Experimental rock

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Experimental rock (or avant-rock)[5] is a subgenre of rock music[1] which pushes the boundaries of common composition and performance technique[6] or which experiments with the basic elements of the genre.[7] Artists aim to liberate and innovate, with some of the genre's distinguishing characteristics being improvisational performances, avant-garde influences, odd instrumentation, opaque lyrics (or instrumentals), unorthodox structures and rhythms, and an underlying rejection of commercial aspirations.[2]


1960s: Origins[edit]

There was always experimentation in rock music, but it wasn't until the late 1960s that new openings were created from the aesthetic intersecting with the social.[8] In 1966, the boundaries between pop music and the avant-garde began to blur, and rock albums began to be conceived and executed as distinct, extended statements.[9] Professor Bill Martin notes: "In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Lou Reed put it, there were those were trying to become much better musicians, or much better players of their instruments at any rate, and those who were trying to forget what little they already knew. The presumption in the latter case was that technical skill was getting in the way of, or replacing, significance."[10] Rock musicians (mostly unschooled) in the middle and late 1960s drew from the work of composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio. Martin acknowledges: "in the case of imitative painters, what came out was almost always merely derivative, whereas in the case of rock music, the result could be quite original, because assimilation, synthesis, and imitation are integral parts of the language of rock."[11][nb 1]

The Beatles working in the studio with their producer George Martin, circa 1965

Martin states that American band the Beach Boys opened a path in rock music "that went from Sgt. Pepper's to Close to the Edge and beyond".[13] He argues that the advancing technology of multitrack recording and mixing boards were more influential to experimental rock than electronic instruments such as the synthesizer, allowing the Beatles and the Beach Boys to become the first crop of non-classically trained musicians to create extended and complex compositions.[13] Drawing from the influence of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and the Beatles' George Martin, music producers after the mid 1960s began to view the recording studio as a musical instrument used to aid the process of composition.[14][nb 2] When the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966) was released to a four-month chart stay in the British Top 10, many British groups responded to the album by making more experimental use of recording studio techniques.[17][nb 3]

1960s–70s: Progressive rock[edit]

Main article: Progressive rock
See also: Art rock and Krautrock
Frank Zappa with Captain Beefheart, seated left, during a 1975 concert

As progressive rock developed in the late 1960s, experimental rock acquired notoriety alongside art rock.[1] In the opinion of Stuart Rosenberg, the first "noteworthy" experimental rock group was the Mothers of Invention led by Frank Zappa, a composer who demonstrated a mastery of pop idioms ranging from jazz to classical.[1] Professor and Zappa biographer Kelly Fisher Lowe wrote that Zappa appeared to "set the tone" for experimental rock with the way he incorporated "countertextural aspects ... calling attention to the very recordedness of the album" similar to contemporary experimental rock LPs by the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds and Smile), the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's), and the Who (The Who Sell Out and Tommy).[21] Rosenberg adds: "Like Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground were a groundbreaking group in experimental rock. ... [they] were even further out of step with popular culture than the early recordings of the Mothers of Invention. As a consequence, they could only muster a cult following during their brief career."[22]

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Author Doyle Greene identifies the Beatles, Zappa, the Velvet Underground, Plastic Ono Band, Captain Beefheart, and Nico as "pioneers of avant-rock", however, "they were not only ones", citing proto-prog as another contributing factor.[23] According to author Chris Smith, the Mothers of Inventions' 1966 debut album Freak Out! inspired the Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), which "opened the door to commercially successful experimental rock".[24] Journalist Richie Unterberger writes that experimental rock bands like the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, 1967-era Beatles, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience shared the distinction of incorporating avant-garde music, sound collage, and poetry into their records, which was particularly influential to German progressive rock bands, specifically the development of krautrock in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[25] Martin believes: "almost everything that is interesting and creative in rock music that comes after about 1970 is influenced one way or another by progressive rock".[26] Specific influences on rock musicians were: improvement in musicianship, broad eclecticism, utopianism, romanticism, and a commitment to experimentation.[26]


According to Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell: "Post-progressive identifies progressive rock that stems from sources other than progressive rock. This does not spread the net to include all avant-rock from the 1980s and 1990s ... post-progressive rock feeds a more explicit return to prog: in other words, a return that is not one. This trend is best exemplified by two British avant-rock acts of the 1980s and early 1990s: David Sylvian and Talk Talk."[27]

In 2015, The Quietus' Bryan Brussee noted uncertainty with the term "experimental rock", and that "it seems like every rock band today has some kind of post-, kraut-, psych-, or noise- prefixed to their genre".[28]


  1. ^ Responding to oft-repeated criticisms that say the Beatles never did anything that was truly "new", Martin writes: "Rock music is synthesis and transmutation ... What was original about the Beatles is that they synthesized and transmuted more or less everything, they did this in a way that reflected their time, they reflected their time in a way that spoke to a great part of humanity, and they did all of this really, really well."[12]
  2. ^ Journalist Richard Williams wrote of record producer Phil Spector: "[He] created a new concept: the producer as overall director of the creative process, from beginning to end. He took control of everything, he picked the artists, wrote or chose the material, supervised the arrangements, told the singers how to phrase, masterminded all phases of the recording process with the most painful attention to detail, and released the result on his own label."[15] According to Williams, it was Spector who transformed rock music as a performing art to an art which could only exist in the recording studio, which "paved the way for art rock".[16]
  3. ^ The Beach Boys followed Pet Sounds several months later with the single "Good Vibrations" (1966), credited as a milestone in the development of rock music[18] and a prime proponent in revolutionizing rock music from live concert performances to studio productions which could only exist on record.[19] Musicologist Charlie Gillett called it "one of the first records to flaunt studio production as a quality in its own right, rather than as a means of presenting a performance".[17] Popmatters wrote: ""Its influence on the ensuing psychedelic and progressive rock movements can’t be overstated."[20]


  1. ^ a b c d Rosenberg 2009, p. 179.
  2. ^ a b "Experimental Rock". AllMusic. Retrieved February 16, 2016. 
  3. ^ "Pop/Rock » Art-Rock/Experimental » Prog-Rock". AllMusic. 
  4. ^ Savage, Jon. "Elektronische musik: a guide to krautrock". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 June 2016. 
  5. ^ "EXPERIMENTAL ROCK (AVANT-ROCK)". The Independent. Retrieved February 16, 2016. 
  6. ^ Bogdanov 2001, p. 10.
  7. ^ Martin 1998, p. 93.
  8. ^ Martin 2015, p. 3.
  9. ^ Greene 2016, p. 22.
  10. ^ Martin 2015, p. 4.
  11. ^ Martin 2015, p. 5.
  12. ^ Martin 2015, pp. 13–14.
  13. ^ a b Martin 2015, p. 75.
  14. ^ Edmondson 2013, p. 890.
  15. ^ Williams 2003, pp. 15–16.
  16. ^ Williams 2003, p. 38.
  17. ^ a b Gillett 1984, p. 329.
  18. ^ Stuessy & Lipscomb 2009, p. 71.
  19. ^ Ashby 2004, p. 282.
  20. ^ Interrante, Scott (May 20, 2015). "The 12 Best Brian Wilson Songs". Popmatters. 
  21. ^ Lowe 2007, pp. 38, 219.
  22. ^ Rosenberg 2009, p. 180.
  23. ^ Greene 2016, p. 182.
  24. ^ Smith 2006, p. 35.
  25. ^ Unterberger, p. 174.
  26. ^ a b Martin 2015, p. 69.
  27. ^ Hegarty & Halliwell 2011, p. 225.
  28. ^ Brussee, Bryan (July 8, 2015). "LIVE REPORT: GZA". The Quietus. 


Further reading[edit]