A Beginner’s Guide to The Mechanisms

Photo: Nicole Williams

This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 22 April 2016. This was part of a new feature designed to introduce readers to obscure bands they might not otherwise have heard of, so naturally I chose my own personal indie darlings, the Mechanisms.

The Mechanisms are utterly unique. Each of their albums feature sci-fi re-imaginings of classic folklore, from Grimm’s fairy tales to Arthurian myth, perfectly capturing the nerdy passion of Oxford at its best. Most of their songs consist of folk standards, re-written to suit a plotline, making them a sturdy base line from which to work, and the performers sell their roles (of bloodthirsty space pirates with a penchant for storytelling) with arresting conviction.

Recorded in 2012, their debut album Once Upon a Time (in Space) tells the story of a brutal interplanetary dictator and the rebellion led against him. It is probably The Mechanisms’ most accessible album. There are rookie errors – the voice acting, for example, is rather weak – but there’s an absolutely mesmerising story at its core, along with some of the band’s catchiest tunes. Their second album, Ulysses Dies at Dawn, contains an even headier combination of styles and images, this time creating a grim cyberpunk version of Greek mythology. While a bit less accessible, the final image is absolute genius. Their recent EP, Frankenstein, is strong, with a lean and disturbing tale of a rogue AI, even if the underlying composition feels fairly workmanlike.

The Mechanisms still play Oxford occasionally (you may remember their appearance at the Bullingdon in January), and are currently working on a new full-length album. For fans of folklore or folk-music, this is not a band to be missed, and the fact that it’s right on our doorstep gives us even less of an excuse.

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Weird Kitties Review: Frankenstein by The Mechanisms

Last year, Philip Sandifer announced a project called the Weird Kitties, where he solicited short reviews from his readers of SF works they considered Hugo Award-worthy, so people could take them into consideration when voting for the 2015 Hugos. The project sadly didn’t last very long, but I managed to get in there with three reviews of SF stories I loved last year, the first of which was this. I had gotten really into The Mechanisms after reviewing them a month of so earlier, so I was keen to share that love in this review of their latest song. I’m quite proud of these reviews, and it was an honour to have my writing on such a brilliant site as Eruditorum Press. This article first appeared there on 13 September 2015.

If you’ve ever thought that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been better as a prog rock ballad, this new song from the UK-based steampunk folk band The Mechanisms looks to have you covered. Retelling the classic gothic tale as a ten-minute song about a rogue AI, Frankenstein, while perhaps the least grandiose of the Mechanisms’ projects to date, is still a wonderful piece of work, and crackles with the same energy as their lengthier albums.

The story is told in one long song, with linking narration putting one in mind of a geekier version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The tale concerns a far-future world where a scientist named Victoria Frankenstein creates a revolutionary AI, and… honestly, you know how the story goes from there.

Initially it might seem a bit of a disappointment, after three albums of giddy textual play in established musical genres and mythical traditions, to see the Mechanisms doing a straight pastiche of a specific text. But the band, to their credit, seem to realise the dangers of this approach, and turn them to their advantage. At ten minutes long the song is tight and focused, avoiding the slightly slipshod nature of their longer and more complex albums, and dialling back a bit on the usual self-indulgence. There’s also a genuinely clever twist at the end, which manages to convey a sense of shock as well as ironic inevitability.

But what really sells it is the technical side of things, which is excellent. The singing and instrumentation are both top-notch, with the shifts in tone handled deftly by the introduction of new musical techniques as the song goes on. As ever, the Mechanisms manage to turn what could easily have been a one-gag premise into magnificent entertainment by sheer skill and chutzpah.

This is a song which has clearly had a lot of thought put into it, as well as an awful lot of effort and talent And it’s that sense of passion which makes this song such a worthwhile piece of storytelling. These a clearly a group of people who care deeply about what they do, and long may they continue to do it.

Review: The Mechanisms

This review first appeared on the Ed Fringe Review website on 21 August 2015.

★★★★★

Imagine what would happen if David Bowie, Jeff Wayne and Douglas Adams got together and decided to write a musical. Whether or not you’ll like this show, a rotating trilogy of one-hour musical pieces re-telling classical mythology as science fiction epics, more or less hinges on whether you think that premise sounds very dumb or like the Best Thing Ever. (The correct answer, obviously, is that it is the Best Thing Ever). Witty, subversive and altogether brilliant, The Mechanisms have put together an absolute barnstormer of an act. You will never see another show like it.

The band plays a crew of bloodthirsty space pirates recounting tales heard on their travels of the universe, resplendent in steampunk costumes and colourful personalities. The songs are powerfully dramatic sci-fi folk, with lead singer Jonny Sims narrating the action, and the rest of the band playing the various different characters.

The narrative itself is a thing of beauty, a swashbuckling affair with a dash of cyberpunk cynicism and a shot of Douglas Adams-ian whimsy (including at least one direct shout-out). The overall effect is riotously entertaining, and the group’s clear passion for their work is transferred to the audience, who were eating out of their hands by the end. This is a weird, difficult show, and the sheer swagger and confidence on display is genuinely awe-inspiring.

There were a few technical faults, perhaps as a result of a venue ill-suited to such an elaborate act. There was a bit of a problem with microphone volume, with lyrics sometimes in danger of being drowned out by the cacophony of the band, which is shame, because the lyrics are as clever and self-assured as the rest of the show, with ancient mythology and science fiction archetypes bleeding together in fascinating ways. Having said that, a few gags wear a bit thin after a while. You can only hear ancient Greek monsters re-imagined as robots so many times before it gets a bit old.

But quite frankly, the flaws are irrelevant, because you have to experience it for the sheer uniqueness alone. Brash, clever and cool as hell, The Mechanisms are an amazing act, and it’s astonishing that they’re still inclined to let people in for free. This is, quite simply, one of the best shows of the free Fringe.