Science Fiction Music Review #1: "Lost Horizons" by Abney Park

Republibot 3.0
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Yes, I promise you, there really is such a thing as Science Fiction music, and it’s not just soundtracks to SF movies and goofy Theremin stuff (Though that is undeniably cool), and there’s scads of examples: There’s Jeff Wayne’s musical version of “War of the Worlds” which my science teacher forced us to listen to during tests in 9th grade; either of Peter Schilling’s US releases; “I Robot” by the Alan Parsons Project (Which I believe was some sort of hovercraft); “Valis,” an almost-unlistenable opera by Tod Machover and friends; Rasputina’s “Oh, Perilous World,” the B-Movie Chic of Man or Astro Man; and many, may more. And that’s just limiting ourselves to dedicated concept albums, if we think of artists who’ve dipped a toe in the SF pool now and again, you’re looking at a list of hundreds including (but not limited to) Yes, Utopia, They Might Be Giants, Stuart Hamm, Remy Zero, Queen, Pink Floyd, Muse, Mike Oldfield, Mike Nesmith, Michael Penn, Laurie Anderson, King Missile, ELO, Duran Duran, The Cramps, the Church, Bowie, Blondie, Billy Idol, Adrian Belew and pretty much any prog rock band ever. And all that without even having to resort to Neil Norman and his Cosmic Orchestra!

And yet with the mountains of Science Fictiony music that’s piled up over the last fifty years or so, it still remains a little-known, seldom-recognized Genre. Why? I dunno. People are just jerks, probably.

Just the same: we, here at Republibot are all about exposing various little-thought-upon eddies and backwaters of this great big river called ‘science fiction’ and so, from time to time, when we get bored, we’re gonna’ review genre-related albums and/or singles for you.

And this is the first one:

“Lost Horizons: The Continuing Adventures of Abney Park” by Abney Park (2008)

Abney Park is an industrial/goth band out of Seattle that’s been around for about twelve years now in one form or another. In the last couple years they’ve changed their image, however, and have adopted “Steampunk” personas while on stage. The songs on their current album reflect this conceit, since they’re all written from the perspective of being crew members of the HMS Ophelia, a British Navy Zeppelin, who’ve gone pirate and now make a living raiding commercial shipping from other airships. An unstated assumption of the concept is that it takes place in an alternate history, either an alternate present, or (Somewhat more likely) an alternate version of the 1880s/90s is subject to debate. This makes the whole thing a tenuous concept album. While there’s no apparent narrative thread tying the songs together in one big story like you find in The Wall or [groan] Tommy, everything is part of the same world-view, reflecting similar perspectives of a fictional world.

Personally I have to be impressed by the audacity of anyone trying something like this. It’s hard enough to hold an audience, without daring them to keep up with high-concept stuff like this.
“Airship Pirates” is a rollicking, and rather funny gig about, well, being an airship pirate. “The Emperor’s Wives” is a sordid tale of a Persian king who’s harem isn’t really in to men, and how this causes his undoing; “Sleep Isabella” is my favorite song on the album, and evidently a straightforward lullaby, though to whom it’s being sung I’m unclear. Perhaps Captain Robert has his kid stashed away on the ship somewhere? Perhaps back in their secret port? I don’t know. (In any event, you can hear the song and get an eyeful of their visual style here ); “She” is a love song from Captain Robert to his ship, the Ophelia; “The Secret Life of Dr. Calgari” is exactly what you’d think it’d be with that title, and the lyrics just drip 1890s Victorian Mad Scientist. Here’s a sample:

Testtubes and Tesla coils,
clockwork brain 'n' glowing oils,
copper, brass, explosive jelly,
his mechapede policed Old Delhi.
Invented the radio transmitting, too.
Played poker with Theremin, Tesla and Poe.
Harnessed cold moonlight to power airships
and destilled antitoxines from postnasal drips.

“This Dark and Twisty Road,” is about Chivalry, after a fashion – protecting the innocent and weak from monsters, and letting them go. It’s unclear if this song is to “Isabella” from above, or a lover, or what, but it’s got a nice mood to it. “Herr Drosselmeyer’s Doll” is a song about an early-model steampunk Gynoid, possibly intended as a sort of moral alternative to prostitution. It doesn’t seem he’s gotten all the kinks quite worked out, though. (Incidentally, the character’s name roughly translates as “Mister Throttle”)
“Virus” is a possibly-didactic song about a disease that affects everyone and spreads like wildfire, but elliptically enough we’re never told what the disease is. We’re given some clues, though:

If you're dead, it will keep you alive.
And if you're alive, it keeps you nearly dead.
It forces the body to seek the uninfected,
And gets inside their heads.

And elsewhere:

It feeds on their fears and emotions,
As it has 2000 years.
It's infected the Hindus, infected the Buddhists,
And kept them all in tears.

I think we’re supposed to conclude that the virus in question is a belief in reincarnation, which allowed the caste system of India and untold social abuses throughout east Asia, since “Death is only temporary.” Of course we could argue that the virus is religion in general, but I think it’s more of an eastern thing. I could be wrong.

“I am Stretched on Your Grave” is a mournful up-tempo dirge about a lost childhood love. It’s sung in-character, reflecting Victorian mores,

Oh, and thanks be to Jesus
We did what was right
And your maidenhead still
Is your pillar of light.

But it’s obvious the character singing the song has some regrets. Assuming this is Captain Robert talking about his past, and the theme of lost love and childhood that seems to recur on the album, it’s possible that Robert never overcame the loss of his teen love, which ultimately drove him to a life of glamorous crime. It’s unclear who she was, though – is she Isabella? Is she the girl from The Dark and Twisty Road, or is that girl merely a reflection of the one who’s buried here? Who the heck is Isabella, anyway? I would love to interview Captain Robert, or pretty much anyone connected to the band to figure this out.

“Post Apocalypse Punk” is a goofy/desperate tale of time travel gone horribly horribly wrong, as it always does:

It was 1906, but we screwed the timeline up.
It wasn't just for kicks but I'm afraid that the gig is up.
I jumped through time, at the count of jump
Smashed the past and messed the whole thing up,
Now there's nothing left but Post-Apocalypse Punk.

This one, along with “My Isabella” and “Airship Pirate” are easily my favorite tracks on the CD. There’s also a secret bonus track played only on concertina, “The Ballad of Captain Robert,” about how rough it is to be an Expendable Crew Member on the Ophelia. It’s a rough life, Air Piracy is.

I really like this album. I like the music, I like the style, I like the look, I like the feel, I like concept of giving us a bunch of snapshots of a parallel world, rather than an all-encompassing mural therof, I like the in-character Victorian lyrics that betray sentiments appropriate to the era, rather than what the musicians playing those character may or may not think. I like the whole thing.

I strongly recommend checking it out!

You can find out more about the band by visiting their official website here (Which really is about the best website I’ve seen for a minor-label band)