Experimental rock

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Avant-garde rock, also known as experimental rock, is a type of music based on rock which experiments with the basic elements of the genre,[1] or which pushes the boundaries of common composition and performance technique.[2]

Performers may also attempt to individualize their music with unconventional time signatures, instrumental tunings, unusual harmony and key signatures, compositional styles, lyrical techniques, elements of other musical genres, singing styles, instrumental effects or custom-made experimental musical instruments.



The late 1960s was an era of explosive growth and experimentation in rock music.[3] Bands drew influences from free jazz artists such as John Coltrane and Sun Ra and avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Velvet Underground, which at one point counted Lou Reed, John Cale, and Angus Maclise among its members and was associated with Andy Warhol and LaMonte Young, fused elements of minimalism and avant-garde music with standard rock song structures. Psychedelic rock groups such as Fifty Foot Hose, the United States of America, Silver Apples and Red Krayola introduced avant-garde electronic music into their songs. The sounds of Indian and Arabic music were also widely admired and adapted. Even such popularly successful bands as Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones were able to incorporate outside and foreign influences into their songs without sacrificing their broad fanbase. For example, Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" was directly influenced by Egyptian music.

In the television program Howard Goodall's 20th-Century Greats, Goodall says that in mixing pop and classical techniques, and cross-fertilising them with Indian and electronic music, The Beatles refreshed and revitalised western harmony. They also transformed the recording studio from a dull box where you recaptured your live sound, into a musical laboratory, of exciting and completely new sounds.[4]

In the UK the BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson joined the experimental electronic band White Noise. Other important experimental bands in this period include The Monks, The Fugs, The Godz, The Residents, Os Mutantes, Red Crayola, Silver Apples, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and The Mothers of Invention.


Influenced by the experiments of these groups came another wave of experimental rock bands in the early 1970s. There was, for instance, the so-called Krautrock scene in Germany, which included psychedelic bands like Amon Düül II and Popol Vuh, sound-collage artists like Faust, and the extremely improvisational and almost unclassifiable Can. Brian Eno was another important figure, especially after his departure from Roxy Music in order to pursue his own ideas (which ultimately led to his invention of the term "ambient music"). Some other artists in this period, such as David Bowie and Scott Walker, also departing from more pop-oriented styles in order to experiment with songwriting and production. Some of Miles Davis' early-70s work such as On the Corner or A Tribute to Jack Johnson straddles or even defies the line between jazz fusion, funk and rock. At the same time, there was the experimental wing of the already somewhat experimental progressive rock scene, including a number of bands who were influenced by contemporary classical music -- Magma, Zao, Henry Cow, Samla Mammas Manna, Area, Univers Zero, Frank Zappa, and so on. In the late 70s, punk rock developed a number of experimental offshoots, most notably post-punk. This genre includes everything from arty punk rockers like Pere Ubu, Suicide, Bauhaus, Half Japanese, The Ex, The Electric Eels, the dub-influenced Public Image Ltd and The Pop Group. No Wave was another important offshoot, composed of acts such as James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Glenn Branca's Theoretical Girls, and DNA). Other notable acts from this era are This Heat and the first industrial band Throbbing Gristle.


Experimentalism was a large part of the college rock and underground music scene in the 1980s. Influenced by their punk and post-punk predecessors, bands like Sonic Youth, Band of Susans, and Live Skull who all originated in New York's No Wave scene, The Scene Is Now, Negativland, Butthole Surfers, Swans, Beme Seed and Dinosaur Jr. further expanded the boundaries of rock by introducing influences from minimalism and conceptualism, as well as pop art, situationism and fluxus and influences from the new media culture of the 1980s. In Germany Einstürzende Neubauten built several instruments for their experimental industrial music. The late 80s underground scene saw the rise of a number of bands influenced by the Velvet Underground and 1960s psychedelia, including Agitpop, Opal, Pixies, Yo La Tengo. Hardcore punk, with its DIY ethic, was also a big influence on many of the experimental rock bands of the day. For instance several punk bands such as Fugazi, The Ex, Dog Faced Hermans and Big Black took a more experimental approach then the straight forwardness of the early punk generations. Toward the end of the 1980s rap emerged into a mature, experimental phase exploring the possibilities of sampling and dealing with social and racial issues. Sampling technology had been present within pop music for a large portion of the decade, however, artists such as Kate Bush, Brian Eno and so forth innovated an experimental pop music take on the use of sampling technology. The influences of this form of sampling also aided as an influence on modern electronica. Rap's impact on experimental rock was huge, as many rock bands were impressed by the power and innovation of rap artists such as Public Enemy, Dream Warriors and Digital Underground and sought to incorporate aspects of rap and hip hop into their music, with Sonic Youth's 1990 "Kool Thing" featuring an appearance by Chuck D. of Public Enemy. Beginning in 1988 Oxbow's music has blended elements including noise rock, avant-garde jazz, musique concrète, blues, non-Western music and contemporary classical music, among others. In Japan experimental rock acts Merzbow, Keiji Haino, Hanatarash and Boredoms started their careers in the '80s.


The commercialization of underground music in the first part of the 1990s led to the rise of a representative "Alternative" style which featured multiple, layered distorted guitars and overwrought male vocals. The experimentalism that had characterized the 1980s declined as grunge took hold as the dominant style in rock music. Originated in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s by metal, psychedelia and punk influenced bands such as Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, Nirvana was the genre's breakout artist. In this period some bands such as the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth discarded many unconventional and abrasive elements and began working within traditional structures. Artists such as Ween and Redd Kross continued their predecessors inventiveness with less impact, as did some bands referring to 1970s funk such as Praxis. North California's Mr. Bungle combined the skillful musicianship of progressive rock with a confrontational, absurdist approach more often associated with No Wave, by switching genres in between whole songs, and getting rid of traditional song structures. The Ex started collaborations with several free jazz artists like Tom Cora and Han Bennink and with Ethiopian jazz artists like Getatchew Mekurya blending noise rock with Ethiopian jazz and/or improvised music.

Halfway through the nineties the lo-fi movement became a prominent factor in exploring new recording techniques at home with direct plugged in guitars as well as heavily pre amps channels for acoustic instruments raising the noise in the music. Experimental lo-fi acts are Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Beck, Half Japanese, Slicing Grandpa and Eric's Trip.

Some other artists in this period developed a number of additional styles from your original base. The industrial music include fusions with noise music, ambient music, folk music, post-punk and electronic dance music. The best-selling offshoots of post-industrial scene have been industrial rock and metal; Ministry and Nine Inch Nails both recorded platinum-selling albums.[5][6] Their success led to an increase in commercial success for some other industrial musicians; for example, the Nine Inch Nails remix album Further Down the Spiral, which included contributions from Foetus and Coil, was certified gold in 1996.

In the later 1990s, many indie rock bands diverged into a style called post-rock, which has been described as "using rock instrumentation to make non-rock music." Although post-rock can often be traced back to the late-80s/early-90s works of Slint (influenced by hardcore punk) and late-era Talk Talk (influenced by Miles Davis and ambient music), the term did not become prevalent until the late-90s/early-00s to describe the mostly-instrumental music of bands such as Mogwai, June of 44, Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. By now "post-rock" can refer to almost any complex instrumental rock coming out of the indie scene, from the delicate, classical-influenced chamber rock of Rachel's to the massive, forbidding sonic landscapes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Other experimental rock styles of this period are math rock and post-hardcore, with bands like Slint, Shellac, Polvo, Don Caballero, The Jesus Lizard, Les Savy Fav. Noise rock took a more radical course and speedy with bands like Melt-Banana and Lightning Bolt. At the end of the nineties some indie rock bands like The Notwist, Blonde Redhead and Enon went into a more electronic way of music making to explore new textures.


Animal Collective performing live in Prague on October 14, 2008

British band Radiohead, who became popular in the 1990s playing alternative rock, began experimenting with different musical styles at the beginning of the new millennium, with albums like Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. These albums took influence from electronica, Krautrock and jazz, as well as classical music that Jonny Greenwood blended to their music and led them to create a radical shift from their alternative music to more experimental music and art rock.

As the 1990s passed, non-instrumental forms of indie rock also became increasingly experimental. Later experimental indie bands include Circus Devils, Deerhoof, Deerhunter, The Fiery Furnaces, Kling Klang, Liars, Man Man and Xiu Xiu.[7] Experimental luthier Yuri Landman created several experimental musical instruments for notable experimental rock acts like Enon, Jad Fair, Liars, Lou Barlow, Mauro Pawlowski and Sonic Youth. The band Neptune also built several similar electric instruments. With multi-layered sound over sound delay tracks Liam Finn incorporated noise rock sound structures in his singer songwriter songs. The New Weird America movement with bands like Animal Collective emerged as a distinct presence. Bands like Chicks on Speed draw on the No Wave sounds of the early 1980s. Other experimental rock acts founded after 2000 are Ponytail, Battles, Psychic Paramount, Pre, The Luyas, HEALTH, Black Dice, Cave, Foot Village, Zs, naivist composer Maher Shalal Hash Baz and the Boredoms spin-off OOIOO.

Several early No wave acts such Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (Lydia Lunch), Swans revive in popularity and begin touring again after 2000.


More recent experimental acts that broke through after 2010 are Disappears, Geoff Barrows, BEAK>, Suuns, Connan Mockasin as well as new Japanese acts such as Nisennenmondai and ZZZ's. Recent projects also include Twelve Foot Ninja, who incorporates elements of Reggae, Disco, Lounge, and Metal. It has broken through success, due to Melvins.

Common elements[edit]

Some of the more common techniques include:

  • Extended techniques: Any of a number of methods of performing with voice or a musical instrument that are unique, innovative, and sometimes regarded as improper.
    • Prepared instruments—ordinary instruments modified in their tuning or sound-producing characteristics. For example, guitar strings can have a weight attached at a certain point, changing their harmonic characteristics. Alternatively, the string may be divided in two with a third bridge and the inverse side played, causing resonating bell-like harmonic tones on the pick-up side.
    • Unconventional playing techniques—for example, the tuning pegs on a guitar can be rotated while a note sounds (called a "tuner glissando").
    • Extended vocal techniques — any vocalized sounds that are not normally utiliized in classical or popular music, such as moaning, screaming, using death growls, howling or making a clicking noise.
  • Incorporation of instruments, tunings, rhythms or scales from non-Western musical traditions.
  • Use of sound sources other than conventional musical instruments such as trash cans, telephone ringers, and doors slamming.
  • Playing with deliberate disregard for the ordinary musical controls (pitch, duration, volume).
  • Creating experimental musical instruments for enhancing the timbre of compositions and exploring new techniques or possibilities.
  • Use of dissonance, atonality and noise
  • Use of electronic devices, digital manipulations and modular synthesizers.
  • Experimental rock is also very often influenced by 20th century classical music

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Martin 1998, p. 93
  2. ^ Bogdanov, Vladimir, ed. (2001). All Music Guide to Electronica. Backbeat Books. p. 10. ISBN 0-87930-628-9. 
  3. ^ Martin 1998, pp. 70–71
  4. ^ www.howardgoodall.co.uk/presenting/20centurygts.htm
  5. ^ "Gold & Platinum: Ministry". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved September 2, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Gold & Platinum: Nine Inch Nails". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved September 2, 2012. 
  7. ^ http://www.allmusic.com/artist/xiu-xiu-p519953