Tonight, we are allegedly attending the 'London Steampunk Party'. I say 'allegedly', because this looks very much like a regular gig at Electrowerkz to me. Tonight's four bands are all, to a greater or lesser extent, grouped under the steampunk banner - but so what? When tonight's promoter, Flag Promotions, puts on four goth bands at Electrowerkz, the event isn't billed as a 'London goth party'. Call me Mister Cynical if you will, but I suspect there's an attempt at some good old-fashioned hype going on here.
Steampunk essentially amounts to a fantasy world where technology and chronology collide. It's been around as a concept since at least the 1980s, and has built up a following of practical adherents who diligently try to warp the modern world to steampunk specifications - a favourite ploy is to encase computers in polished mahogany and brass, as if they'd been constructed in Victorian times.
Steampunk also attracts more peripheral enthusiasts, who simply treat the whole thing as an excuse to dress up as Isambard Kingdom Brunel's mad scientist brother, or some sort of pioneer aviator, all goggles and overalls and brass-encased navigation equipment. The characters of the mad scientist and the aviator have become archetypes - clichés, even - of the steampunk scene, which perhaps hints that it's not quite such an imaginative genre as the fans would have you believe. There are certainly plenty of scientists and aviators in tonight's audience, costumed with varying degrees of conviction.
Curiously, because you'd think the olde-world dress-up element would make them natural bedfellows, goth and steampunk have never substantially crossed over - until now. Steampunk and goth seem to have belatedly exchanged handshakes over the garden fence, and I suspect Flag Promotions spotted an opportunity to sell the scenes to each other. Well, we'll see about that.
One man and an electronic keyboard. That's Joe Black. Mr Black himself is white of face, extravagant of hair, and manic of grin. He's a lunatic troubadour, as if Jack Nicholson's Joker character from the Batman film had suddenly aquired a tuxedo and piano lessons.
Plonking extravagantly at his keyboard, Joe Black emits a combination of hoarse hollers and eldritch screeches, in which style he sings an assortment of faux-vaudeville airs.
The thought occurs to me that Joe Black quite possibly attended a Tiger Lillies show, witnessed the band's white-faced vocalist Martin Jaques in full cry, and thought 'I could do that!'. Following which, he went to see the Dresden Dolls, and thought, 'I could do that, too!'. Where he got his vocal style from is anyone's guess, though. Cradle Of Filth, probably. At any rate, the very next song is a cover of the Dresden Dolls' song 'Missed Me', which ensures we don't miss at least one Joe Black's key influences.
Squirming and gurning at the ivories, Joe Black is entertaining enough as a kind of noir-ish novelty act, but I wonder if eventually he'll find he's painted himself into a corner. After all, there's a limit to how far you can go, if your stage act essentially amounts to a wriggle and a rasp and a heavy hand on the major keys. Nice work, Joe, but...what else do you do?
When I put my head round the door of goth gigs these days, I frequently seem to stumble upon The Faces Of Sarah among the support bands. They're a bunch of regular, straight-up rockers who seem to have aquired the dubious status as an all-purpose bill-filler on the goth circuit, even though there's nothing particularly gothic about their scruffy rock-geezer appearance or, indeed, their bellicose, grungy, rock-geezer sound. I suppose every scene has a band or two like that. 'Filler' outfits that don't particularly fit the aesthetic, but have somehow wangled an invite to the party, and subsequently seem to hang around for ever, scoffing the nibbles and making a mess of the kitchen. If the steampunk scene has such a band, then I think it's got to be Ghostfire.
Galumphing their way through a set of almost-alternative anthems, Ghostfire sound like a back-room-of-the-pub version of the Killers. Evereything is a big rock racket, while the vocalist, hurling himself around as if someone's tipped ice cubes down the back of his neck, essays a stentorian bellow thoughout.
Well, so far, so straightforward. I stand there, waiting for Ghostfire's steampunk aesthetic to show itself, but I fear I cannot discern it. Aside from the silver candlesticks on the keyboard (which, stylistically, come under the heading of 'cheesy goth'), the bassist's welding goggles (a visual element that's decidedly cyberpunk - someone's obviously picked up the wrong style manual there), and the waistcoats which seem to be the band's key wardrobe items, there's not much to suggest that Ghostfire are anything other than an perfectly competent, but entirely normal rock band.
Since steampunk is not a music genre, there's no reason why the soundtrack to steampunk can't be normal rock music, of course. But that does seem like a bit of a cop-out, even so. I mean, normal rock music, played by people wearing waistcoats - shouldn't there be more to it than that?
Well, yes, there is more to steampunk than that. The genre does have its true creatives, and here comes one right now.
Thomas Truax is an amiable chap, surrounded by electro-mechanical noise-generators which look like he's assembled them from spare parts in his garden shed. With a thud of mechanised drums, he launches into a set of otherworldly one-man band music hall ditties, which manage to be engaging and entertaining even though tonight his musical contraptions don't quite work.
It's a fine irony that none of the technical hitches that bedevil the set are the fault of Thomas Truax's own instruments - on the contrary, they all seem to operate like well-oiled machines, mainly because they are well-oiled machines.
The problem seems to be the venue's own dodgy kit. It seems Electrowerkz can't muster a set of leads in decent enough condition to provide an unbroken line of copper from instruments to PA. Thus it is that everything progresses in fits and starts, until in the end Thomas Truax jumps into the crowd and turns his performance into an impromptu acoustic singalong.
He receives a well-deserved ovation - clearly, many people appreciate the effort he's made to bring what for some is a mere excuse to dress up into slightly more solid reality, and indeed his efforts to keep the show going when the problems kick in. Good stuff - it's just a shame that modern technology can't keep up.
Over a decade ago, when I was busily engaged in losing money as a promoter of live music, I received a promo CD from Abney Park. At the time the band was a relatively straightforward goth outfit, without any of the steampunk trappings with which they festoon themselves today. It was only later that the band discovered the joys of brass and brown leather.
Now, Abney Park present themselves as a crew of airship pirates, traversing the steampunk landscape in their imaginary dirigible, pausing only to inflict entertainment upon the unwashed hordes below. This heady romance instantly gives Abney Park a unique identity - and it's probably not a coincidence that the band's comprehensive reinvention neatly avoids the need to refer to their former incarnation as a goth band. That part of the story has mysteriously vanished from the narrative, and I suspect that was entirely intentional.
Well, the crew have feathered the prop, thrown down the grappling irons, and moored the Abney Park airship to the crumbling brickwork of this 19th century Islington factory building. When it comes to aesthetics, Electrowerkz is probably a very appropriate venue for a steampunk band.
When it comes to technology, it's...not so good. The first few songs of Abney Park's set are a bit of a scrabble-about, as the band tries to get a good monitor sound (or, failing that, a monitor sound). But, eventually, they hit some sort of stride, and, to my surprise, I discover that Abney Park are actually a pretty decent live act.
I'd been expecting a kind of laptops-and-programing goth band in brown, because, frankly, even if you didn't know anything about Abney Park's old-skool gawthick incarnation, there's much about their recorded music that suggests they still occupy that kind of sub-Cruxshadows territory. But, on stage, they're better than that.
The music is a rolling pulse, all coiling ragas and insistent yet fluid basslines. It reminds me of Jah Wobble's musical excursions around the world more than anything from the goth zone - indeed, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the steampunk zone, either, for there's more nature than technology in those rhythms.
Frontman Robert Brown, a genial figure in buckles and straps, sings in a resonant baritone that hauls everything along, trading vocal lines with Finn Von Claret, between bouts of belly dancing (erm, that's Finn, not Robert). Frankly, it seems to me that Abney Park don't need the stuck-on decor, costumes and bric-a-brac with which they have burdened themselves - they've got the chops to make it on the show alone, although I suppose they're in too deep to get out now. If the band quit steampunk, the fans would swiftly quit the band.
But what the hell. Even if the band's customised microphone is a steampunk prop too far - it's so large it covers Robert's entire face, making it look like he's headbutting a sputnik - live, at least, the music transcends the trinkets. And it's not often can you say that in steampunk circles, given that this is one scene that's very often all about the trinkets.
For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.