We are creatures who categorize. It's hardwired in us, very few are without the impulse entirely. It has been in the distant past essential to our survival as a species: identifying harm from good, enemy from family, us from not-us, from the other.
Music, while not essential to the survival of the body, might well be essential to the soul, so it, also, falls into that categorizing need just as easily. (Expose the uninitiated to rap's variety, they may well stare at you. Take one who knows and they'll separate out rap, thug rap, dub, bebop, hip-hop, trip-hop and crunk--and more I don't know to spin out--and lay everything out for you, ragingly pinned.)
Now we stand on the brink of identifying a "new" music--but the problem is, no one seems to agree on what it is--there seems to be no one single band or artist everyone points to as being "steampunk".
So off we go through steampunk music lists, divining the best we can, between geared and not, steamy or steamless, us...versus not-us. Next up: Blackbird RAUM.
Blackbird RAUM has this to say of their style of music:
"How we think of ourselves: in the same way that gypsy bands like Taraf de Haidouks feel equally comfortable playing village weddings and large concert halls, we're equally comfortable playing squats, parking lots, and riots as we are playing big folk festivals like Folklife in Seattle. In the same way that your local klezmer band act as emmisaries from their tightly knit jewish community to the world at large, we act as emmisaries from your local tightly knit community of anarchists and squatters to the outside."
There's a lot of really interesting music coming out of the anarchist movement, especially the Pacific anarchist movement, which is a loosely knit (but tightly interwoven) group of food gleaners, gutterpunks, industry protesters, tribal families (Native American to circus chosen), seasonal harvesters, squatters, homeless folk (by choice and by desperate decision), bikers, world travelers, sex workers, barefoot laeity, monks, mystics, makers of all things, hackers, crackers and back-alley grifters. The mad, the merry, the angry, the hurt, the broken and the patched; people who use and reuse, recycle, discover new uses, and never see a thing that is completely worn out of all possible use--be that a washtub and a set of strings, or a scrap of fabric, waiting to be sewn to another piece of fabric, or painted on, or used to scrub dishes with, or separated out thread by thread to make paper.
(The members of Blackbird RAUM singing their hearts out.)
The various members play mandolin, banjo, washboard, washtub bass, accordion, and likely whatever else they can get their hands on. And they are full of passion, at times their voices crack and strain trying to express the emotions they feel. It puts your heart in your throat if you have any idea of where they come from, and where they're going.
From their (main) webpage:
"In early 2004, “Zack” and C.P.N. met one another while squatting in abandoned houses in north oakland, CA. they both had recently given up playing guitar and drums in various santa cruz and bay area crust punk acts to drop out of school and experience a life of eating trash and rioting. They became fast friends, due to a mutual hatred for hard work/society. They parted ways for a few months only to find that when they met up again they had seperately taken up the accordion and banjo. Not having any notions of conventional folk idioms, or even of how to play their instruments, they began a long and stupid road trip, playing with whoever at hand was willing to swing a washtub bass. The band quickly collapsed in a vague haze of travel plans and weird vibes. A year later they were astonished to learn that people had actually liked their songs, and seeing as how a few other friends cherished the memory of their music and had taken up folk music on their own(and having nothing better to do) they reformed with a lineup now including washtub bass virtuoso David, washboard shredder K.C. and mandolinista Mars. They summarily alienated all their old fans by refusing to play the americana sounds from their past incarnation and started [experimenting] with the raw and calculated confuso-jug-metal sound they currently embody. Digging up obscure influences like early Minutemen, new england contra-dance music, crust legends His Hero Is Gone and many other abstract and incongruous sources, Blackbird RAUM makes music that has never been made before."
So why are they here?
Glad you asked. I've been thinking about this, and wandering a lot of the bands' and singers' pages, listening, ferreting out synchronous sounds, touchpoints of melody or rhyme. I've identified three somewhat conjoined trails:
*melodic* What Edward laughs at me for calling "steampop"; Abney Park is the obvious poster band for this thread, but there are others: Thomas Dolby bridging the gap between vintage and modern; early Adam Ant, when the sound was bound up in drums, sticks on walls, feet on floors, and the challenge of dancing to a different beat. (I think I can be excused for essentially breaking my own rules and allowing in electrified sounds; it's the concept of the thing I'm trying to get across, here, the melodic thread wrapped in gilt and steel, performance being all, and performed by consummate showstoppers who want the world's attention.)
*orchestral* Do I even need to explain this one? From the Russian "new classical" composers of the Victorian and Edwardian times down to Vernian Process today, this thread leads to those who prefer to let instruments speak rather than voices, for the most part. Even they are interested in the sounds of found instruments, how'ver: while I'd never name Tori Amos a steampunk composer, the song "Bells for Her" was played on a deconstructed piano just for the sound of it. So too with the composers of the growing steampunk nation: formal schooling, informal apprenticeships, self-taught poets and players, all to the sound of metal on metal in the background, or metal on wood.
*street folk* For lack of a better term, I'd almost call this "dustbowl folk", but there's such a wide range, it's insane. Everyone from the White Ghost Shivers to Hoots & Hellmouth to Amanda Palmer shows touches of it; there's folk/punk, punk folk, dancehall, punk cabaret, ten thousand other names, a whole catch-all of terms, depending on what's predominant in the sound. But what it is, at its heart, is homemade music, music made by people, not instruments, music played out, sung out, hammered out, tapped out, music made on whatever's available however it's available: and most of it has touches of jugband jams, jukejoint rumbling, blues, choral artistry, pain, love, rage, strength, humor and all that lies between.
This is Blackbird RAUM's territory, if they're anywhere.
Understand, for them it's not just music for fun, it's music to live. They play protests and soup kitchens, big festivals and tarp cities, squats and forests, and they mean it when they say they can play anywhere. These are the voices of the disenfranchised set to music and scream. These are instruments that travel well, can be unpacked and played in a moment, and--should they misjudge the crowd, or the cops, instruments that can (even if with regret) be replaced or repaired. Their world has few illusions of comfort and safety. Where they live, where they sing, are not safe spaces always. But they're needed shelters from the storm, and music gets you by, man.
There's bound to be more threads over time (currently, there's a tenuous thread of goth revival with bands like Johnny Hollow that I'm still going back and forth on including), but these are the main three as I'm starting to see it.
They have a MySpace page, as I've mentioned: there or on their web page, you can hear the singing of fierce hearts. Try them out.
My vote? Blackbird RAUM is in.