From Coil to Muslimgauze: our guide to the best experimental music
No, there's nothing wrong with the stereo. It's meant to sound like that.
Experimental music: a hard one to explain, given that it accounts for so much and has to deliver meaning to so many different musical styles.
Is experimental music so literal and didactic in its definition that it should refer to records that, like a scientific experiment, seek a specific answer and come out the other end with a conclusion? Does it just speak to stuff that we don’t usually hear in mainstream musics? Is it just a catch-all term for stuff that really confuses, enrages or amuses us? Is it just noise, as one of the guys who delivers records to us every day often remarks?
He’s probably right: a lot of this is just noise. But it is exciting, invigorating and often life-changing noise -- the kind you hear for a first time by accident, then spend your life devoting time and money to without a strong, clear excuse as to why. The kind that we keep going to shows for and creating long, pointless lists in tribute to.
Often experimental music simply suggests a contradiction of norms; sometimes it’s the maximum dial, and at other times it’s the bare minimum requirements for what connotes ‘music’. Due to this massive, unparsable scope, our list of experimental music includes musicians who pioneered an entire school of musical thought next to DIY noise-makers who just wanted to use art to raise a middle-finger. Whatever the case, that weird music that exists for the sake of being weird -- we don’t care, we love it. So here’s a rundown of some of our experimental faves.
It’s pretty easy to just whack any old drone artist on here and say ‘experimental legend, don’t even worry about it’, but Éliane Radigue is different. Often considered a pioneer of drone and its sibling genre ambient, Radigue’s compositions have long eschewed these terms, favouring the movement and narrative that can exist within durational music. Without her, the landscape of electronic music would look very, very different.
Originating as an electronic musician who built her own synth music, Radigue’s work focused on overtones and subharmonics, emphasising the cogs rolling over underneath a longform composition -- the reasons why there are continued sensations to be had from listening to a sustained piece of music. Drawn to a school of musicians with similar approaches and ideas, she became known alongside Phil Niblock for creating something both dense and minimalist, challenging the ‘formlessness’ of music we might draw similarities with.
Still composing, Radigue’s later years have seen her drawn to using similar methodologies, but applied to acoustic instruments. New works have become landmarks of their own, including this decade’s Occam, a tranquil but active experimental work written for harp and first performed by Richard Dawson collaborator Rhodri Davies. It’s proof of an artist as restless as the music she creates, and as boundless as she was when she started playing music on the Buchla.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Pauline Oliveros is the reason experimental music sounds the way it does now. A central figure in the development of drone, improvisation and the broader church of electronic music, she’s one of the most lauded composers to have ever worked and taught in the field, and her recent passing has been felt deeply across the musical landscape.
Oliveros is associated chiefly with two simple, evocative words: ‘deep listening’. Depending on who you ask, the phrase refers to a feeling, a practice, or a whole institute of artists. At turns a band and a research group, Oliveros cultivated the aesthetic in New York and later expanded it into different states and countries. Working alongside artists such as Stuart Dempster and Peter Ward, she made a classic record that exemplified the concept, crafting a rich meditative sound world that took drone and made it spatial and living.
Oliveros did not just make music, but focused on the places that surrounded it, crafting works that displayed an omnipresent understanding of setting and how it relates to sound.
She was considering purpose, shape and occupation, and moved from playing accordion and horns to electronic music with similar motivations, continuing to stretch noise in exuberant and exhilarating ways that made you forget, in the main, that there was ever academic process involved. A key figure and innovative mind in contemporary music, her music ultimately corresponded with its listener through visceral feeling.
Like learning about the ontological argument in your Religious Studies GCSE lesson, Yoko Ono broke all prior conceptions about music and left something bizarre and performative in its place. An artist in her own right, she moved into music and found herself inspired by peers such as John Cage and Henry Cowell, artists living within the ‘composer’ framework but deciding to tear down its formalities. In 1970, she released her debut and arguably the opus we know her for, Plastic Ono Band -- a musique concrete rock album signalling that band music had finally achieved its ‘post’ doctorate.
Through a series of early records, Ono challenged the preconceptions of mainstream music, experimenting with confrontational lyrics and realigned pop song structure. Fly feels like an instruction on psychedelic music, its jams and noisings replicated to this day; the feminist document Feeling the Space was produced as a sardonic and ironic pop record that should probably get the accolades we give Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! It was not just that Ono was bringing avant-garde to pop music: she often approached pop music on its own terms, proving she could do it better, weirder.
Still releasing music in 2018, Ono’s vision has been documented for her entire career and life, carrying with it a fearless embrace of the times: Warzone, her most recent album, features collaborations with the Roots’ Questlove and rock experimentalist tUnE-yArDs. The scope of Yoko Ono’s music is huge, its history immense. Few names are as widely lauded as hers.
Imagine having the gall to wade into John Cage’s music and philosophy in a three paragraph blurb for a stupid crusty record store? Imagine no longer. Perhaps the most celebrated composer of the 20th century, Cage’s legacy looms large over contemporary music, songwriting and the theory of all things sound.
Cage’s scores were electrifying, and often completely revolutionary. His best known piece has become something of a signature: 4’33, a piece in which musicians are asked to be present with their instrument but do nothing for the full duration. Its focus on the concept of environmental sound, and the music of existence itself, has become a massive influence on how people compose to date, with unordinary instrumentation and found sound now heavily emphasised in the worlds of experimental and electroacoustic music.
Cage’s approaches to writing scores often eschewed traditional, notational music in favour of instruction and interpretation: an artist would receive an ambiguous list of things to do in their performance, a style of composing that frequently altered what the actual music should sound like and favoured personal identities and different contexts. By the 1940s, Cage had become known as the pioneer of ‘chance’ music, his work abandoning virtuosity and opening the doors to improvisation. The world of music owes so much to him and his oddly inviting ideas.
Weirdo drone cult and electronic innovators Coil initially began as the crossover of the brilliantly-nicknamed Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson -- who’d already earned his experimental musician badge as part of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV -- and avant-garde hardworker Geoff Rushton, who also went by the name Jhon Balance.
They’re like experimental music’s Donnie Darko -- fans who love them love them, following their every movement and collecting their every sound droplet. A rotating cast of members, including Stephen Thrower, Drew McDowall and Thighpaulsandra, resulted in a subtly adjusted sonic palette, one that utilised methods such as sample and psychoacoustics. It’s no easy feat wading through Coil’s music, but each release is its own world of beguiling ambient sound that no modern artist has really been capable of recreating.
With records shrouded in mystical narratives and the idea of creating ambient music that actually had a purpose -- to create illusory, fictional states for its listener -- Coil became one of experimental music’s most exciting bands. The accidental death of Balance in 2004 brought them to an untimely close, but what they left behind was a sound of horror and wonder, essential for anyone following the trail of experimental drone and psychedelia.
He’s the most famous noise boy of them all. Masami Akita, better known as his alias Merzbow, has released so much harsh music you’d probably be all set just collecting it and leaving it at that. A key figure in anyone’s experimental adventure, his ecstatic dissonances and trash sonics have been going nearly forty years strong, at this point.
Merzbow’s solo sound collages are hard to differentiate, but they all pulse with the same intense collection of aesthetic jumble. Dark ambient is a touchstone, but so is improvised digital noise, which looms large over recordings and busies the compositional field ‘til you’re overloaded with musical infos. Despite sounding confrontational and bellicose, Merzbow weaves thoughtful narratives into his music, his passion for animal rights coming through alongside early records who matched their musical cacophony with suggestive surrealism.
Merzbow’s gone through many phases, utilising table-top electronics and later discovering the joys of laptop software. He’s also become a serial collaborator, joining Jim O’Rourke on his adventures into free jazz (another experimental genre Merzbow is deeply invested in), Keiji Haino, Sun Ra (well, kind of) and Alessandro Cortini. As if there wasn’t enough to learn about him already. Get ready for your ears to shimmer and shatter -- Merzbow’s experimental music is actually about a thousand experimental musics at once.
By the time you’re done reading this list you’ll have read these people’s names so many times you’ll want to bash me over the head with a strongly worded letter. It’s true: Genesis P-Orridge and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson weaved their way into so many corners of experimental music, but their starting point was Throbbing Gristle, the pioneers of a straight-faced, internally avant-garde industrial music known for its confrontational industrial style and questionable imagery.
In their early days, Throbbing Gristle actually invented industrial music. I know that sounds lofty and improbable, but The Second Annual Report saw P-Orridge, Christopherson and their pals Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter make the most churning and grey music many had ever heard. Their third and supposedly final Report further cemented this repetitive electronic malady, crossing over dance music with the feeling of butterflies in the pit of your stomach.
Reissue culture has brought us back around to the original inception of Throbbing Gristle and its uneasy greatness. 20 Jazz Funk Greats, a collage of perpetual-motion synths and sequencers, stands now as maybe one of their most thrilling records, marrying their unwelcoming industrial malaise to something akin to a synth-pop aesthetic. It was experimental then, but we all dance to noise now, so Throbbing Gristle make a fair bit of sense in 2018.
Honestly, Sun City Girls are the best band on this list, don’t even try and change my mind. Idiots and geniuses, good musicians and better pranksters, this experimental in-joke was pursued by brothers Alan and Richard Bishop, alongside their other non-brother brother, Charles Goscher. They released so much music, but as with the best experimentalists, it all seemed to spit in the face of consistency, going down an endless network of rabbit holes and never coming out again.
Torch of the Mystics is what the band are best known for, an avant-garde touchstone of viscerally affecting psychedelia with gorgeous melodic songs, jangling freakouts and dissonant guitar distractions. How can I describe records like Dante’s Disneyland Inferno alongside it and make you think they’re from the same band? Dante is a spoken word carnival inspired by an epic poem about burning in hell; it’s all playful, macabre fables told over folksy, bluesy, jazzy, smokey guitars. And then there’s the avant-folk of 330,003 Crossdressers From Beyond the Rig Veda, or the avant-jazz of their self-titled. Other chance moments included drone and ba Tom Waits-ian barroom rock. They just never stopped.
After the sad passing of Charles Goscher, the Bishops went on to pursue different musical projects; Richard’s primitivist folk has found a cult following, while Alan has continued to create weird, experimental music as Alvarius B, esoterically and ambiguously referencing avant-garde and pop sounds from around the globe. Sun City Girls were pure in their spirit of exploration -- an experimental band who never stopped being weird and wonderful to encounter.
Guitarist Derek Bailey did all the things to a guitar people tell you maybe that you shouldn’t do. Did he care? No. An experimental musician of the most intuitive and impulsive means, his improvisations eschewed commonplace tools and materials for composition, rendering his sound free and borderless.
Initially creating a sound more confined to the structures of classical and jazz musics, Bailey spent the ‘60s meeting a host of cantankerous avant-garde collaborators, including horn-playing weirdo Evan Parker. By the time he’d knocked on for his first release, in 1970, he was thoroughly immersed in the free improvisation underground that had spread, like a network, across Europe. The Topography of the Lungs, a collaborative splurge between Bailey, Parker and drummer pal Hans Bennink, is an experimental opus, allowing artists to find different modes of musical exploration that involved noise, discordance, contradiction -- all played with a newfound glee for avant-garde’s potential.
Bailey went on to collaborate with pretty much everyone and play guitar just the way he wanted to. He was briefly in the famous experimental outfit Spontaneous Music Ensemble, whose approach to free music was more meticulous. His own output is staggering and frankly a little terrifying. Most Derek Bailey stuff came via his own label Incus, which he ran with Evan Parker and Tony Oxley, but from the ‘70s through to the early oughties he also put out records for a host of formative experimental labels, chief among them John Zorn’s Tzadik imprint. He hooked up with Evan Parker, guitarist-snarler Keiji Haino and a whole bunch of free jazz legends. He was everywhere, gracing those lucky enough to have him with his strange, knotty, tonally misshapen guitar experiments.
Serial hypnotist Steve Reich reasoned out minimalism in brilliant repetitive bursts, editing your psychosis as it went. When he wasn’t looking at cakes, he was pioneering an entire school of music, prized alongside artists such as Terry Riley, Tony Conrad and La Monte Young as one of minimalism’s finest experimental artists.
It all started with tape music. Reich’s early, shorter and more low-key works were more experimental than they were actually musical, often taking found sound recordings and making changes their structural integrity. The short spoken word recording he used for 1996’s Come Out was given a new meaning through a change to its temporality -- instead of appearing once, it was repeated and manipulated through different channels until its meaning became an ambiguous unknown.
Beyond process, Reich started to involve melody in his music, crafting actual scores for live performance. Starting with Piano Phase and Drumming, these instrumental works laid the groundwork for his ‘70s opus Music for 18 Musicians, a masterpiece of rhythmic minimalism that plays its listener as much as it does its instruments. The illusory feel of Reich’s music could exist in tape format or for an ensemble of musicians; on records like Different Trains, it became a combination of both, a string quartet and tape loop honouring Steve Reich’s Jewish parents, and their separation in World War II.
Reich is one of the most influential artists ever to have graced experimental music; he is fundamental to our understanding of looping and phasing and has popularised the contemporary music we know today.
A minimalist who refused to play by the pre-established rules of the Western musical canon, Terry Riley was experimental music’s guidance counselor, telling the whole genre of music that it was okay to make elsewhere sounds. Rather than reproducing the same old tropes he’d heard, he’d build his own synthesizers with particular tunings, or consider the musics coming out of the Hindustani tradition. Through it Riley rewrote the rules of minimalism that were beginning to develop around him.
The Californian’s best known record is In C, an experiment in fragmented melodies and rhythm that goes hand in hand with the early innovations of Steve Reich (who served as something of a consultant over the record). But a lot of his best music was less conceptual and lofty: he would improvise late night on compositions, trying his virtuosic hand at his makeshift instruments and coming out with stuff few today would be able to replicate. A Rainbow in Curved Air is an example of a minimalism that considered both jazz music and the classical music of other cultures, such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Its legacy as a groundbreaking composition speaks to Riley’s openness to wide exploration.
Implicit in much of Riley’s music was a peaceful, balmy nature. His use of specific theoretical modes, such as just intonation and a new approach to tape music, is well documented, but most notable in his music is a warmth, a listenability. Riley was not trying to make challenging music; he was merely trying to challenge music. He remains an experimental gem, well loved even now.
One of my absolute favourite stories about Charlemagne Palestine is how he came to know violinist Tony Conrad. Both part of the explosive experimental scene of ‘60s and ‘70s New York, the men came into contact because Conrad heard a church whose bells were ringing strangely and cacophonously. Conrad asked who was behind the joyous racket; it was Charlemagne Palestine, and so their time as friends and collaborators began.
Charlemagne makes ecstatic, performative music, quite like Tony Conrad in the way it creates playtime out of ambience, sifting through sustained durational music with wild deviations and blustering melodies. It is no wonder he has gone on to inspire experimental pop bands such as Grumbling Fur; they may be better at streamlining their music than him, but his ability to make something colourful out of abstract actions feels central to the kind of music they play.
A multi-instrumentalist who can play piano, bells, drums and accordion, Palestine’s music is some of the most expressive and engaging to have come out of New York’s early minimalist movement. Classic records such as Strumming Music may not be remembered with as much reverence and canonisation as those made by his peers, but their utilisation of those same early ideas -- overtones and unexpected phrasing -- mark him as a key influence over modern experimental music. And a fun one, too.
Pioneering the freeform potential of industrial electronics, as Muslimgauze Bryn Jones created experimental music with a fierce and overt political intent. His greatest influence was, arguably, the ongoing conflict of the middle east, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He passionately supported the Palestinian cause and created music that reflected the social activism he cared so deeply about. Through an endless slew of references to the area’s geography and the different cultural beliefs that made up the area, his music introduced the Western experimental world to a political crisis.
Muslimgauze’s music is contentious: it is, in many ways, a questionable appropriation, utilising names, practices and histories as titles for music that is intrinsically related to the experimental avant-garde of the West. His music is often marked by impenetrable mass of sound -- Jones used an immense, unapologetic volume level for most of his recordings, making subtleties hard to parse. Experimenting with both noise-knackered drones and deeply rhythmic cuts, he is a credible source of influence over both power electronics and noisy techno, having created serious, conceptual work that can inform both.
Music by Muslimgauze is still being produced today, long after Bryn Jones early passing. It is proof that his massive, overwhelming output (he would finish projects quickly, with little studio time put into perfecting or polishing them) has resonated with many who want to make music -- and many who see all cases of making music as political acts.
It probably seems a little weird to you that the dude who wrote Naked Lunch and kind of mostly just belongs to a movement of prose is on our experimental music list. But William Burroughs is also a star of the avant-garde, revered for his place in the spoken word movement. Move over, Shatner, ‘cos this guy has records, and they’re weird and wild and all the William you could need.
Some examples for you, then. Superior Viaduct recently reissued the classic 1965 collection of Burroughs’ collated readings called Call Me Burroughs, staple of 60s stoners everywhere. Seven Souls is a collaboration in which Burroughs reads the heavy hallucinations of his novel to the musical stylings of ambient rocker Bill Laswell. And collectors went wild for Curse Go Back, where iconic cut-up readings - the method was introduced to Burroughs by Brion Gysin, “the only man I respected” - were committed to tape, manipulated and turned into a sort of half-musical, half-poetic wasteland.
It is ultimately the lyrical and musical potential for Burroughs’ writing, along with his eccentric tonal delivery, that has made him a figure in the experimental music landscape. But the commitment to further exploring his work, to changing and restructuring the already prosaically avant-garde, has created some fascinating records well worth seeking out.
The origin story of experimental improvisation counts AMM amongst its number, an early-riser in the scene of making it up as you go along. Taking jazz out of its more intstructive, compositional metrics and into the wide open, they started to make the leap from ‘free jazz’ to ‘free improvisation’ with dramatic results. Without AMM we’d likely not have many of the improviser legends we have today, including The Necks and the crew over at Black Truffle.
AMM’s style was, like many improvisational bands, alchemical. They did inexplicable things and kept schtum about how; even their name, a supposed abbreviation for something, has never been clarified. Through the 1960s, the band started to contradict the jazz they were making in their separate pursuits, turning the ears of composers and rock stars (including a baffled Paul McCartney) with concerts of unorthodox durations and abrasively abnormal dynamics. Much of their recorded output was live, but one record stands out as a landmark: AMMMusic, a record swaying between examples of fractious maximalism and bare-bones minimalism.
AMM broke with convention and challenged the ears with which we listen; they were, also, in a constant state of experimenting, tasked with the challenge of never once having limitation. The joy of improvisation is that no band will ever be able to sound like you; that is the greatest lesson AMM gave experimental music.
Prurient is the rather, uh, out there, alias of experimental artist Dominick Fernow. It’s only one of his excessive list of projects: as Vatican Shadow he makes techno with political platitudes, and as Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, he makes laissez faire dub ambient.
Prurient, though, is his most renowned project, finding him comfortable as a harsh noise homebody. Since way back in ‘98 he’s been putting out spectacularly gruesome music that goes between fracturing rhythms in feedback and horror, and going headfirst into the tasteless abstractions of power electronics. His music is searing, visceral, and miserable -- it is also, quite often, totally vital.
Fernow’s work as Prurient began as a skeleton of what it is now. Utilising mostly amplifiers and mics, it was incepted in a raw state, records occasionally informed by electronic music but mostly obliterating listeners with sparse equipment and instrumentation. As he began to trade in a hundred different artist names, more ideas seeped in: he began using percussion and computers more frequently, inviting more textural ideas and ambient inclinations in tow. His best record, the recent opus Frozen Niagara Falls, is a record of diverse aesthetics often informed by the noisy techno he makes as Vatican Shadow -- he screams over scarred production, drums pounding riotously through the background as icy synths pierce at the heart.
Fernow’s music is often heart-on-sleeve, his emotional catharsis attached to formless experimental ideas. His approach to music and its industry is fascinating: this interview with him is well worth a read, revealing his unexpected motives for how and why his music get released. Fernow also runs Hospital Productions, one of experimental music’s harshest fringes, and a label that is partly responsible for a resurgence of avant-garde in dance music.
You probably all know about the brilliance of experimental don Steve Reich, and I know I don’t need to talk him up anymore, but how ‘bout that Music for 18 Musicians? The original recording almost sounds like an artifact, at this point, but the 1978 release of Reich’s integral minimalist composition is still a thrilling encounter.
A masterclass in making and performing repetitive cycles of sound, Music for 18 Musicians has a hypnotic, brain-altering effect on its listener, its melodies changing in our head as they stay the same to the orchestra. Playing it sounds kinda bananas, such is the impossibility of keeping up with its structure. The ECM release of this recording is a resounding marvel that’s both bafflingly virtuosic and absolutely beautiful.
You know Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy loves this record? Yeah, I know; it’s still good though.
Away from his time making avant-jazz with the likes of Merzbow and Keiji Haino and their pals -- and also from serving as the musical director of School of Rock (I am not lying) -- O’Rourke has made a series of lovely excursions into guitar music and warm ambient. Bad Timing is a peculiar thing in O’Rourke’s catalogue; released for Drag City, it’s a purely blissful meditation on singer-songwriter tropes.
Calling back to the architects of American primitivism while embracing a more contemporary understanding of melody, the record has become a staple of, uh, I don’t know -- outsider folk rock? It’s up there with Joanna Newsom’s Ys as a record that turns pretty, pastoral songs into bemusing musical sagas.
The amount of jazz funk greats you will hear on 20 Jazz Funk Greats is zero. Take that twenty and minus it by a good twenty, because Throbbing Gristle are lying to you. Experimental industrialists with a keen interest in divesting pop missives, of sorts, the band utilised a small arsenal of synths and sequencers, broaching a type of banger that was repetitive, churning, and snarling. Its morose disco that demands a glare to go with the dance.
20 Jazz Funk Greats didn’t do what it said on the tin but it did serve as a ripple in the post-punk explosion around it. The record is an underground classic and more than a mere experimental artifact, its cold, looping aesthetic has played a part in the rise of bands like Factory Floor. So thanks for that, Throbbing Gristle -- you big fake liars.
Hope you like evil and unpleasant music ‘cos that’s what Nurse With Wound are all about. Led by Steven Stapleton, the monolithic Soliloquy for Lilith drew its listeners close into a swirling black hole of dark, droning industrial music.
Assembling a sort of serialised unit of feedback loops, Stapleton made small, sparse adjustments to what was being played, patiently and deliberately playing his makeshift instrument to create a glacial sound with atomic sublimalities. Despite being an ominous, moodily entrenched record, Soliloquy for Lilith is a perfect starting point for dark ambient fans, exemplifying the experimental genre’s sound while coming across as accessible through a series of clearly pronounced tonal shifts.
Californian composer Terry Riley rose to prominence in the 1960s for the provocations he made to the tradition of Western music. Raising questions against its formal limitations while embracing Eastern influences, Riley brought chance and improvisation into the compositional field.
On his early opus In C, he created one of minimalism’s best known pieces and arguably its starting point. The short, aphoristic melodies of the tune were cut up, while the musicians playing them are instructed to begin performing at different points, creating a colourful cacophony, the pulse of the piece sporadically drifting in point. A masterpiece of experimental rhythm and structure, In C sees a host of reinterpretations to this day.
Thus far, I’d have to say that Holly Herndon’s Platform is the defining avant-garde album of our generation. A computer music that speaks to modern emotional and political landscapes, it embraces the collapse of popular sound structures, favouring things that speak to our distorted listening (and existing) experience.
You can hear the remnants of reality peeking through in the glitch and disassembly of Herndon’s songs, her experimental music speaking to the fractures made by developing technology. It may sound cold, but Platform is a personable, empathetic record about the feeling and sensation -- the first record made with the intention of eliciting a physical ASMR reaction, it relates AI to IRL once and for all.
Einstürzende Neubauten are one of the chief architects of not playing rock music. Thank goodness; we needed someone to do that. Their sixth record in a career that had already questioned everything structural, Tabula Rasa, is a masterpiece in experimental industrial music.
Where their old records were at least marked by the integrity of rock music, Tabula Rasa saw Einstürzende Neubauten create a freer sound of moan and drone, suggesting future possible worlds dark ambient might swallow into the void. Einstürzende Neubauten made ominous, eerie music that was also conversational and even, dare I say it, sensual -- and on this record they played to their own definitions of rock music.
New York’s new wave scene birthed many a cool noisy guitar band, but there was just one instance it gave us one of the world’s greatest ever composers. Looking deeply into accidents and alternatives, Glenn Branca gave the guitar an uncanny kind of voice and veneer.
The Ascension is a landmark experimental record that can be analysed in both an academic space and for the thoughtful punks dwelling n your scene, its utilisation of different types of tunings and sporadic layerings an essential part of experimental music’s lineage. Branca’s experiments were riotous: he loved loud, busy music, and The Ascension explored both, stressing volume and homogenous instrumentation. Your fave weirdo artist probably talked about this record at some point.
The iconic cover of Meet the Residents shows off the band mocked-up as The Beatles or some other ‘60s beat combo. What beats, and what combo, could possibly relate to Meet the Residents? The record maintains its legacy as one of the most maddening releases ever put out, its calamitous collage of rock ‘n’ roll stylings envisioning a new way for ‘bands’ to exist.
Using obnoxious versions of riffs, hooks, and other hallmarks of popular music The Residents turned in a record of the most obnoxious vignettes ever written, perhaps inadvertently envisioning the negative connotations we have when we call something an earworm. It’s the pop classic we deserve -- as an experimental record, it goes alongside The Shaggs and Beefheart in making annoying music sound so plausible.
Grindcore saxophonist and free improv legend John Zorn made some absolutely unhinged stuff with his Naked City outfit. The group broke every genre they approached, coming out with skronky punk tunes at a median of thirty seconds. On their best record, Torture Garden, Zorn enlisted Boredoms’ leader and venue-trasher Yamantaka Eye to provide the incisive, earth-shattering vocal performance he was at the time known and loved for. Torture Garden is that kind of experimental record so fast and hard to follow that you’ll never be able to take your ears away from it; it zig-zags through theme music and zaps it away with discordance, offering the ludicrous humour Zorn’s noise-jazz became known for.
Violinist, filmmaker and painter Tony Conrad gave the experimental art movement the friendly face it needed. An artist with an endless resource of positive energy, he believed in avant-garde’s potential to be fun, ecstatic and rainbow-brained. Either solo or collaboratively, he would make searing violin drones that never seemed to stop, trembling and wavering for hours at a time.
He found his best musical compatriots with krautrock legends Faust; on Outside the Dream Syndicate, they were tasked with the impossible job of keeping one, never-changing drumbeat for Conrad’s violin to sway against. They got so high making it happen that they forgot they ever actually made it, writing themselves out of one experimental music’s best moments.
He wishes. He wishes it was hubris. In his dreams. This record is all things good and none bad. Modern experimental music seems to happen around Oren Ambarchi, head of Black Truffle and seasoned collaborator with anyone and everyone.
We’ve already established that his 2016 release was called Hubris but we can also tell you that it’s a brilliant excursion into motorik and dance, perfecting his solo aesthetic in all of its minutiae. Along with sound imploder Jim O’Rourke and techno legend Ricardo Villalobos, Ambarchi used Hubris to launch experimental music into a myriad of funky, playful, enjoyable worlds.
Colin Stetson is beloved in this office for his singular and impossible to replicate approach to making music. A player of all saxophones big and small, whether alto, bass, or not at all a saxophone and in-fact a contrabass something-or-rather, he is known for his immense experimental workouts.
Utilising a method called circular breathing that enables him to play uninterrupted sheets of sound, he crafted a three-part opus called New History Warfare. The finale, Vol 3, involves his staggering overblown theatrics against the pastoral vocal hum of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who serves up a narrative worthy of Stetson’s terrestrial experimental style.
The British group at the heart of the country’s free improvisation scene made an endless slew of telepathic experimental records, but the 1960s entry AMMMusic is perhaps the best entry point. Unearthed by Black Truffle label master Oren Ambarchi, it is a landmark in collaborative guesswork, offering up a glimpse of the pure excitement and euphoria implicit in playing music as a game.
Over two everywhere-sprawling tracks the group splatter the walls with noise and hibernate in a communal minimalist peace, driving skronk and stability through a wide open space. AMMMusic an absolutely essential figure in giving experimental music the maximum freedom it needs.
Unseen Worlds recently shed well-deserved light on this cult classic of experimental pop. Maria Monti was better known as an actress and a performer, in her time, but the Italian artist extended her dynamic range of theatrics to ‘Il Bestario’. It turns from a soft pastoral daydream into a shrill exchange of pantomimic dissonances, Monti commanding in her vision of melody and malady.
Concept artist Alvin Curran appears on the record playing synth, but this weird sound world is distinctly Monti’s; you can hear its influence in anything from avant-garde pop to singer-songwriter folk music. It’s one of the experimental world’s loveliest records.
- The Residents
- Wolf Eyes
- Shit & Shine
- Kevin Drumm
- Einstürzende Neubauten
- Oren Ambarchi
- Alvin Lucier
- Pauline Oliveros
- Jim O’Rourke
- Cabaret Voltaire
- Chris Watson
- John Cage
- Pierre Henry
- Bernard Parmegiani
- Karlheinz Stockhausen
- Iannis Xenakis
- Pierre Schaeffer
- Keiji Haino
- Glenn Branca
- Thomas Brinkmann
- Peter Brötzmann
- John Zorn
- Morton Subotnick
- Morton Feldman
- Melt Banana
- Günter Schickert
- Robert Ashley - Automatic Writing
- Phill Niblock - Nothin To Look At Just A Record
- Roland Kayn - A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound
- Alvin Lucier – Music On A Long Thin Wire
- Alvin Lucier- I Am Sitting In A Room
- Ákos Rózmann - Images Of The Dream And Death
- Iannis Xenakis – Persepolis
- Tod Dockstader – Eight Electronic Pieces
- Henry Flynt - Purified By The Fire
- Otomo Yoshihide – The Night Before The Death Of The Sampling Virus
- Kevin Drumm - Imperial Distortion
- Harry Pussy - Harry Pussy
- Robert Turman - Beyond Painting
- Catherine Christer Hennix - The Electric Harpsichord
- La Monte Young - The Well Tuned Piano
- Trevor Wishart - Journey Into Space
- Chris Watson - Outside The Circle Of Fire