Like the opening of a pulp thriller (or in this case a penny dreadful) let's skip to the chase: I think that this is a wonderful EP and I've been listening to it constantly since it came in the post a few weeks back. If you have any interest in "steampunk" music you should pick this up.
With the first foreboding bass notes of "Black Iron Road" you have a foreshadowing of what your in for. Then when Malcom Schreeck's vocals kick in you know for sure. The foundation here is goth; sonorous, decadent, gleefully sinister goth.
This makes sense, when it comes to Victorian fashion elements the goths got there first. And the band does look sharp in the back cover photo with their neck-scarves and top hats. (I'm still undecided if J. Frances Pomerantz looks adorable or goofy with her slightly too big hat.) It's nice that there are now bands bringing a Victorian sensibility to content other than costuming.
Musically this Los Angeles based band mixes goth with synth-pop to very successful results. The keyboards and bass (both by Prof. Richard Mangrove) give each song a solid, full sound. The drum machine, The Indifference Engine (great naming!), is kept restrained so that the listener is never run down by canned beats. Wavering in and out of the songs is Pomerantz' violin work. The mixture of electric (keyboards, sequencer) and organic (violin, vocals) is a puissant concoction that goes down smoothly and encourages you to come back for more.
My only animadversion is that the violin is occasionally a bit too low in the mix.
The Victorian element really comes out in the lyrics. Each song is performed by Malcom Scheerck (who is a character) as a character. "Open Arms, Empty Air" is "as sung by Penny Dreadful" and "Black Iron Road" by "Clive the Barker". I love the idea of theatre within theatre, characters performed by characters. And each character has an interesting story to tell. The themes are classic: technological oppression ("Black Iron Road"), the undead ("Skeleton Goes to Town) and vice ("Mister Soot's Little Black Book"). The last track, "Ants Under Glass", is dedicated to H.G. Wells and is a musing on city crushing war machines: "giants in armor one hundred feet tall", "do I wander alone in this city of smoke". It's my favorite track on the CD, if it had been coupled with "Skeleton Goes to Town" as a 45 record 20 years ago I would have played it until the grooves wore through.
There is a distinct vocabulary in the lyrics: "a horrible pox", "a strumpet by trade", "we are the streamline". It fits the neo-Victorian style nicely but might come across as heavy handed in most genres. That's the cleverness of having the goth base. Goth encourages, almost requires, a certain verbosity. What might sound incongruous elsewhere here sounds utterly apt.
The Unextraordinary Gentlemen call what they do "Victorian Synth-Punk". That has a nice ring to it but I find myself describing it as "Future-Pop for Time Travelers". If the Wells had envisioned a music yet-to-come it could very well have sounded like "5 Tales from God-Only-Knows".