Monday, November 22, 2010

Steampunk Apocalypse: Abney Park's The End of Days

Abney Park is back with a new album*, The End of Days, and it's another marvelous collection of Steampunk-themed rock music.** In contrast with the band's previous album Aether Shanties, which was inspired by sea shanties of yore, the theme here is one of post-apocalyptic survival (perhaps incorporating the do-it-yourself ethic of at least part of the Steampunk movement - see the album review at Trial By Steam).

I missed Captain Robert and Kristina Erickson appearing (via IRL) in Steam Sky City for the album release party that Mrs. Fogwoman Gray-Volare and Mr. Lucien Brentano arranged, but I didn't miss ordering my copy of the album on its release day. Here are some thoughts about the individual tracks:

1. "The End of Days" - The album kicks off with a Middle Eastern-inspired rhythm and a Nathaniel Johnstone violin solo before the vocals start. The song sets the post-apocalyptic scene: Captain Robert sings of "ruined empires of days long gone" where "survivors of men... pray that the world will be theirs again one day."

2. "Neobedouin" - This time the keyboards help create the rhythm before another violin solo. The song is a post-apocalyptic tune you can dance to, in which "we survived this global scar...our members thinning every day."

3. "The Wrath of Fate" - This song could be an Aether Shanties outtake, as it combines the sea shanty style with a hard rock beat. The song tells the story of the airship (presumably the Ophelia) being damaged in a storm (and by sabotage?). "But the crew stayed at its post" except for one: "The traitor did jump ship/And left the blazing falling corpse." Although the vessel crashes into the sea, the airship became a sea ship: "The mast was charred but still so strong/ So sails we did raise/ The windows gone above waterline/ The water quenched the blaze/ With lightning bolts quite far aloft/ And gentle wind below/ The Captain's crew and battered ship/ Sailed into sunset's glow." Everyone likes a happy ending.

4. "I've Been Wrong Before" hearkens back to earlier industrial/goth style of the band, and contains a litany of things Captain Robert doesn't believe in, including "UFOs and little men from Mars," and "we should stop thinking for an oath we swore." In the chorus, he sings "I don't believe a lot of things, but I've been wrong before" but the punchline is that "Half this crap has turned out true" so keep an open mind.

5. "Inside the Cage" - A brief (20 second) instrumental segues into...

6. "Fight or Flight" - A rocker with a martial beat, and lovely 1980s synth fills and guitar work. Sisters of Mercy without the obscure references to poets. The song seems to be about living life on your own terms: "They want you to think it's possible to live a life without their chains/ But...if you go to far, you'll find they're pulling on your reins." "I fear what they'd do if they find I've escaped" the regimented corporate world.

7. "Victorian Vigilante" - The longest song on the album, this has a burlesque/cabaret music feel to it, complete with muted trumpet and banjo (a very Steampunk instrument, it seems to me). The narrative of the song is exactly as the title suggests: in Victorian times, a vigilante rights wrongs, taking the unnamed ne'er-do-well from "the palace" to the "riverside." No points for guessing the outcome.

8. "Chronofax" - A brief (30 sec) with old-time radio noises and a spoken word intro to...

9. "Letters Between a Little Boy and Himself as an Adult" - With synth chords and piano providing rhythm and a substantial vocal contrib from new vocalist Jody Ellen, the boy sings "Dear Mr. Brown/ One day I'll be you and/ Although I'm only eight now/ You need to hear my rules/ Never stop playing/ Never stop dreaming and/ Be careful not to/ Turn into what I'd hate." But the adult Robert Brown talks about the chores of adult life - thankless job, long hours, and taxes. The boy says that can't be right : "What you're describing doesn't seem worth the time," which leads the adult to "steal[] back my soul" and live a more fulfilling life.

10. "Beautiful Decline" - Another Middle Eastern-inspired intro that segues into thudding bass and "harpsicord" fills. This is a song about entropy: "Rust forms, bringing it all down/ Wood rots, and into the ground/ Flesh falls; life's decomposed/ Then nature's again exposed." The Circle of Life, dystopia style.

11. "Off the Grid" - More burlesque/cabaret-inspired music about making one's own way in an interconnected world. "But how safe is it to make a man with dreams beyond what he's allowed to choose?" Amen.

12. "To the Apocalypse in Daddy's Sidecar" [I'm not going to spell it "Daddies"; sorry, Captain Robert] - With a prominent bass line and synth lead, we return to the end of days theme: "Got shotgun shells and 12 cans of beans/ And an old stuffed doll coming 'part at her seams/ Your little lace dress you've worn for too far/ As you watch the apocalypse from Daddy's sidecar." If you have to go, you might as well go in style.

13. "Space Cowboy" - The album closes with a blast into space. Musically, the song drenches the guitar with so much reverb it sounds almost like surf music, but to a minor key, as if the Cure made an album with Link Wray. Lyrically, we head to the stars: "Fly on, cowboy of the stars.../ Rusty bolts hold rusty walls/ If it unscrews, the whole world falls" and a guitar solo takes us to the end of our journey.

As a (former) (lousy) keyboard player, I appreciate the varied use of keyboards across the album. TEoD also seems to have a more varied musical palette than previous albums, with bouzouki, banjo, flute, and brass, along with more traditional instruments and Captain Robert's darbuka (the small hand drum he often uses).

Even more so, I appreciate the effort the band takes both at the attention paid to lyrics (something often sadly neglected) and in challenging themselves and their listeners with new sounds and new instruments. Captain Robert cultivates his image as a perpetually-drunk slacker, but Abney Park shows that this to be an act.

* Hmm, people don't say that any more, do they? A new CD? A collection of songs that one could order piecemeal through various digital music download sites? By gum, there was an order to the universe when one bought "albums" or "singles." And backups? We didn't need backups; we just had to be careful not to put a scratch in the vinyl, or wear out the grooves. It was an analog world back then...

** I've read complaints that Abney Park doesn't make "real" Steampunk music because the band uses modern instrumentation and writes songs in a modern rock style. Pother. I'm a proponent of the big tent view of Steampunk. At any rate, if you don't agree about the label, ignore the label and just dance along with the rest of us.


Fogwoman Gray said...

What a wonderful review! Vivito and I were tickled pink (heh) to be able to get the Captain and his lovely wife into chat with Lucien's awesome technical wizardry.
Each new AP album is just a treat, Robert's writing has less to do with "steampunk" and more to do with where he is personally - but the themes are universal enough to really resonate.
"To the Apocalypse in Daddy's Sidecar" was one I have waited to hear. He tweeted one day that his little daughter had told her mom "I am going to the Apocalypse in Daddy's sidecar". He said the song wrote itself at that point :). To explain - the Apocalypse is a local event Robert was playing, and he has a squee-worthy antique motorcycle with a sidecar. I just love the fact that this is a completely reasonable statement for the tiny daughter of Robert and Kristina to make!!

Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you for the kind words, Mrs. V! I agree, each new album has something different - they're not content to repeat themselves, while it's clearly the same overall sound. And you're right, Captain Robert seems to write about what he's experiencing...while simultaneously incorporating it into the overall Steampunk/AP mythos. I'm always excited to see what they're going to do next. (I feel the same way about the Decemberists - I'm waiting for their new album early next year, too. I know it's hard to be creative as you get older - God knows it is for me - so I appreciate these young-uns who keep it fresh.

By the way, I'm red-faced for misspelling "apocalypse," which I've since corrected (along with "palette"). I made some tiny edits. :)

Bookworm Hienrichs said...

"Space Cowboy" sounds very Ennio Morricone to me--which is entirely appropriate. *grin*

Rhianon Jameson said...

You shamed me, Miss Hienrichs - I had to look him up. :)