmy Buffett, Leon Redbone, Jethro Tull, and Blackmore’ Night.  Now, the second one.  “O Holy Night” is probably my favorite Christmas song – when sung properly.  There’s that one part of the song – you know the part – where the singer must hit that high part, usually reaching for Pavarroti-esque heights.  When I hear a good version, every hair on my body stands at attention.  When it’s done improperly . . . “eh.”     

Abney Park definitely fits my first criteria.  I’ve followed them ever since they went steampunk, and I’ve enjoyed every cd, especially their unplugged one, Off the Grid.   (And because I didn’t have the opportunity to review it before, here it is: the original songs are great, the revised ones better.)  As for the second . . . Well, if you’ve heard Captain Robert sing, you know he’s no Pavarotti.  I don’t think there’s a high note in his body, and yet “O Holy Night” is track 2.  So I listened.  No, no mysterious high notes here from the Captain, but you know what?  By the end of the song, every hair was doing its thing.  The arrangement was uniquely Abney Park and quite refreshing.  It did not dazzle with vocal prowess, but with its solemnity and dignity.  Jody’s vocals are haunting, as usual, and really push the song into unearthly heights.

Overall, their Christmas album, Through Your Eyes on Christmas Eve, is typical Abney Park.  “We Three Kings” is propelled with tribal rhythms, “The Little Drummer Boy” sort of mechanized, and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” kind of dark and creepy.  The originals are excellent too.  The title track really captures that sense of sadness and regret that underlies the holiday season.  Captain Robert continues to impress as a songwriter and prove his mastery at musical arrangements once more.

Like the best of Abney Park’s albums, I recommend Through Your Eyes on Christmas Eve even to those who aren’t particularly familiar with the whole steampunk thing.  The arrangements on the traditional songs make them different and new, but also, the title track alone makes this one a worthy listen. 



The Time Machine Tour: Rush Tinkers with Steampunk

Rush’s career is steeped in science fiction in fantasy.  From their second studio LP, Fly By Night, up through the classic Moving Pictures, science fiction and fantasy played an important role in the band.  (Heck, one of the reasons I started listening to the band back in high school was because of The Necromancer off of Caress of Steel when I was getting psyched to play D&D.)  Take a look at any of those, and you’ll find a solid collection of sf & f songs: Rivendell, The Fountain of Lamneth, 2112, Cygnus X-1, side one of Hemispheres, Red Barchetta.  (Okay, Permanent Waves might not have anything sf & f, but Grace Under Pressure sort of does – Body Electric maybe and possibly Red Sector A.)  Of course, I probably left out your favorite, but you get the idea.  On their current tour and their upcoming album, Clockwork Angels, they’re not only returning to sf & f, but are also delving into steampunk.

A lot of you may be familiar with steampunk by now.  It’s the hot topic in sf & f literature.  At conventions, it’s a whole new subculture, with its own fashion and music.  You may know Abney Park, or maybe you read my review of Aether Shanties.  At its heart, steampunk hearkens back to Wells and Verne – it is essentially futuristic Victorian Period.  Doesn’t sound like Rush?  Well, yes and no.

Rush constantly stays at the forefront of innovation.  When the synth was developing in rock music, they were there.  You can probably chart the development of the rock synth through their albums, starting with 2112 and peaking around Signals through Power Windows.  And while steampunk keeps a foot planted firmly in the past, it is ever reaching forward.  In an environment like that, there is plenty of room for speculation.  That’s what sf & f is all about anyway, right?  One of my all-time favorite quotes comes concerning speculative fiction from Ursula K. Leguin: “it isn’t factual, but it’s true.”  Because when sf & f are done correctly, it’s about us.  

If Rush are nothing else, they are a thinking man’s band, so it’s no surprise that sf & f has been a part of their career.  Take a song like The Fountain of Lamneth.  It’s an epic journey about self-discovery.  2112 and Red Barchetta are about individuality and freedom.  Why not steampunk?  Two songs have been released from Clockwork Angels.  They are very Rush, but are they steampunk?  I say, yes.  The album, we are told, will be a concept piece.  Reports indicate the title track will be multipart like 2112 and Hemispheres, but the entire work may be thematic like Moving Pictures or Signals.  Will the story or theme be steampunk?  Don’t know.  But the sound is definitely steampunk.

I can only attest to the live versions of these songs from their current Time Machine Tour, but they are available at places for download:  those are BU2B (Brought Up to Believe) and Caravan.  The sound, I would definitely describe as steampunk.  Now don’t go in expecting to hear anything like Abney Park.  Captain Brown & Co. uses a plethora of instruments, styles, and their subject matter is definitely steampunk.  Rush’s sound, even during their most synth phase, has been heavy.  These songs are no different; they are very Rush.  If anything, they continue the return to heavy trend they’ve been following since Vapor Trails.  The music in these songs is characterized, however, by heavy rhythm, much like an old machine’s chugging.  You can literally hear the pistons churning as the songs are punctuated with rhythmic blasts of steam.  So, not only is the aural quality there, so is the visual.

The stage design this tour is also steampunkish.  Where as Abney Park could have stepped out of a Jules Verne novel with their instruments and apparel, Rush’s set design follows a more surreal take on the genre, more like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  There are touches of art deco, clocks, pipes, dials in several contraptions on stage where amps would usually be.  Behind Alex is like a bank of steam-powered washing machines, and behind Geddy is a machine with clocks and dials that churns out sausages (it links to the comical short films I’ll get to shortly).  Around Geddy’s synth is a thing with a Victrola-style “horn.”   

On the screen behind the band, during the new songs, there are some steampunk videos.  On BU2B, there are clips of an old typewriter keyboard and a printing press with blocks.  Caravan has an animated video which follows a strange, steam powered airship (a steampunk staple) flying across bizarre land and cityscapes.  Throughout the show, too, along with close-ups of the band performing, the video appears in monitors that look just like they came right out of a Jules Verne movie adaptation.  And there’s an old turn counter ticking off the years, very reminiscent of the dials in the Rod Taylor version of Wells’ The Time Machine.       

So, the setting is very steampunk.   The name of the tour, though, comes mostly from the comical short films framing the concert recounting the “official history” of Rush.  It begins in an alternate reality with a band called Rash that gets whisked into other alternate time lines via a time machine.  The scenery in the film is very art deco retro and connects to the alternate reality of the stage.  (That and the blissful journey through their music catalog, which includes a stop in 1981 for Moving Pictures in its entirety!)

The Time Machine Tour is an introduction, I suppose, to what’s to come with the release of Clockwork Angels.  I’ll be real excited to check out that album and its tour, but as for this tour, it is visually interesting, fun, and I would say, definitely steampunk.  Die hard steampunk fans might be disappointed (unless, or course, they are also die hard Rush fans), and die hard Rush fans will think, hum, that’s interesting (unless, of course, they are also die hard steampunk fans, in which case they will think, “very cool”). 

The show, btw, surpasses any words that could vaguely attempt to describe its greatness.  I caught it in Atlanta and Louisville.  Enough to say, it was Rush. 


Sailing the Aether with Abney Park

I’m biased. I love music with a science fiction and fantasy slant. To be honest, that’s what first drew me to Abney Park. I saw them at DragonCon in 2008 where the program described them as a steampunk band. (Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that hearkens back to the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in terms of setting, technology, and tone.) I became a fan the moment I listened to Lost Horizons.

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