Just as SciFi crosses over several genres, it often crosses into other art forms. I've always found the landscapes of Degas and de Chirico to resemble the other worlds I create in my mind when reading a great SciFi novel. Wrapping your head around an Escher etching can cause the same kind of wonder experienced when tripping over the ending of a Phillip K. Dick short story. I remember like it was yesterday the first time I heard David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and couldn't believe how clearly I saw the story play out in my mind, like a deleted scene from 2001 released the year before (this was in the nineties by the way - I was not alive in 1969, let alone listening to glam rock). But SciFi is often more than just subject matter for music, it can be reflected in the artwork, the musical sounds, and the whole mythos of a band. With that in mind, and a long holiday weekend behind me, I decided to create a list of the twenty most SciFi bands of all time.
20. Crosby, Stills & Nash – Okay, not a very SciFi band in general, but their 1969 song “Wooden Ships” is one of the first to ever put forth a post-apocalyptic world lyrically. As the last remnants of society board wooden ships to escape a war-torn landscape, they share ‘purple berries’ that haven’t got them sick yet. The song is somewhat obscure, but there are certainly ‘silver people on the shoreline’ and there are humans dying. David Crosby’s song was co-written by Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kanter, who chased a few fantastic White Rabbits of his own.
19. Gwar – Though their subject matter may be considerably worldly, with lyrics full of scatological references and live shows involving spraying the audience with fluids, Gwar are very much from out of this world... literally. The “Scumdogs of the Universe” dethawed from their Antarctic prison dedicated to destroy the human race. Dressed in ridiculous alien costumes, Gwar, including lead vocalist Oderus Urungus and guitarist Balsac The Jaws of Death, fill albums with their mythos, one of the most elaborate in music. For example, their 1995 Ragnarok album concerns Oderus and his alien sister Slymenstra being forcibly mated with the aid of rogue space aliens. Meanwhile, a comet hurtling towards earth incites the diseased populace to revolt – but the comet turns out to be Cardinal Syn a robotic agent of the Warrior Pope... and so forth.
18. Queensryche – This Seattle Neo-Prog band struck their most SciFi blow with the concept album OPERATION: MINDCRIME, a rumination on the powers of brainwashing. Their first music video, Queen of the Reich, featured a Star Wars like scroll and a post-apocalyptic future. Their second album, THE WARING, was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 (and came out in 1984). A track from Rage for Order, “Screaming in Digital,” has lyrics like “the computer word made flesh, we are one you and I.” Most recently, their latest self-titled album featured artwork by Craig Howell, who designed a number of pieces for the Star Wars franchise.
17. The Alan Parsons Project – Considering their second album was called I ROBOT and was based on the writings of Isaac Asimov, the brainchild supergroup of Dark Side of the Moon producer Alan Parsons established themselves early on as SciFi aficionados. Their third album, PYRAMID, paid homage to the Voyager space mission, as well as the paranormal trappings of “Pyramania.” And of course, there is nothing quite so frightening (or SciFi) as an “Eye in the Sky” looking down at us and reading our minds. In addition to being the name of a very powerful laser in the Austin Powers universe, The Alan Parsons Project also dabbled in horror; their first album was based on the stories of Edgar Alan Poe.
16. Dr. Octagon – Hip-Hop’s most SciFi artist is this Kool Keith persona, an extraterrestrial time traveling gynecologist and surgeon from the planet Jupiter. With yellow eyes, green and silver skin, and a pink and white afro, Dr. Octagon visits “Earth People” to perform elective surgery, that he often botches, killing his patients. This is probably the weirdest artist hip-hop has ever produced, and seems like a mish-mash of ideas from Phillip K Dick, Anthony Burgess and H.P. Lovecraft.
15. Anthrax – Anthrax get a bad rap as being the smallest of the ‘big four,’ but their lyrical influences go much deeper into SciFi than any of their thrash brotherhood. With vocalist Joey Belladona joining for their second album, the band dove headfirst into SciFi imagery and story, including a cover depicting an alien abduction (and autopsy) and the apocalyptic “Aftershock.” Their 1987 masterpiece AMONG THE LIVING pays tribute to Stephen King’s The Stand on the title track and Judge Dredd on “I Am The Law.” Anthrax also put sound to Stephen King’s Misery on “Misery Loves Company” on their next album, although that’s not particularly SciFi. Other songs in the oeuvre touch on American Psycho, Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, and Lost.
14. Styx – ‘Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto,’ the opening lyrics to the 1983 concept album KILROY WAS HERE ushered in the most bombastically SciFi albums from arena rock stalwarts Styx. In a future where rock music is outlawed by a fascist government and the MMM (the Majority for Musical Morality), a former rock star escapes imprisonment using a robotic disguise to help a young musician on a mission to bring rock music back. Seriously. Also, in “Come Sail Away,” even though the narrator thinks he sees ‘a gathering of angels,’ he ends up boarding a starship, so yeah, definitely aliens.
13. Coheed and Cambria – Every single one of the C&C Metal Factory’s albums revolves around a storyline called The Armory Wars developed by lead singer Claudio Sanchez and featured in a series of comic books. The band is actually named after the story’s two protagonists who live in Heaven's Fence, a collection of 78 planets held in place by interconnecting beams of energy, known as the Keywork. They are battling the Supreme Tri-Mage. Bla Bla Bla. The music’s awesome, even if it lyrically doesn’t make a lick of sense. There’s even a song where ‘The Writer’ begins to receive messages from his 10 Speed bicycle. Coheed & Cambria have created a complete world for SciFi enthusiasts to dive in.
12. Queen – Borrowing from Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, Queen brought SciFi to the masses with “Radio GaGa,” yet another tale of music being banned, although maybe only in the video. Although much of their early work (“My Fairy King,” “Ogre Battle,” “The Prophet’s Song”) lies squarely in fantasy, Freddie Mercury’s art pop band cemented their SciFi credentials by contributing music to THE HIGHLANDER, much of which ended up on their A KIND OF MAGIC album. Honorable mention as well for “’39,” a bittersweet song from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA about a man missing his love who has departed the Earth with aliens.
11. Janelle Monae – The latest addition to the SciFi music roster, Janelle Monae is in the midst of a series of albums set in the future in which she plays the messiah-like android Cindi Mayweather sent back in time to lead the segregated citizens of Metropolis across The Great Divide. As a strong female woman of color, Monae’s SciFi message is another entry in the genre’s ability to discuss serious issues in metaphorical context, this time with a heck of a beat. Still early in her career, Monae looks to have the creative drive of someone a little higher on our list, David Bowie.
10. Iced Earth – Considering this band named themselves for a song on their self titled debut, a post-apocalyptic statement from a megalomaniacal king of a frozen wasteland of what was earth, this band basically arrived full-formed out of the pages of some epic novelist. The progressive metal band once recorded an entire album based on Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. Spread over three albums, the Something Wicked Saga concerned the original race of people that inhabited Earth, the Setians, and that humans are actually aliens who took over the earth in pursuit of the ultimate knowledge that the Setians had as direct descendants of God. The albums cover tens of thousands of years in their mythology. Their 2011 album Dystopia features songs inspired by V for Vendetta, Dark City, Equilibrium and Soylent Green. This year they released an album with a song in honor of Other Worlds Austin advisor “Cthulhu,” singing, “our future will be drowned, the dark one will be crowned.”
9. Blue Öyster Cult – This band named for manager Sandy Pearlman’s poem about a group of aliens who have assembled to secretly guide Earth’s history delivered an endless list of SciFi-inspired music. From the post-apocalyptic “Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll” to the gothic-necromancy of “Workshop of Telescopes” on their debut to a trio of SciFi titles on SECRET TREATIES, “Harvester of Eyes,” “Flaming Telepaths,” and “Astronomy,” BÖC never lacked for bizarre subject matter. Their greatest gift to fans is unquestionably “Godzilla,” a foot-stomping, catchy anthem to one of the greatest SciFi movie ‘heroes’ of all time.
8. Pink Floyd – These Piper(s) at the Gates of Dawn opened their debut with “Astronomy Domine,” a list of planets and moons, went into “Interstellar Overdrive” and then, on album two, A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS, they “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and, on “Let There Be More Light,” they sing: ‘then at last the mighty ship, descending on a point of flame, made contact with the human race.’ Later songs included a trip to “Cirrus Minor,” and “Childhood’s End,” inspired by the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name. Even if DARK SIDE OF THE MOON is no more SciFi than the title, ANIMALS, their 1977 underrated masterpiece, is loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
7. David Bowie – Bowie has gone through so many incarnations, it’s not surprising that a few of them were SciFi in nature. His first single, “Space Oddity,” told the tale of Major Tom who gets lost in space, never to be heard from again. In the early seventies, he donned his Ziggy Stardust persona, an androgynous glam rock superstar and leader of a band named The Spiders from Mars. One of his songs during this period, concerned Ziggy bringing a message of hope to Earth's youth through the radio, salvation by an alien “Starman.” After he killed off Ziggy, Bowie attempted a musical adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, which became DIAMOND DOGS when he couldn’t get the rights. A few years later, Bowie starred in the SciFi film THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and looked very alien in his ‘Thin White Duke’ persona for his STATION TO STATION album. Even though his Berlin trio of albums was not necessarily SciFi, the music was certainly otherworldly. Bowie stepped away from the genre for a few years, but returned with flair in 1995 with OUTSIDE, a dystopia crime concept album about a man who investigates murder and mutilation and decides whether it is legally acceptable as art or if it was trash. It features a revisit of Major Tom’s story as “Hallo Spaceboy.”
6. Yes – If you don’t believe mountains can ‘come out of sky and stand there,’ then clearly you are unaware of the music of prog legends Yes, or the artwork of Roger Dean, who designed a majority of their album covers. Song after song from the celestial voice of Jon Anderson delved into interstellar subject matter. Establishing themselves early on their debut as a band interested in “Beyond and Before,” their second album featured “Astral Traveller,” but it’s on their third album they crafted “Starship Trooper,” an extended piece about (my interpretation) the narrator discovering the mystical protectors of our mother earth, who fly above us. By the fourth album, FRAGILE, Yes had found their visual partner in Roger Dean, who designed the amazing gatefold LP which featured a... wait for it... wooden ship, departing a green and blue planet. On the rear we see why, the planet is breaking apart. On their next album, CLOSE TO THE EDGE, the story of the planet’s break up continues, with water pouring over the sides into cloudy emptiness. The music is even more complicated, but nothing prepared the world for Tales from Topographic Oceans, a four song, double album full of mystical psychobabble that barely sounds like music at times. On this album sleeve, the wooden ship finally finds a new home, a weird inverse world where fish swim through the sky and a Mayan pyramid looms in the moonlight. Honestly, I have no idea what any of these songs are about, and neither does most anyone else. By the time Yes came back down to Earth, they were still singing about “Future Times,” and an “Arriving UFO.” Then The Buggles joined the band and they began to sing about a “Machine Messiah.” Their most overtly (and understandable) SciFi song came late in their career, “Homeworld” a fairly straightforward tale of interstellar pilgrims (like earlier album covers displayed) which was licensed for a PC game of the same title.
5. Emerson Lake and Palmer – Although their debut album kept mainly to the fantasy themes of the supergroup’s prior bands, ELP delivered one of the most complete musical SciFi statements in 1971 with TARKUS, a concept album about an half-armadillo-half-tank monstrosity that rolls across a post-apocalyptic landscape fighting other combo-battle-creatures and eventually rolling itself out to a watery death in the ocean. The album artwork is as ludicrous as the concept. Their 1973 BRAIN SALAD SURGERY featured artwork by H.R. Giger and ends with the 29-minute epic “Karn Evil 9” about a futuristic world from which ‘all manner of evil and decadence had been banished.’ The trappings of the old world are preserved through exhibits that are part of a futuristic carnival show which a barker touts to passing potential clients, singing “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, We're so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside. There behind a glass stands a real blade of grass, be careful as you pass, move along, move along.” The song finishes with a war between humans and computers with an ending left open to many interpretations. It’s a piece of music that manages to be SciFi and Prog and totally awesome all at the same time.
4. Parliament-Funkadelic – Drawing inspiration from jazz musician Sun Ra, George Clinton’s duo of funk arrived onstage from ‘the mothership’ to bring the holy Funk to Earth; in their mythos, Funk is the cause of creation and source of energy and all life. Their character “Starchild” is a divine alien being who secretly works for “Dr. Funkenstein,” the intergalactic master of outer space Funk, and who is capable of healing all of man’s ills. Dr. Funkenstein’s predecessors had encoded the secrets of Funk in the Pyramids because humanity wasn’t ready for its existence until the modern era. Starchild uses a “Bop Gun” to protect humanity from “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk.” Other particularly SciFi songs include “Theme From The Black Hole,” "Big Bang Theory," “Moonshine Heather,” “Unfunky UFO,” “Cosmic Slop,” and “Loopzilla.” Even their less cosmically-inspired songs often featured alternate realities where Clinton could push for equality by upsetting traditional racial stereotypes. Additionally, Clinton’s crew utilized space-age sounds and revolutionary synthesizers in their music, giving them a unique sound that redefined music for the eighties. An emphasis on technology as a shaping force in R&B and Funk/Disco instead of simply rhythm placed P-Funk’s music on par with bands like The Talking Heads and Queen for getting the most out of a studio.
3. Rush – Another band obsessed with technology, Canada’s prog stalwarts started their flirtation with SciFi on their second album, when new drummer and lyricist Neil Peart drew on Ayn Rand’s dystopian novella Anthem for the song of the same name. With their seminal album 2112, Rush dove headfirst into creating their own dystopia world, the Solar Federation, in which the "Priests of the Temples of Syrinx," determine the content of all reading matter, songs, pictures - every facet of life. In “Discovery,” our hero finds an abandoned guitar in a cave, and learns to play it, and presents it to the priests (in “Presentation”). They destroy it, blaming such ‘silly whims’ for the downfall of civilization. The hero becomes distraught and kills himself, but his discovery leads to a revolution in which the people of the Solar Federation are freed (at least that’s my interpretation). The album’s second side included “The Twilight Zone,” based on two episodes of the television show, Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? and Stopover in a Quiet Town. Rush’s “Cygnus X-1” is an epic sci-fi story that is actually spilt over two different albums (A Farewell to KINGS and HEMISPHERES). In the song, an Explorer’s spaceship is drawn through a black hole and back to the Olympus of the Greek gods where he witnesses a struggle between ways of life, science and knowledge vs. love and art. His silent scream of terror causes them to rethink their dispute and they recognize the explorer as a new deity, the God of Balance. HEMISPHERES also includes “The Trees,” an allegory much in the vein of Animal Farm, but with Maples and Oaks. Even after Rush moved away from epics, they touched on SciFi themes on most every album: “Natural Selection,” follows Darwinism from ‘Tide Pools’ to ‘Hyperspace,’ “Red Barchetta,” about a future in which sports cars have been banned by ‘the motor law,’ “Chemistry,” a hodge-podge of science and para-science, "Alien Shore," about sex on a ‘world of red neon and ultramarine,’ and "The Body Electric,” about ‘an android on the run’ and features a chorus sung in binary code and the list goes on and on. Their most recent tour, The Time Machine, featured imagery and set-pieces heavily influenced by steampunk and time travel.
2. Daft Punk – It’s one thing to sing about robots, it’s another thing entirely to become robots, as this French electro-dance duo appear to have. According to their press statement: “We did not choose to become robots. There was an accident in our studio. We were working on our sampler, and at exactly 9:09 am on September 9, 1999, it exploded. When we regained consciousness, we discovered that we had become robots.” Daft Punk’s music is a combination of supreme studio wizardry and vintage equipment (the musical equivalent of steampunk). Lyrically, the robots of funk never get too verbose but by their third album, despite the assurance they we’re HUMAN AFTER ALL, they sang in praise of “Robot Rock,” declared “I Am the Brainwasher,” and gave voice a virtual laundry list of praise for “Technologic.” It doesn’t really matter what their lyrics are, because they sound like robots when they sing them. One of their first videos featured dancing robots and even the humans dance as if they are robots – and that was before they donned the masks. They built a DJ booth that was essentially a pyramid spaceship. They produced Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, a feature-length animated musical about the abduction and rescue of an interstellar and alien pop band. The band also recorded the soundtrack for and appeared as characters in film TRON: LEGACY.
1. Van der Graaf Generator – If you are not a huge prog fan, you probably don’t know VDGG, but then that means you’ve missed out on some of the most difficult, interesting, and cosmic music ever made. Of course any band named after an electrostatic machine for accelerating subatomic particles to high speeds must be a bit technology obsessed, and their first album’s title track “The Grey Aerosol Machine” promises instant death to anyone who breaths it. “After the Flood” on THE LEAST WE CAN DO IS WAVE TO EACH OTHER may just be in fact the first song about the dangers of global warming, with the polar ice melting leaving everyone dead as ‘cities crash in the mighty wave.’ Another song finds a different group of “Refugees” abandoning the North – it may be a simple love song, or another post-apocalyptic statement. By their third album, named for a chemistry equation that created the Hydrogen Bomb, H TO HE WHO AM THE ONLY ONE, Peter Hammill’s cacophony of dissonance found its perfect villain in “Killer,” a Cthulhu like sea-bottom dwelling monster. The true gem is “Pioneers Over C,” yet another space pilgrim story, but unlike Yes, completely awesome and actually followable, unless we are keeping track of time: “we are the pioneers; we are the lost ones, we are the ones they are going to build a statue for ten centuries ago or were going to fifteen forward.” I mean, what? By the end of the song, the narrator is even more confused: “I am the lost one, I am the one who crossed through space or stayed where I was or didn't exist in the first place.” Good, so we got that down. VDGG’s next album featured a song set in yet another post apocalyptic world where we are just “Lemmings,” asking, ‘What choice is there left but to live in the hope of saving our children's children's little ones?’ What choice indeed. The 22-minute “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers” is about a man who can foresee his own destruction. After breaking up and getting back together, they delivered “Scorched Earth,” “The Sleepwalkers,” about an army of zombies, another song about “Pilgrims,” and “A Place to Survive” which sounds like anything but: ‘Barren fields, the barren earth, never more will it flower.’ When they broke up again, this time for 25 years, they came back singing songs about “Mathematics” and other such technological ideas. With album covers featuring hearts floating in space, chess pieces floating in space, and trapeze artists... floating in space, Van de Graaf Generator always seemed to have one eye on the cosmic horizon. Like many of these bands, as they sing in “Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End” also inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End, they know ‘Somehow, there must be more.’ Also, ‘There’s a time for all pilgrims, and a time for the fakers too’ so be wary of false SciFi music, and boldly go where time signatures are in 13/8.
More Tracks for your SciFi Music Marathon
Megadeth – Hangar 18
Beastie Boys – Intergalactic
The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Radiohead – Paranoid Android
King Crimson – 21st Century Schizoid Man
Gary Numan – Are Friends Electric?
Iron Maiden – The Prisoner & Back to the Village
Hawkwind – Silver Machine
Vangelis – Albedo 0.39 (the Theme for the original Cosmos)
Kraftwerk – The Robots
Elton John – Rocket Man
Genesis – Watcher of the Skies
Blondie – Rapture
KLF/The Timelords – Doctorin’ the Tardis
The Postal Service – We WIll Become Silhouettes
Ayreon – Into the Blackhole
Sufjan Stevens – Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland
Muse – United States of Eurasia
Catatonia – Mulder & Scully
Klatuu – Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Space