Spinning the Compass is a Steampunk project by Tom Slatter. Before I can review the music, I think a little bit on Steampunk is in order, as I expect most of my readers have no idea what I am talking about.
Steampunk is, at its root, an aesthetic, a visual style. It is a re-imagining of Victorian/Edwardian style with technological elements. A good example is the recent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, or Will Smith’s Wild, Wild West, with all sorts of steam-powered technology. Fans surround themselves with items that reflect this aesthetic when they can. Examples include styled Steampunk computer keyboards and laptops, light fixtures, and, of course, clothing. Some few carry this interest into their daily lives, dressing Steampunk after the fashion of Goths – think Abby from the NCIS television series, but with Victorian fashion instead of black and leather.
So, what is Steampunk music? From the description of the style, one would imagine the Baroque and Classical sound of the Victorian period of England, but one would be wrong. Steampunk music has become loosely defined, by those who perform and listen to it, as any music in any style that has lyrics reflecting the Steampunk aesthetic.
While I have not come across any Steampunk “Pop”, that particular style doesn’t generally reflect the rebellious spirit that attracts people to any alternative aesthetic, be it Punk, Goth or Steampunk. I have found Steampunk music ranging from the Goth-inspired Vernian Process (named for author Jules Verne) to the story-telling style of The Clockwork Dolls and The Clockwork Quartet.
Tom Slatter’s Spinning the Compass is best described, I think, as acoustic prog-rock. From alternating measures of 5/4 to wildly chromatic key changes to rowdy (acoustic) guitar solos, all of the prog-rock elements are there. As a fan of Yes and ELP, these elements drew me in immediately. He does use some lead synth textures, but they are generally kept to fairly simple waveforms, and don’t detract from the overall non-modern feel of the work.
The cover art is a very disturbing image of an artificial steam-powered face. Tom said he envisioned the project as a sort of goth-horror descriptive narrative of man using artificial steam-powered aids to lead an unnatural life with unnatural relationships (this is my paraphrase). The opening track Mechanism reflects this idea, with the line “Our love relies on clockwork, the careful use of gears and wheels. This mechanism, it isn’t how we feel.” Smile is about having an artificial latex face that only ever smiles, no matter what pain is concealed within. As I listened, though, I began to see parallels to our own society (possibly unintentional, but I doubt it). We are living in a world where we use technology to relate to people more than old-fashioned and natural techniques, such as conversation. Listening to these songs has caused me to reflect on my own relationships, and question how the use of technology has improved or impoverished them.
If there is one element to this project that I had difficulty with, it was Tom’s voice. Right from the opening track he struggles with pitch and tone – he obviously did not use any Autotuning software on this project. This was unfortunate because the songwriting is brilliant and the instrumental performances are wonderful. I am happy to report, though, that I have gotten past that, to enjoy the songs at their root.
Given that this project is available for free, if you are at all adventurous in your musical tastes, it is a must-listen. You will likely hear something unlike you have ever heard before. I have been unable to ascertain if Mr. Slatter played all the instruments on the project, but if he did, it’s all that more impressive. When you download the mp3 album, you will have the opportunity to sign up for his mailing list, and thus earn a bonus track, The Man who Learned to Fly, which is an acoustic prog-rock tour de force.