One of the most fascinating parts of steampunk for me is the diversity. The chance for people to be themselves wholly. Not having to conform to a certain preconceived notion of how we should dress, the era that we should be interested in and – indeed – the music that we should listen to. It’s this welcoming openness that allows artists such as Gurdybird an opportunity to explore her art by using unconventional instruments of a bygone era.
The Hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument. To look at it, you wouldn’t know as everything is inside the box that nestles itself on Gurdybird’s hip. It creates notes similar to a violin but grittier and darker. It’s done by turning a hand crank at the end of the box. Gurdybird’s Hurdy-gurdy use multiple drone strings which create a string version of a sound similar to bagpipes. Melodies are created via a simple keyboard on one side made of tangents (small wedges of wood). They press against the string to create a change in pitch.
Gurdybird comes from Hayle – a small town in St Ives Bay – in Cornwall. She played her first full live act at Exeter Phoenix Festival in 2014. Since then she’s gone from strength to strength. She was recently part of the line-up in the very first Whitby Steampunk Weekend Vaudeville Evening with artists such as Victor & The Bully, Professor Elemental, Alice’s Night Circus and Titi Von Tranz. It was there that she performed Defiant ’til Tyburn which is featured as track 7 on the Different Ships album.
Different Ships is a 9 track album. It opens up with the appropriately entitled Introduction which is an atmospheric gateway to the rest of the album. Interestingly instead of maintaining the dark mood set by the introduction a lighter record gets us into the album. Haul Away Joe is dancier and sounds like a pirate version of maypole folk music. While listening to it I had amusing images of toothless, dirty, drunken pirates dancing round a maypole in summer time or moving to a choreographed Morris dance.
That soon changes as we’re swept away into Davy Jones. The record opens with morse code as it taps out SOS. It has a slower rhythm to it as if it’s a death march for sailors who lose their lives to the sea bed (Davy Jones’ Locker). After the upbeat Raggle Taggle Gypsy brings us out of our lull of darkness, we have a brief intermission with the sprightly Straw Dogs. This isn’t as heavy on the Hurdy-gurdy but serves as a way to disconnect as we move into the more electronica heavy Buccaneer’s Waltz.
After the aforementioned Defiant ’til Tyburn, we’re treated to a track seemingly seeped in Pirate history. Saving the best for last though, is a record called Steampunk Convention. It’s a collaboration with Gurdybird, BB Blackdog and the one and only Professor Elemental.
The album from the girl with the best smile in the steampunk music culture is an intelligently thought out piece of work. It’s well planned and meticulously programmed. For more verification of that statement, look up her remix of The Wattingers’ The Devil’s Trombone. Gurdybird is extremely talented in her recreation of folklore and pirate culture. The fact that the music is so telling of the era speaks volumes on its own about her talent.
I like symmetry and I like music to flow and connect, so I found the way that the tracks moved around unsettling. As a DJ in the 1990s I would always arrange mix sets starting from hard music and moving to light. This is subjective though and the album wouldn’t be marked down because of it. At nine tracks it’s a short album and I only didn’t like that fact because I didn’t want it to end. The introduction was short at only 45 seconds. I also expected it to blend into track two, but it didn’t.
However it doesn’t make it unpleasant to listen to and Different Ships is a fantastic album in its own right. It’s an interesting thought that the way Gurdybird uses a mix of a historical instrument blended with modern percussion and drum machines opens it up to a much wider demographic. The way that Gurdybird has intertwined old with new is how steampunks live their life. But it also helps with injecting something modern into it. It appeals to people who wouldn’t entertain it if it used traditional instruments.
You can learn more about Gurdybird’s music on her website.