As my explanation for why this made my list, I was tempted to just post the YouTube videos of Cup of Brown Joy, even though it’s a different remix on this album, and Fighting Trousers. I think this album has arrived at a time of particular interest in reclaiming the mystique of the Victorian era, reimagined as “Steampunk”. As Adrian points out though, most “Steampunk” is severely lacking on the “punk” part, of rebellion against the confined and closeted system of the Victorians. They were a people almost defined by hypocrisy – their moral crusading against liquor coinciding perfectly with creating unliveable conditions that could really only be escaped through it. Their idea about proper sexual morality coinciding with an age of consent bordering on pre-teen. The ideas of neoliberal free-markets essentially being sustained by Opium and de facto colonial enslavement. I think the fascination they hold for us is exactly in their complexity and ambivalence. Our modern world feels similarly bewildering, compared to the bulk of the 20th century which was rendered into nice simplistic pro-capitalist and pro-communist concepts.
The Indifference Engine is an obvious reference to The Difference Engine, which is a book I’ve read several times now and am not entirely sure I’m satisfied that is fully explained. If the Difference Engine is a cyberpunk-inflected exploration of systems of control and why they can never be completely successful, then the Indifference Engine is that eccentric tic in the system. It playfully reinterprets the great late-Victorian works of science fiction and exploratory fantasy to deflate them and undermine them. The “punk” in the “steampunk” isn’t so much a virtuous stand for individual freedom, so much as poking some fun at the cultural establishment that we all accept as almost a natural canon. “Animal magic” laughs at the Island of Dr Moreau, “Quest for the Golden Frog” knocks the bottom out of Alan Quartermaine and his ilk, and so on. In the best way, Professor Elemental adopts the language of the Steampunk Victorians without buying into their blinkered “apolitical” morality.
Of all the albums that have made it onto the list – and there have been a handful of deleted entries – this is the least important to me or my history. It’s an oddity in my musical collection, and I’ve never particularly looked for or felt like looking for or acquiring his subsequent albums. Somehow, given what it is, that feels right.