Tuesday, October 6, 2009

music for the wayward victorian

After two weeks of *promising* to write about it, I've finally found the time (and sanity!) to sit down and attempt to describe the musical genre known as Victorian industrial. This is difficult to do for several reasons:
  1. The term is not well known in the musical word because it's relatively new (apparently coined by Emilie Autumn in 2006, although I don't have any sources to verify that claim.)
  2. Because of #1, there is no clear-cut definition (although that can be said of most other musical genres.)
  3. Other bands who don't quite fit the genre can be counted among the artists in that genre (such as The Dresden Dolls or Voltaire, who are both more dark cabaret.)
  4. There is also a steampunk music genre, and it's hard for me to tell how much it overlaps with Victorian industrial, as I'm not as familiar with it.
  5. While we're piling on difficulties, I'll add that this genre includes aspects of dark cabaret, electric, punk, goth, industrial, alternative rock and classical music.
*deep breath*

Time for a simple, workable definition. I am not an expert in the field, but I've been following the genre enough in the past year or so that I have a vague idea of what this music is about.

Victorian industrial, as I see it, is a musical genre that often, but not always, includes musical elements or instruments of the Victorian Era, discussing topics important to the Victorians or make references to the Victorians in more than just a passing way. For example, while Iron Maiden's song "The Trooper" is about the Victorian battle of Balaclava in 1854, their musical style is too heavy metal and, therefore, could never fit into Victorian industrial.

Rasputina has many songs fitting this genre such as "Momma Was an Opium Smoker," "Rats," and "Leechwife."  Their cello playing is often abrasive and jarring like industrial music. Emilie Autumn's songs from her 2006 album Opheliac mostly fit this musical genre, with references to the Victorians' obsession with beautiful suicide, class, female insanity, sex, and other social issues that the Victorians commonly faced. Other artists include Hannah Fury, The Birthday Massacre, Abney Park and Vernian Process (the latter two are probably more steampunk.)

It can be dark and gothic, it can be punky and fun, it can be classical or mechanical... but it should evoke some sort of dark, messed-up Victorian image in your mind. Like pale girls in bloomers and too-red lipstick ripping their hair out, or the poor feasting on rats to survive, or antique dolls coming to life.

Artists often dress like some sort of freakish version of Victorian people, such as Rasputina:

image source: Starpulse

Or Hannah Fury:

image source: Always On the Run

But not all do. The Birthday Massacre is more goth than Victorian in appearance.

If anyone has a better description of Victorian industrial, please let me know.


  1. I'm in the Posvar computer lab at the moment, so I can't readily go about listening to music. I did try to do a rudimentary Google search about Victorian Industrial, and the results were scant. Here's the first link I found: http://www.last.fm/tag/victorian+industrial. I don't know if you know anything about Last.FM, but it's a great music website, namely used to track and record the music each user listens to and thereby recommend different artists to users based on listening trends. This creates a sort of radio-web-thing that groups artists together, and whether or not these linkages are legitimate is debatable, but it's something to go off of. Another site that did something similar was MusicPlasma, but I think it turned into LivePlasma. I find the new interface to be much less navigable, but wa wa waaa.

    I think it'd be helpful if you could attempt to define the genre by it's negative space (i.e. what it is not) - that has more potential to be say more than describing what Victorian Industrial is. If you were to explore the option of saying what it is not, provide more examples. I was thinking that the Dresden Dolls might be Victorian Industrial, but they also define themselves as Brechtian punk cabaret and sing about things like abortion. I'm sure the Decemberists don't fit into the category, but they sing about a bygone era none of them lived through (e.g. "A Cautionary Song"), used to use only acoustic instruments, and they're named after 19th century Russian revolt. How do they fit relative to Victorian Industrial?

  2. Actually I was on Last.FM's website while writing the blog post. Oddly enough, their "victorian industrial" link is lousy. The only three artists on that link that are truly victorian industrial are Emilie Autumn, Rasputina, and The Birthday Massacre. Nine Inch Nails is an industrial band, but then again so is Rammstein. This one is better: http://www.last.fm/tag/victoriandustrial. While Sanguine Prince Artisan, Hayley Jane and Kanon Wakeshima fit the bill nicely, Atra Mors is more industrial and death metal, Yann Tiersen doesn't even come close. The Clockwork Dolls are closer to the genre, although they're not really "industrial."

    I understand what you are saying by trying to describe Victorian Industrial as what it is not. If I did that, though, I fear it would turn into something long-winded like "It's not folk music, it's not country, it's not hiphop..." It's really more of a mix of gothic, industrial, alternative rock, cabaret, punk, electronica, and classical. The subcategories of those may or may not apply depending on how they are used. I am actually not sure how you can get any narrower with saying what Victorian Industrial is not. If you have any suggestions, that would be great.

    Many of the topics discussed are of death, historical references, literature of the period, but not exclusively. The song you mentioned by the Decembrists, "A Cautionary Song," has the right sort of topic for a Victorian song, but doesn't have that industrial feel- it's too folksy. But Hayley Jane doesn't really discuss exclusively on Victorian topics as much as focus on themes that can be considered to be Victorian, and has that industiral sound, which makes her fit better than the Decembrists.

    Odd, I know. I'll see what I can do about clarifying the definition for you.

  3. What about bands that are clearly not from a Victorian movement in any way, but sometimes glean from it for artistic purposes? Blink 182's video for "Miss You" comes to mind:


    I always liked this approach better because to me it seems like it allows you to freely commment on a limitless range of culture(s) without being too engulfed in one so as to become pigeon-holed. However, you still gotta love your purists.

    Anyway, I mostly just wanted to see how you felt about that kind of stuff.