It should not be a surprise that music is a crucial component of cyberpunk; it is, after all, cyber-punk. But cyberpunk’s musical aspects draw from far more than just the noise, speed, and rage of canonical punk rock. Electronica, hip hop, the avant-garde, film scores, and heavy metal are all vital parts of cyberpunk’s sonic identity and, to the degree that it has a definable musical form, it is a hybrid one that draws from these multiple contexts. So, in an effort to understand and define cyberpunk as a musical endeavor, this chapter will consider the history and sound of recorded works that traffic in cyberpunk themes and imagery in their lyrics, visual design, and production.
Cyberpunk music emerged more generally thanks to cyberpunk’s broad cultural reach in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a point author Bruce Sterling makes when he observes that “the work of the cyberpunks is paralleled throughout Eighties pop culture: in rock video; in the hacker underground; in the jarring street tech of hip-hop and scratch music; in the synthesizer rock of London and Tokyo” (xi-xii). Amidst all these musical forms, the ‘synthesizer rock’ that most closely parallels cyberpunk is industrial electronic music. Of course, early (or proto-cyberpunk) artists such as Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and David Bowie conjured up imagined technological and political dystopias in their lyrics, sounds, and personas. Kraftwerk’s rigid and mechanical minimalism of the sort found on The Man Machine (1978)—its danceable vision of a human/technological hybrid (“The Robots”), its modern-noir sensibility (“Metropolis”), its fascination with human-technological hybrids (the title track), its dreams of space tech (“Spacelab”), and finally its touch of 1980s glamour (“The Model”)—all comport nicely with cyberpunk’s main concerns. So too do the Philip K. Dickian noir-scapes Gary Numan conjured on Replicas (as Tubeway Army, ), The Pleasure Principle (1979), and Telekon (1980). These albums create an atmospheric template that foreground narratives about android and human interaction fraught with drama and danger, all against a stark and driving electro-rock backbeat. This is best typified by the single “Down in the Park” from Replicas, a story about a future city where human and human-machine hybrids live side by side, albeit uneasily. It is a place where “The mach-men meet the machines/And play kill by numbers” and the machinic social order is clear, if complicated: “We are not lovers/We are not romantics/We are here to serve you.” Of course, one of Numan’s biggest influences is Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character and his beautifully rebellious Spiders from Mars that conjured a sexy futurity and fluidity that would become key to the cyberpunk imagination. Other influential acts that shaped what would emerge as industrial’s intersections with cyberpunk include Devo’s dystopian robot pop, experimental explorations like Yellow Magic Orchestra or Hawkwind, noisy freakouts like Lou Reed’s grinding Metal Machine Music (1975), Roxy Music’s dreamy future-scapes, Sun Ra’s liberatory space-politics in Space is the Place (1973), Tangerine Dream’s trips to alternate dimensions like Phaedra (1973), and Parliament’s dream of a utopian mothership made most obvious in 1975’s funk masterpiece Mothership Connection.
Industrial grew out of the more experimental side of electronic music in the 1970s and blended the avant-garde looping and sampling techniques of musique concrète (the distortion of sounds found in nature to create music), the extrapolative instinct of progressive rock, the political and vocal extremes of punk, and the muted rhythmic energy of minimalism to create a music that sought to give voice to many of the same concerns and environments as cyberpunk. For example, industrial music centered on dystopian anti-governmental themes backed by a noir-ish urbanism common to cyberpunk. It offered a grinding take on the increasingly decentered and decrepit urban landscape with a hybrid of punk, electronica, and avant-garde production techniques. And the extent to which industrial can be termed ‘moody’ in tone and topic also has much to do with the fact that it drew inspiration from the dark and challenging sounds and stories of bands like Joy Division, Suicide, and The Velvet Underground, this last band proving particularly instrumental to William Gibson. In sum, industrial and cyberpunk are so intertwined that trying to disentangle them is difficult, a point Karen Collins makes in her essay “Dead Channel Surfing: The Commonalities Between Cyberpunk and Industrial Music.” Collins writes that “it would be futile to develop a chicken-or-egg argument over the use of the techniques, symbolism and themes in industrial and cyberpunk. It seems more likely that a sharing of ideas flows two ways between the genres” (176). Collins goes on to argue that the shared ideas include moments of intertextuality (most famously Gibson using The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” to christen a spaceship in Neuromancer (1984) or citing German industrial godfathers Einstürzende Neubauten in Idoru (1996)), of contextual history (the use of Dada and other experimental composition techniques for creative production), and thematic continuity (both intent on future-noir techno-dystopias populated by renegade hacker anti-heroes). Collins also notes that it is a “mood of alienation and anxiety that is the most important aspect of commonality between cyberpunk and industrial” (176). These are connections that Stephen Mallinder, founding member of the influential English industrial collective Cabaret Voltaire, reinforces when he notes that his band “made music that was often sonically brutal, we challenged ideas of authority and control, we toyed with moody and often taboo imagery, we were simultaneously intellectual and anti-intellectual” (ix).
Aside from The Velvet Underground or the aforementioned Einstürzende Neubauten, an experimental band fronted by Blixa Bargeld, other early industrial bands that helped pave the way for cyberpunk include the UK’s Throbbing Gristle whose music clanged and screamed with DIY instruments, amplified shopping carts backed by vocal samples, and heavy, metallic, distorted bass drums. Songs like “Very Friendly” (1975), a long story-song about an ax-murdering couple that can be read as a music of revolutionary politics for apocalyptic capitalism, or Neubauten’s “Kollaps” (1981), with its heavy-metal-shoed stomp through dreams of leveling cities, all while Bargeld screams “Unsere Irrfahrten zerstören die Städte” (“our odysseys destroy the cities”), provided the perfect sonic environment in which cyberpunk’s ideals could flourish.
But it was in the mid-to-late 1980s that a global array of artists like Front 242 (Belgium), Front Line Assembly (Canada), Clock DVA (UK), The Cassandra Complex (UK), Ministry (U.S.), and KMFDM (Germany) would expand industrial’s sound palette to include powerful and affordable new digital instruments and create the first identifiably cyberpunk music. One key aspect of cyberpunk, a romanticization of digital criminality, finds common cause in industrial’s defining reliance on sampling pre-existing auditory material. If the ‘lawless’ hacker is out to liberate us from increasingly centralized power structures in a hyper-digital age, the lawless artist does something similar with the sample, each purloined sound a bit of artful techno-plunder. This is exemplified in British industrial act Clock DVA’s “Connection Machine” from their Buried Dreams LP (1989). On this single, Clock DVA explores the musicality of surveillance technologies and extensively samples Harry Caul, Gene Hackman’s audio surveillance technician in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Clock DVA remarks in the album notes that the song features “DIGITALLY MANIPULATED SAMPLES TAKEN FROM COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGIES AND ILLEGALLY OBTAINED FILTER RECORDINGS. ALL COMPOSITIONS DIGITALLY RECORDED” [emphasis in original]. The same release also contains “The Hacker,” a more recognizably structured effort with a percussive bass arpeggio driving the song along, punctuated twice-per-measure by reverb-heavy brass stabs that give the song a frantic sense of urgency. Though the recording of “The Hacker” is quite different in structure and texture than the eerie ambient minimalist drone of “Connection Machine,” the narrative of “a digital murder/Programmed by mathematical terrorists” (“The Hacker”) and the fixation on the grain and grit of audio surveillance (“Connection Machine”) both operate as thematic and sonic explorations of digital criminality that typifies cyberpunk music.
This same sort of hacker-revolt attitude surfaces in the music of Belgian industrial superstars Front 242. Their dance floor hit “Headhunter V3.0” (1988) details the routines of a future cyber-hitman—“He’s alone and anonymous/But written in his cells/He’s got the marks of a genius”—who is “looking for this man/To sell him to other men…/For ten times his price (at least).” The song’s galloping synth bass line still serves for many as an iconic and genre-defining use of the Yamaha DX7 digital synthesizer and forms the central sonic identity with its breathy, woodwind-like pulse that stakes out the sound’s middle frequencies and moves the whole catchy apparatus along. The sound also reinforces the band’s hybrid musical aesthetic—the rigidity of early sequencing and digital audio production form the structure for their songs, yet it is melded with an insistence on a more organic texture to the sounds, echoing the droney folk-tronica of the sort that Neubauten explore. The chorus’ famous four-part instructions on how to “catch the man” and the song’s intensely danceable backbeat and infectious chord progression not only served as a template for the “electronic body music” for which the band would become known, but also became arguably the most commercially successful example of cyberpunk music.
In that same year, fellow Belgian industrial band A Split Second released “Bend My Body Armor,” which shared a cyber-warrior theme with Front 242’s “Headhunter V3.0” albeit with a heavier backbeat and a brutal bondage/car crash aesthetic that draws, as did many industrial acts, from The Normal’s Ballardian cult hit “Warm Leatherette” (1981). The move here from the more experimental industrial music of Throbbing Gristle to the club-smash dance beats of Front 242 or A Split Second marks the increased popularity of industrial music and echoes cyberpunk’s increased (and changing) popularity.
One of the more explicitly cyberpunk-focused musicians to emerge from the late-1980s and early-1990s period is Austrian-Canadian Bill Leeb (originally of Skinny Puppy) and his band Front Line Assembly. The band’s ominous synth pads and kinetic arpeggios on such songs as “Digital Tension Dementia” (1989), “Bio-Mechanic” (1992), “Mindphaser” (1992), “Synthetic Forms” (1999), and “Warmech” (2018) play against a heavy and compressed steady 4/4 backbeat and Leeb’s menacing vocal style. Front Line Assembly’s songs deploy industrial sonic motifs to explore the dark side of cyberpunk, and the band even includes Robocop II (Kershner 1990) among many samples on their excellent album Tactical Neural Implant (1992).
Around the same time, British industrial band The Cassandra Complex took a similar approach on their appropriately titled fourth album Cyberpunx (1990), written as a concept album/rock opera organized around digitally-inflected noir-dystopian escape narratives. The cover features a pixelated and helmeted cyber pilot backed by lo-fi images of Pac-Man, Jesus, and a fetus, while the songs’ loosely joined narrative moves through complex international (and interplanetary) politics and cross-cultural romance narratives, ultimately dropping listeners back into a dark world of war and computer-criminality.
With cyberpunk’s remarkable popularity by the mid-1990s—it made the cover of Time Magazine (February 1993) with the lurid subtitle “Virtual sex, smart drugs and synthetic rock ‘n’ roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground”—it was only a matter of time before a top-tier pop-rock star intervened in the conversation. British singer Billy Idol’s fifth studio album was released the same year as the Time magazine cover, a concept record called Cyberpunk that in many ways was similar to the Cassandra Complex effort from three years earlier. Although Idol’s earlier work tried to blend his original punk aesthetic with his affinity for ‘modern’ audio effects and a more ‘polished’ production style, Cyberpunk’s use of electronic instruments and sounds showcases all of the sound qualities and rhythms popular at the time, including digital synthesizers, vocoders and harmonizer effects, and multiple samples. Songs such as “Neuromancer,” “Wasteland,” and the Billboard single “Shock to the System,” written in part as a response to the Rodney King beating and subsequent LA riots of 1992, unashamedly deploy cyberpunk tropes, while Robin Hancock’s production attempts to layer the texture of electronic instrumentation and rhythms with Idol’s more conventional guitar-rock centered world. The album, a crass attempt to cash in on cyberpunk’s popularity, was a critical failure and even Idol admits his “creative instincts and possibly even my taste seemed to abandon me this time around” (290–91). In his bracingly unkind review for Village Voice, rock critic Robert Christgau accused it of “riding into the technofuture on simultaneous cybertronic concept albums. How postmodern. How retronuevo. How hep [sic].” Christgau mocks the album that was “so shameless as to try and steal [William] Gibson’s thunder from under his nose—naming the album after the movement he epitomizes, naming a key song after his first novel.”
Christgau was by no means alone: The A.V. Club sardonically describes the album as the “‘Least Essential Concept Album’ of the 1990s,” while Q Magazine has included Cyberpunk on its list of the 50 Worst Albums Ever.Mark Coleman characterized the album as “mundane,” described Idol’s cover version of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” as “clueless techno-destruction,” and remarked that if “this brave-new-world thing doesn’t wash, he can always change his name to Billy Ray Idol and kick off a brand new dance craze.” Finally, Gibson himself admits he just doesn’t “get what [Idol’s] on about […]. I don’t see the connection” (Giles). Gibson states confusion when he learned Idol hadn’t read Neuromancer; instead, Idol apparently “absorbed it through a kinda osmosis. I don’t know” (Giles). Although Idol’s gamble on Cyberpunk temporarily derailed his career and largely ended his Billboard chart dominance, this experiment does not mean that cyberpunk had failed as a musical expression; indeed, the intermingling of cyberpunk’s musical and literary aspects were now firmly embedded in the pop tradition.
If industrial cyberpunk music peaked in the 1990s, cyberpunk’s ideas quickly spread across various musical subgenres interested in techno-culture and dark, extrapolative themes. One musical style to fully absorb cyberpunk’s textures was heavy metal. Metal had long been invested in extrapolative imaginings: Black Sabbath’s genre-defining single “Iron Man” (1970) with its famously sludgy riff and halting narrative of an iron giant, coupled with a self-fulfilling apocalyptic prophecy, represents one of the most popular early examples of metal’s engagement with science fiction (sf). By the 1980s, bands such as Canada’s Voivod were bringing cyberpunk themes directly to metal in both sound (adding synthesizers) and sense (stories about politics, technology, and war). Voivod’s album Killing Technology(1987) was a percussive and propulsive blend of thrash and punk with songs about “electronic alienation/Trading children for a new kind of robot” and the threat of technological weaponry like the “spider web over the atmosphere” (“Killing Technology) of President Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile defense system, nicknamed ‘Star Wars.’ Clearly, the influences that had overtaken some industrial music had found willing ears in the metal world.
Many artists would embrace Voivod’s brand of techno-pessimism and dystopic cyberpunk instinct. On their album Soul of a New Machine (1992), Fear Factory combined the extreme percussive and vocal maneuvers of death metal with the themes and samples of industrial. Later records like Demanufacture (1995) and Obsolete (1998) continued these themes, with an increased presence of synthesized sounds and sampled dialogue and soundscapes. This model for a contemporary kind of cybermetal is best realized in the work of Russian band Illidiance who makes some of the most heavily cyberpunk influenced work on such recordings as Synthetic Breed (2009), Cybergore Generation (2009), and Damage Theory (2010), deftly and jarringly moving between the extremes of industrial electronic noise and percussion to metal blast beats and death metal growls. Their intense lyrics imagine “death digitalized” where the narrator is “erasing data like you” (“Hi Tech Terror,” 2010) and a nightmare scenario of your “cyber implants are groaning in hunger” (“Cybernesis,” 2010).
Harsh electronic tonalities and stories of hacker-criminal dystopias and digital warfare found a home in a wider range of musical cultures. As with industrial and metal, hip hop had explored sf from its very beginning, but recordings like Deltron 3030’s self-titled debut album from 2000, Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagon (1996; re-released a year later as Dr. Octagonecologyst (1997), El-P’s Fantastic Damage (2002), or Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein (2001) brought many of cyberpunk’s concerns into their rhymes and beats. Del the Funky Homosapien raps about corporate warfare in the year 3030, Kool Keith (as Dr. Octagon) spins stories about an alien, time travelling, and murderous gynecologist who “go[es] to earth through the fax machine” (“Earth People”), El-P.’s post 9/11 dystopia conjures up Philip K. Dickian imagery like “Mechanisms burn with beeping sounds/That own their humans sold as ruthless rounds of radio dust…” (“Fantastic Damage”), and Harlem’s Cannibal Ox takes us far beyond NYC and into a “War of the worlds/Where cities twirl” while keeping listeners focused on the technologically mediated body: “my shell/Mechanical found ghost/But my ghetto is animal found toast” (“Iron Galaxy”). The beats and samples that serve as the foundation of these extrapolative imaginings are as complex and wide-ranging in their references and sources as the lyrics they support. For example, Canadian DJ Kid Koala’s beats for Deltron draw largely from obscure 1970s recordings from people like French composer William Sheller or Greek prog band Aphrodite’s Child, where El.P.’s production for Cannibal Ox worked with more familiar sources like dance music godfather Giorgio Moroder and 1980s new wave band Wall of Voodoo. Moreover, the development of Afrofuturist music arising out of jazz and R&B brings to hip hop an awareness of larger socio-political issues. Although a full explication of them is far beyond the scope of this chapter, Janelle Monáe is particularly important for thoroughly redefining extrapolative music and its ability to use sf to engage with identity politics. As Christine Capetola writes in her Janelle Monáe contribution for this collection, Monáe has emerged “[a]s one of our most exciting and thought-provoking contemporary artists” who uses her music and ‘emotion pictures’ to create “her own black, queer, and feminist version of cyberpunk through interfacing her body and musical technology” (XX).
An expansive exploration of cyberpunk music must also mention the soundtrack music from canonical cyberpunk cinema, including the audio soundscapes of Tsutomu Ohashi and the Geinoh Yamashirogumi collective on Akira (Otomo 1988) and the musical compositions behind such films as Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto 1989), Ghost in the Shell (Oshii 1995), Strange Days (Bigelow 1995), and The Matrix franchise (Wachowskis 1999–2003). Perhaps the most important, and certainly most well-known, cinematic soundtrack, however, is Greek composer Vangelis’s score for Blade Runner (Scott 1982). Vangelis builds ethereal figures from complex electronic textures and famously does so almost entirely on one massive synthesizer, the Yamaha CS80. At over 200 pounds, the CS80 had an equally weighty sound, and the tonal quality of Vangelis’s string arrangements have since become legendary for their warmth and expressiveness. Similarly, Wendy Carlos’s musical work on TRON (Lisberger 1982) is equally notable, if often overlooked. Carlos’s score shares much with her work for Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), if more orchestral than electro-minimalist. Alongside her sweeping score which features the London Philharmonic and her signature Moog synthesizer production, there are also two odd pop songs by Journey: “Only Solutions” and “1990’s Theme.” This shift from traditional film scoring to a more pop song soundscape is echoed in electronic music’s own move from the fringes of the art music scene in universities and museums to the vibrating center of the global popular music industry.
While such cyberpunk films as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999) feature more traditional Hollywood scores by Howard Shore, more ‘underground’ electronic and electro-rock scores have eventually dominated and even defined cyberpunk music. As Patrick Novotny puts it, “the fast-paced and hectic energy of techno music and its industrial music predecessor is the kind of music one expects to hear from the settings of cyberpunk” (114). Though Novotny is focusing on the largely electronic aspects of the cyberpunk soundscape, the experience of cyberpunk music puts the listener in a space between rock’s distorted guitars and anger and the capacious electronic sound palette of EDM and industrial. This approach is one that seems to greatly appeal to the creators of cyberpunk cinema.
Leaning more towards the electronic side of this spectrum, for example, is Iain Softley’s Hackers (1995), whichboasted such era-defining electronic acts as Orbital, The Prodigy, and Underworld, as well as more underground or club-oriented fare as Austrian drum’n’bass duo Kruder & Dorfmeister or British trip-hop musician Leftfield. Much of the output found on these soundtracks is defined by its metallic/electronic tonalities, insistent, high-bpm (beats per minute) bass drums, and propulsive sequenced bass lines. Soundtracks from cinematic cyberpunk range from underground electronica and industrial to more mainstream dance, rock and alternative acts, evidenced by the appearance of Orbital, KMFDM, as well as more rock-oriented acts, such as Helmet, the Rollins Band or Bono and The Edge from Irish pop-rock band U2, on the soundtrack for Johnny Mnemonic (Longo 1995). A film such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) concerned itself more on the rock element of the cyberpunk sound, adding to the soundtrack British rock band Skunk Anansie, heavy metal band Prong, and actress Juliette Lewis with an on screen performance of PJ Harvey’s “I Can Hardly Wait” (1993). The soundtrack also featured electronic music from English rapper Tricky and the electronica of Belgian/American Lords of Acid, as well as more traditional fare form Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, The Doors, but where cyberpunk as a musical genre is largely electronic, cyberpunk as a cinematic one is far more varied in its musical imagination, hewing closer to cinematic trends of their era.
Like the environments in canonical cyberpunk literature, the scores for cinematic cyberpunk are sonically global in nature; for example, Akira features a concentration of traditional Japanese instrumentation and vocalizing, as well as an intense interest in minimal, expansive electronic soundscapes that evoke the complex digital landscapes the film’s characters traverse. Tsutomu Ohashi and the Geinoh Yamashirogumi collective’s score frames the urban backdrop with Japanese voices and timbres as well as electronic reinforcement of the soundscape, awash with motorcycle engines and shouts of “KANEDA!” The score also prominently features the sound of large Balinese bamboo gamelan instruments and choruses full of manipulated voices, grunts, chants, sighs, and shouts. As Kevin Lozano writes, the composing and sampling were precise, including at one point the decision that the motorcycle in the film must come from the engine of a 1929 Harley Davidson. Meanwhile, Kenji Kawaii’s original score for Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell exhibits masterful use of silence insofar as it draws our aural focus to the diegetic sounds of whirring and clicking and chirping of machines, computers, and cyborg bodies in scenes that would later inspire Icelandic musician Björk, herself no stranger to sf discourse and iconography. When these silences are eventually broken, it is often for large chord voicings reminiscent of a Bulgarian mode which frame the film’s broad cityscapes and suggest an eerie instability to everything, a kind of aural flickering. Broad harmonies and distinct vocal phrasings dominate Kawai’s ambient score, but there is also the occasional deep hum of a synthesizer pad, fleshing out the lower frequencies and adding weight and depth to the soundscape. Finally, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s disturbing visuals found equally challenging sonic accompaniment with compositions by Chu Ishikawa, acclaimed industrial musician and composer. Overall, Japanese composers and filmmakers have done much to help define the sound of cyberpunk, bringing the cinematic tradition and the industrial instinct to bear on their work. The presence of electronic timbres and diverse musical styles in cinematic cyberpunk, coupled with cyberpunk’s focus on technologically-mediated existence, has repeatedly proven itself compatible: cyberpunk music foregrounds the very same noise and industry in its musical expressions as its brethren literary cyberpunk.
With its roots in industrial music, sf, and the bricolage common to postmodern culture, cyberpunk music has become a useful moniker to address themes, narratives, aesthetics, and sounds evident in a multitude of musical styles. In a similar manner to literary or cinematic cyberpunk living well beyond its initial popularity, so too is musical cyberpunk more than a popular fad: cyberpunk music remains relevant to the 21st century as it continues its pioneering attempt to give voice to a world where technology has got the best of humanity. In other words, cyberpunk music (and cyberpunk in general) has evolved into independent and vibrant subcultures that continually prove themselves ideal forms for imagining and theorizing the role of technology in art and everyday life. In sum, it is clear that, as with the literary mode that gave it its name, cyberpunk music has become part of the vast sea change of cyberpunk whose formations and fandoms continue to proliferate across digital culture.
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This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.