Science Fiction Music Review #2: "Oh, Perilous World!" by Rasputina

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“Rasputina” is a deliberately odd, Cello-driven rock group out of Brooklyn, New York. They have five studio albums so far, and are evidently at work on a sixth, but for our purposes today we’ll be talking about their most recent one, “Oh Perilous World.” (2007). Ordinarily the band wanders from art rock to string-driven 90s alterna-music, to deliberately old timey songs, with a hint of vintage ELO thrown in here and there. Though inscrutably odd, and frequently atonal and difficult to listen to, Rasputina has always been one of the more fascinating bands out there; always worth at least a cursory listen. Their subject matter is offbeat, unpredictable, and frequently dark, their style can only be described as unique, and they never seem afraid to just screw around with the possibilities of their format, and dare their audience to keep up.
“Oh Perilous World” is generally described as a “Steampunk concept album set in an alternate history in which Queen Mary Todd Lincoln of the Kingdom of Florida orders her Zeppelins to attack Pitcairn Island.”
Well, your really can’t get much more Science Fictiony than that, can you? As part of our ongoing series to expose Science Fiction Music, we decided it was definitely worthy of a review.
The first song is, “1816, The Year Without A Summer,” and if there’s a bad song about the Little Ice Age, I haven’t heard it. I love the cello that comes in right around 2:50. There is a slight ELO feel to bits of this song, and the singer – Melora Creagar – sings with a warble in her voice on this one doesn’t bother me too much on this one, but sometimes it gets grating. The subject matter is an interesting element of history overlooked in songs – this may be the only one ever – and actually possibly kind of apt in the modern world, since people are blaming climate change (Which may or may not be happening) on things that may or may not have anything to do with it (Franklin’s experiments with electricity, is one mentioned cause in the song itself. Also, in this alternate history, Franklin is a President!) I like that she plays it straight, no fantastic elements.
“Choose me for Champion” gives us the great lyric, “I find I can get behind heretical ideas and make them real” – I like the distortion guitar, the odd, out of place vocals at 1:33. And, again, if there’s a bad song about Pitcairn Island, I’ve never heard it. Our readers may already know this, but just in case someone doesn’t: Pitcairn Island was where the Bounty mutineers ended up, just like the song says, but the mutineers were all men, and they bolstered their numbers with some Tahitian women and (poor choice here) a few Tahitian men a well. Tahitians are Polynesian, and a running competition in Polynesian society to pick the most fit young males for veneration was ‘the egg race’ where they had to run, sail, and swim to a neighboring island to recover an egg from the nest of some rare bird, and bring it back w/out breaking it for the chief. Whoever managed to do this became champion, and functioned as kind of ‘first warrior on the field’ in any kinds of battles w/ other Polynesian tribes/islands/peoples. As far as I know, the Pitcairn Islanders never did this, but you know, people get bored. They look for ways to pass the time.
It occurs to me that there is probably a subtle subtext in this wonky alternate history song in that while the “Egg Race Champion” system was pretty good for dealing w/ other tribes, and was commonly in use from Hawaii all the way to New Zealand, it was completely incapable of dealing w/ the new challenges of European encroachment. In short, the current winner would be sent out to deal w/ these new people in their huge boats, and the new people would simply shoot the champion in the head. All of which is my longwinded way of saying I think the song is supposed to be ironic in that the singer wants to be champion, but whomever is champion will die. Champions were always the first to die. In this case, Queen Mary Todd of Florida will kill him/her.
The next track, “Cage in a Cave, ” has a nice, beatlesy/ELOey feel to it. Her singing detracts from it, sadly. The song itself is about a cave that Fletcher Christian used to retreat to, in order to get away from the others.
Next up, “Incident in a Medical Clinic,” is a seemingly-unrelated song about Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia in Africa), a parasitic disease found in South America and Asia, but most commonly in Africa, where it’s an ongoing epidemic. It’s cause by flatworms, in water that’s been contaminated by freshwater snails that are infected w/ the parasite, hence the common (And outdated) 19th century name the song uses for it, “Snail Fever.” I have no idea how the protagonist in the song would have come down w/ the disease, but I suppose that’s not important. Even still, I find myself wondering if the protagonist is the same as the ‘champion’ wannabee, and if it’s somehow related. Thus is it always w/ concept albums…
“Clinic” is followed by “Draconian Crackdown” – I like that “Goiters” are listed as one of the draconian attacks. Miss Creager’s voice works much better on this one than some of the others, and I like the fuzztone guitar. I also like the oddly innocent ‘well duh’ of the line“There’s no fun to a draconian crackdown.” Not really clear what this has to do w/ the previous tracks, but it was about this time that I realized I was really enjoying the steampunk aspects of the album.
“Steampunk,” for those who aren’t really following the medium, is a science fiction sub-genre that generally concerns ‘alternate pasts’ as opposed to ‘alternate futures’ or ‘alternate presents.’ In other words, history ran differently, and people in the past ended up with different abilities or technologies than either we have now or than real people had in the real past. The most common of these are things like mechanical Charles Babbage-styled computers (“Difference Engines” he called ‘em) powered by steam, airplanes developed much earlier or much later, thus continuing dependence on airships, etc, and the social complications that arise as a result of these precocious technologies. While there’s no odd tech evident in this story, the overall feel is kind of steampunky.
If I were to try to nail down the story…uhm…the world gets cold, social order breaks down, Queen Mary Todd orders her zeppelins – hey! Yeah! There you go! Zeppelins weren’t invented until the 1890s! There’s your steam punk odd tech for you! – to attack Pitcairn for some reason, Fletcher Christian retreats to his cave (No idea what the cage is all about) while the people seek a new champion, our protagonist somehow gets Snail Fever, and while this is happening the war goes badly and civil liberties are suspended, though I’m not sure if that means there’s a state of emergency in Mary’s Florida, or in Pitcairn Island. Oh well.
“Child Soldier Rebellion,” is up next with some spoken bits. Some people hate talking in songs, but I kind of like it provided it isn’t too Elvis-like. Here I think they kind of add to the song. Anyway, this is fairly straightforward – kind of like “The Children’s Crusade” which Vonnegutt wrote about: typical underaged soldier atrocities, shoehorned into the story, rebelling no doubt due to being on the loosing side of the war and the ensuing ‘draconian crackdown’. Interestingly, I find it’s hard to review this album for its musical merits, I kind of find myself drawn to the story, and semi-ignoring the music. I have to go back and re-listen a lot.
“Oh Bring Back the Egg Unbroken” brings us back to the champion competition set up earlier. I couldn’t help but think, “Man, did this chick adore the main-sequence ELO or what?” Specifically I’m thinking between about their 3rd album and prior to “out of the blue.” There is a trend in these stories where there’s almost a kind of lyrical randomness to them. Like “I’ve got music, and I’m going to shoehorn my rambles to it, even if it doesn’t fit?” I think that may be another reason some people are annoyed by this, it’s almost like listening to songs translated from another language – the meter doesn’t quite work. That said, it’s an interesting device, and when it’s actually firing on all cylinders, it’s compelling in a way that a more straightforward song can never be.
“Old Yellowcake Breaking News” seems to be saying the Island is sinking.
This is quickly followed by “In Old Yellowcake,” which has a nice ominous quality to it – handprints on a crumbling wall, that kind of thing – the idea that there’s signs and portents of doom all over the place, but the characters in the song can’t quite unlock ‘em. I like that. Kind of like in “Empire of the Sun” (Both book and movie) when “Jamie” comes home to find his mom’s face-powder all over the bedroom, with footprints and handprints and elbows and knees and a bare backside like a particularly evil snow-angel. He knows something really bad happened (The Japanese army violently raped his mom in her own bedroom), but he’s only 9 or 10 and it’s the 1930s, and he has no way to decode what he’s seeing, even though we in the audience instantly know. It really bothers and scares him, though, so, like a kid, he makes it go away – he opens the windows and the wind comes in and carries all the evidence away. The feel of this song is something like that, it’s got an (obvious) ‘Not long before the end’ feel to it. In any event, the war evidently goes bad for the Pitcairners.
“We Stay Behind,” is a nice elegy. The strings are utterly beautiful on this one. I like the “Living in a mausoleum/making governments of our own” line. Gives me the impression of people poking through the ruins, kind of like in “The 20-million-year picnic” by Bradbury. I’m assuming that Pitcairn lost the war, and was devastated, and there’s just a few survivors left, rambling around on the island.
The finale, or perhaps the coda is “The Pruning, ” an occasionally haunting, fairly obvious metaphor: there’s a madness in the world, and if it isn’t stopped, the world will fall apart. It’d be interesting to know what she thinks that madness is, particularly.

There is a 2-CD version of this album with seven more songs on it. Unfortunately, I don’t have that version of the album, however when I do find a copy I’ll be sure to review them separately.

I really liked this album. It is cheerfully offbeat and wonky while ominous and brooding at the same time, it sort of lives up to the potential that ELO was never quite able to, and in so doing it kind of lets us know why it was a good thing that ELO *failed* to live up to it. The pseudoclassical music, w/ the progrock concept album and the goth sensibilities are, oddly, a match made in heaven. I do like miss Creager much better when she sings straight, as opposed to affecting a pseudo-operatic old-timey warble, though. That kind of caterwauling kind of trashes a couple of the songs for me, but even so there’s enough interesting stuff going on musically to hold my interest.

Having listened to the album a dozen times over a week or three for this review I’ve concluded that my own interpretations of the songs themselves are probably mostly correct, but my interpretation of the over-arching story told by the album may be way off the mark. In the end, I suspect there may not actually be a story to the album. I think what Miss Creager and the band did was to take a bunch of unrelated stories, put in some common references between them, and then throw them together in more-or-less random order to make them *seem* as though there’s a coherent story here, should we only be able to unlock it. In fact, there may not be. Each song could just as easily be an island that only gives lipservice to the others. People are left to make sense of it all after the fact, according to their own preconceptions, exactly like we do with dreams most of the time. The clever and fully intentional effect of this is that everyone who hears the album gets the same basic information, but comes away from it with a different, subjective, interpretation as to what it all means and how it fits together.

I, for instance, came up w/ the story I’ve rambled on about above, which seems fairly straightforward to me, but probably is quite a bit different than the story you-the-reader would get out of it and both of those are different than the one a goth musician friend of mine got out of it when she recommended it to me a few months back, to name only three. Conversely, all of us listening to “The Wall” would come up w/ pretty much the same story (Pink’s dad died in WW2, His mom is overbearing, he becomes a rock star, his marriage falls apart, he goes nuts on drugs and becomes a fascist, he ends up in a loony bin, hilarity ensues) If that’s the case, if I’m right and the ‘interpret your own adventure’ concept was really what they intended for this album, then it’s pretty brilliant, really. A sort of triumph of impressionistic storytelling which I’ve seen in poetry and prose, but never heard on an album before, it uses ellipsis to deliberately mislead people into seeing connections that were never intended. Neat!

I strongly recommend this album, though the listener may wish to sample a few of the tracks before buying it. Their very unconventional sound is not for the unsophisticated ear.

You can buy a copy here:

And here’s a live performance of “1816, The Year Without A Summer”

Though I should mention the album version is considerably faster

And here’s their official website: