Blood in the Soundtrack, a review of “Steampunk” Volumes 1 & 2
Doctor Q, with the help of correspondent Catherine Barson, tackles GD Falksen’s Blood in the Skies …
By DoctorQ on Feb 14 2012
By Doctor Q & Catherine Barson
Doctor Q here, we at the Chronicle would be remiss if we did not tackle the big names of steampunk. If you’ve been active within the community for more than a few weeks, you’re sure to have heard the name G.D. Falksen. A near omnipresent figure in the steampunk scene, and his recently novel, Blood in the Skies, the first in the Hellfire Chronicles, has been reviewed by our correspondent Miss Catherine Barson in a previous article. However, in a publicity push from Miss Evelyn Kriete, this novel also has a soundtrack – simply and audaciously titled Steampunk Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. As a DJ, I felt a need to talk about this compilation at length. However, as I have not read the book, I have conscripted the good Miss Barson to act as an expert and add some commentary for how these sounds act as a soundtrack to the story.
The two volumes, as a whole, are a wonderful survey of the depth and breadth of our subculture’s musical interests. The bands on the compilation span the gamut, there are bands that blatantly call themselves steampunk music, ones that simply fit into our genre, ones from the US, UK, France, and even Japan. It spans the world over and covers our international movement like nothing else I can name. The temerity to name the volumes simply Steampunk if off putting, as if they are planting a flag on the definition of Steampunk Music or branding their compilation onto the movement we all represent; but since the bands come from all walks of life and represent most all kinds of sound, my ire is somewhat tempered. No matter what, there are bound to be tracks any listener will like. That said, because the compilation is so wide, there are sure to be tracks you loathe. There is no filter, it is undiluted, uncompromising Steampunk, your mileage may vary. I will cover the volumes in brief as best I can.
Volume 1 opens with a Hellblinki exclusive Lullaby for Lizzie, their eclectic madcap sound on accordion, snare, and vocals showcases the band’s predilection for theatricality with a hint of madness and whimsy. From there the music tends to lean on the dark and morose, with a slight comedic reprieve, up until This Way to the Egress’ On a 45 finally kicks the album to an upbeat tempo. I can never, ever, say enough good things about This Way to the Egress. Their music is a carnival of sound that makes your toes tap, your eyes gleam, and if you look at a mirror you should not be surprised to find a slightly imbalanced grin on your lips. Following this wonderful track with Unwoman’s brilliant For the Killers was inspired, as her vocals are sweet succor to the ears of any who hear her. The last song on the album follows Unwoman, and what better way to conclude a collection of steampunk sounds that with the talented work of Frenchy and the Punk with House of Cards. The work of Samantha Stephenson’s playful lyrics married with Scott Helland’s strings is sublime (and don’t even get me started on the duo’s percussive talents). The album then concludes with a reading by the author from the novel. I enjoyed 4 of the 10 tracks on this album and was a bit surprised that of all the Sunday Driver songs, Valentine was the one on the compilation, as it is sadly my least favorite of their work. Regardless, we may press on to the next volume.
Volume 2 takes the baton and proceeds with a slightly better pace than the first. Any compilation with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing’s Goggles is a good one. Not to mention bands like The Clockwork Dolls, The Cog is Dead, and Ghostfire, both volumes really serve well as a sampler for those who don’t already own these band’s work. Imaginary Airship’s Railroad Track duly impressed me with its blend of synthesized sounds, old instrumentation, and good old fashion rock overtones made it a delightful surprise. Escape the Clouds’ Until the End is one of my favorite compositions from this artist and it fit very well in the mix, which is notable as many of the song transitions felt slapdash. But easily my personal highlight is the Cog is Dead’s Savior of the Skies, another exclusive track. Captain John Sprocket’s musical narratives interlock with Mr. Tony Seville’s military drums, Joel’s Guitar and backing vocals, and Sir Christopher’s Bass like the well-tuned clock of their namesake. I adored this song and it will be added to my set lists in the gigs I play easily. Another exclusive single ends the musical portion of the album, The Absinthe Drinkers’ Zepplins, though it is a bit too punk for my own tastes. It sounded like some hybrid of Sabbath meets early 80s punk and my ears just can’t take the trash of power chords like they could when I was younger. The album then concludes with another reading by the esteemed Mr. Falksen.
Overall, the two volume set is worth a purchase if you want a sampler pack of steampunk songs. That said, I have some criticisms. First, I think each and every band on the compilation deserves to be on there, but all the same of the 21 musical tracks on the collection, I really loved 8 tracks. The rest were either unimpressive or just not my flavor of steampunk – and that’s OK with me. Secondly, I am a big fan of audio compilations. A good mix CD has a flow, and each track should lead into the next. Neither volume accomplished this, although Vol. 2 was a smoother listen than Vol. 1. In addition, the appeal of a compilation from the point of a fan is to get hard to find singles not normally found on a band’s discography. While there were some, there were not nearly enough. The collection felt more a hodgepodge of tunes cherry picked from a wide array of bands in the scene. This isn’t a strong demerit, but it bears mentioning, namely because of the “exclusive” songs I could identify; only Savior seemed to really match the tone of the book these discs are supposed to promote. Which brings me to my last critique – as you may have noticed I use the word compilation rather than soundtrack; it is an intentional note simply because this two volume set strikes me more as a exercise is grandiose cross-promotion than it does as a soundtrack to a story. With few exceptions, there is no connective theme, tone, or mood to either CD. How does it have anything to do with the story? Well, I suppose to answer this question I will turn it over to my expert. Take it away Miss Barson.
I will have to agree with Q that this “soundtrack” is a little too disjointed to really live up to the term. Vol. 1 starts out in character enough, as Hellblinki took the time to write a song based off the book. In fact I did have to chuckle at the lyrics referring to the numerous brawls and fist-fights as Falksen does make them a frequent feature in his work. I am a little confused by the presence of Strange Artifact’s Terpsichore and am thoroughly confused by Dr. Carmilla’s Thick As Thieves as both sound like something out of anime soundtrack than a steampunk novel, much less Blood in the Skies. The first could possibly be played during the first air battle, I suppose, but the other just doesn’t fit in theme, scene or feeling to any part of the book. The presence of Sunday Driver’s Valentine also bothers me, not because it is a bad song. It isn’t, it’s one of my favorites, actually. My best guess for using this song was to illustrate either Lizzie or Ray’s reluctant feelings for each other. The trouble is that the relationship between the two characters in the book is so clumsily slap-dashed together with no previous tension or development that a song about “all my days and all my nights/ is thoughts of you/ go spinning ‘round like satellites” doesn’t even begin to make sense in describing it. Otherwise, with exception to the inexplicable dip into 80s Goth music by Platform One, the rest of the songs featured on Vol. 1 do a fine job in evoking the images and feeling of the various battles, bar fights and underground intrigue throughout Blood in the Skies.
Volume 2 seems a little more on the mark in communicating Falksen’s story. The Clockwork Doll’s mix Glory is an excellent work to play while reading the final battle…though you may want to put it on repeat considering how long that set of scenes is. Other scenes such as the train battle come alive in Railroad Track, The Cruel Intentions of Time, and Eveen are perfect for listening to during the exploration of the ruins for their inherent creepiness. I will have to agree with Doctor Q though when I say that Savior is probably the best track out of both of the albums, and confirm that it fits the feeling, theme, and content of “Blood in the Skies.” To define this compilation as a soundtrack however does not fit though. Songs inspired by the book, or songs that inspired the book, perhaps, but while it shows potential as one, it still lacks the order and sometimes even focus to be properly called a soundtrack in its own right.
My thanks Miss Barson, and I see we seem to be on the same page more or less. Well then, I will leave you all to make up your minds on the matter, but I must say that if you set aside the “Soundtrak” portion of the 2 Volume set and instead look at it as a 2-disc promotional sampler pack of the variations of styles that fits within the realm of steampunk music, then you will be happy to pick up both discs and have yourself a basis of learning what types of bands you’ll love, like, or loathe on your own.
Catherine Barson is a correspondent and reviewer for the Steampunk Chronicle, and a member of the steampunk band, The Gin Rebellion. You can follow her on Twitter or her writing blog, Writing Fiction with the Plot Junkie.