From Throbbing Gristle to Skullflower: our guide to the best UK experimental underground
A few months back we tried to tackle experimental music. Call us biased, but we think the UK artists we featured then deserve their own feature now.
The UK’s experimental underground is chock full of eccentric refuseniks and visionary trailblazers. While Brits are usually regarded as a polite and reserved bunch, averse to extremes, this lot have managed to produce some of the most challenging and downright strange music the world has ever seen.
So if you’re after a bit of 'civilisation wrecking' music, or maybe just a bit of ‘sinister whimsy’, or perhaps some ‘musick to play in the dark’, or maybe a more apocalyptic edge to your folk music, or are you longing for a wall of noise to pummel you into oblivion - if any of this appeals to you, then you’re in the right place.
The precarious histories of many of these fringe artists and the obscure, underground nature of their work makes it quite daunting and confusing to even know where to start. But in the country that spawned the Industrial Revolution, where better to start than with the originators of ‘industrial music’, Throbbing Gristle? While being a crucial act in their own right, pretty much every one of the artists in this guide shares some connection or other traceable to them. That may be a direct connection with ex-TG members. It may be through their ideas, interests and methods. It may be through the writings of William Burroughs, Aleister Crowley and Lautréamont. It may be simply the shock tactics, or occult beliefs. Whatever - Throbbing Gristle provide a solid point of departure. Let's begin.
While generally regarded as the originators of industrial music, the truth is that Throbbing Gristle sound like nothing that came either before them nor since. Formed in the greydom and bitter social divisions of mid-70s Britain, Throbbing Gristle were originally an offshoot of the confrontational performance art group COUM Transmissions, whose presentations of abject sex and violence got them denounced by a Tory minister as "wreckers of Western civilisation". TG’s aim was to utterly deconstruct music, along with blowing apart just about every other convention underpinning mainstream culture. In interviews, vocalist and bass player Genesis P-Orridge talked about the group more as a kind of liberation movement, heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ theories on the use of noise and cut-up recordings as a revolutionary weapon.
None of the band members had any proper musical training but this ‘ground-zero’ approach to music making is very much key to what makes Throbbing Gristle so special. What they lacked in conventional musical abilities they more than made up for in sheer invention, with each member a complex creative individual in their own right (testament to this is their post-TG projects - Psychic TV, Coil, Chris & Cosey and many other collaborations).
They managed to produce a body of work that is surprisingly eclectic and fuses primitive electronics, heavily processed guitar and bass textures, tape collage and disturbing vocals relating themes of violent death, paraphilia, genocide and the occult, all cut through with the queasy air of alienating drudgery of Britain in the 70s.
After Throbbing Gristle had ‘terminated’ their ‘mission’ in 1981, Genesis P-Orridge and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson went on to form Psychic TV (PTV), along with Alex Fergusson of the pioneering punk group Alternative TV. Ever the conceptualists in their vision of music as a vehicle for social engineering, Genesis abandoned the ‘esoterrorism’ tactics of TG in favour of transforming minds through the power of seduction. As a result Psychic TV have over 100 releases with a list of collaborators that cover a hefty breadth of styles including Hafler Trio, The Cult, Soft Cell, Rose McDowall, Andrew Weatherall and Z'EV.
While their earliest records reconciled avant garde arrangements with psychedelic pop sensibilities, from the late 1980s onwards the group became pioneers within the acid house movement. Their latest work shows a return to 60s inspired pop.
With P-Orridge having recently announced their retirement due to terminal illness, there has been a stark divide in some of the press appraisals of their legacy; hailed as an icon of late 20th century counter-culture by some, denounced as amoral charlatan by others. Either way, one thing is undeniable: as a pioneering figure within industrial culture with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, and with their embrace of pandrogeny over binary gender identities, Genesis always seems to be ahead of the curve and influencing things in unexpected ways.
Throbbing Gristle pioneer Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and his partner John Balance left Psychic TV to pursue their own visionary musical path in the early 1980s. The untimely deaths of both these founding members in 2004 and 2010 has only added to the sense of mystique surrounding the group, whose recordings are seen by fans as much as journals of psychic states reached through various esoteric practices as they are simply album releases in the conventional sense.
Their music encompasses a huge variety of styles from their early post-industrial song stylings to immersive electronica, intricately arranged soundtracks and longform minimalist pieces. While they’ve been deeply influential to artists as diverse as Nine Inch Nails to Autechre, it’s probably fair to say that their rich catalogue is still relatively underexplored by most.
The common thread that runs through the shape-shifting nature of their music is its questing, experimental nature, exemplified in the esoteric methods employed (ritual drug use, sex magick, sleep deprivation etc.) to reach new levels of experience. Coil excelled in presenting multifaceted sound worlds that are often tinged with both horror and the exotic - sometimes accompanied by John Balance’s poetry - pushing towards the ecstatic and transcendent.
Former Psychic TV collaborator, David Tibet formed Current 93 in the early 1980s. Initially an industrial noise act, the group has come to epitomise a particularly visionary, apocalyptic style of folk music over a plethora of releases. Apart from Steven Stapleton of Nurse with Wound and Michael Cashmore remaining relatively consistent, the band has had a revolving door of collaborating musicians over the years, each influencing the style and arrangements of the overall sound, be it the nightmarish tape loops of Dogs Blood Rising (1984), the dark psychedelia-tinged pastoral folk of Thunder Perfect Mind (1992) or the baroque metal dirges of Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain (2009).
The central element is always David Tibet’s poetic, hallucinatory lyrics with their recurrent themes of death and redemption, resplendent with references to the occult, gnosticism, literary and mythological allusions, as well as some surreal entrances from various icons from popular culture (Noddy featured quite prominently in Tibet’s mythos at one point).
All this is delivered in a feverish, incantatory style that some listeners can find challenging; there is none of the deapan, poker-face machismo of alt country here, this is foaming-at-the-mouth, shit-your-your-pants, excoriating-visions-of-judgement-day stuff. As with most of the other artists on this list, Current 93’s relative obscurity belies how well-respected and influential they are, with collaborators including Will Oldham, Nick Cave, Boyd Rice, Ben Chasny, Björk, Andrew W.K., Anohni, John Balance, Steve Ignorant, Matt Sweeney, Baby Dee, and Hank Williams III.
Steven Stapleton has been releasing music, either alone or with various collaborators as Nurse With Wound since 1978. Although often lumped in as a pioneer of industrial music, there is a very different spirit at play through his work, with a collagist, improvisational approach to soundmaking that harks back to Dada and Surrealism. This is music where chance, chaos and the absurd are invited in, resulting in startling juxtapositions of texture, tone and register. Jarring frequencies, familiar soothing murmurs, comedy noises and demonic gurglings can all make an entrance, sometimes punctuated by ominous near silences and strange snippets of dialogue. Occasionally things coalesce into something rhythmically cohesive, as on Creakiness (1991), but generally things follow their own oneiric illogic.
Thrown into this mix is Stapleton’s penchant for bizarre Victoriana grotesquerie that gives the feel of slipping down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland to many Nurse With Wound releases (this is also particularly notable in the cover art usually credited to his other pseudonym, Babs Santini). In this world, the familiar is transformed and can seem as absurd as it can threatening; invoking a certain childlike wonder, glee and most often pure terror.
As uncategorizable as Nurse With Wound is, there is a general arc of musical development to guide you in your explorations. The first four albums have a strong Krautrock and free improvisation influence and were recorded as a trio with John Fothergill and Heman Pathak, as epitomised in the legenderary debut from 1979, Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella. From Homotopy to Marie (1982) onwards we get the classic solo NWW sound until Soliloquy for Lilith (1988), with its mesmerising patterns of feedback drones, pointing towards more longform, immersive, ambient work, culminating in later releases like 2003’s Salt Marie Celeste. And like most of the other artists on this list, Nurse With Wound's many collaborators are impressive and include Jim O’Rourke, Stereolab, Sunn O))), Colin Potter, Faust, JG Thirlwell, and Hafler Trio.
Whitehouse was formed by William Bennett in 1980 on the back of his disappointment with Throbbing Gristle, who he felt ‘didn’t go far enough’ (see David Keenan’s excellent England’s Hidden Reverse) and his dream of ‘creating a sound that could bludgeon an audience into submission’. The result is the most extreme act on this list, and yet another pioneer of a subgenre known as power electronics. Their music consists of excruciating blocks of sound, abrasive textures and painful frequencies. Most infamous of all is the confrontational vocal content and style of Bennett and co-member Philip Best: a venomous, bile-barked, often sexually degrading torrent of abuse and violent imagery.
So, it’s definitely not a listening experience for the faint-of-heart and it's easy to see how Whitehouse are so often misunderstood. Often derided as misogynistic by those that take them on face value, Bennett simply rejects this but refuses to provide any conceptual frame to sweeten the bitter pill of his music. It’s also worth noting in this light that one of Bennett’s biggest inspirations while growing up was Yoko Ono.
Whitehouse’s catalogue has three basic phases: the early years, characterised by crudely recorded vocals and squealing feedback on top of nauseating bass frequencies, culminating in Great White Death (1985). The 90s initiated a series of albums recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago, these showed an extended dynamic approach and an expanded palette of sinister atmospherics to augment the ever more painful piercing high frequencies and churning bass rumbles. Finally from the late nineties up until the final recordings from 2007, the sound is completely computer-based and even nods to the influence of African polyrhythms, which Bennett has subsequently pursued as Cut Hands, particularly on ‘Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel’ from 2003’s Bird Seed.
One of the first acts to distinguish themselves out of the power electronics scene that emerged in the wake of Whitehouse’s impact was Ramleh. Formed in 1982 by Gary Mundy and initially joined by Philip Best from Whitehouse, their early releases showcase a particularly brutalist aesthetic with primitive slabs of ugly electronic noise and thuggish vocals, all packaged amidst shocking imagery. For an example check the autopsy photo of the eviscerated cadaver that graces their debut album A Return To Slavery (1983). Mundy set up the label Broken Flag to distribute releases by the band and like-minded artists such as Maurizio Bianchi, Skullflower and Controlled Bleeding.
Mundy himself became a member of Skullflower and soon began incorporating elements of rock-based instrumentation into the Ramleh sound, with 1987’s Hole in the Heart exemplifying this approach, with incendiary guitar coursing along melancholic synths and wailing vocals. One of the defining traits of Ramleh is perhaps this mournful thread that underpins the bristling noise energy; in an interview with the Quietus, Mundy said he like the term ‘bleak psychedelia’ as a description of his work.
Later on in the 80s Anthony DiFranco (know from his JFK alias on Broken Flag) and Stuart Dennison joined Ramleh on bass and drums respectively and Ramleh evolved into a full blown psychedelic noise-rock band, culminating in 2015’s unexpectedly celebratory Circular Time. Currently there are two active guises of the group, the full noise rock shebang and the power electronics duo - something for everyone.
The London squats of Thatcher’s Britain in the mid-eighties birthed these islands’ most enduring noise guitar band, Skullflower. In their first incarnation the group consisted of
Matthew Bower, Stefan Jaworzyn and Stuart Dennison, with Gary Mundy of Ramleh also becoming an integral member. The band’s first four albums, recorded between 1988 and 1990 (and reissued on Jaworzyn’s Shock label), document a sullen, refusenik reinvention of rock from its most primitive raw materials.
Given the hazardous levels of negative energy so apparent in the raging dissonances of those early records, it’s unsurprising that things led to an acrimonious split with Jaworzyn leaving in 1990 (going on to play in the free rock acts Ascension and Descension as well as releasing solo synth-based work). Skullflower carried on their journey into ever more uncharted realms of freeform noise, disbanding in the late nighties but reforming again in 2003, headed by Matthew Bower working with a of miriad collaborators, both live and in an unremitting stream of releases.
In these later works (mostly with partner Samantha Davies on violin and also under the names Voltigeurs and Sunroof!), Bower seems to endlessly variate a formula that found it’s germination in Hototogisu, his duo with Marcia Bassett (Zaïmph, Double Leopards). It involves piling layer upon layer of feedback and atonal scree to generate enveloping walls of pulsating abstraction. Like Black Metal deconstructed into an aural approximation of a Jackson Pollock canvas raised to pyrotechnic oblivion.
While D.O.A. or 20 Jazz Funk Greats might be the pinnacle of Throbbing Gristle’s studio albums and Heathen Earth is often hailed as their greatest live recording, for me this 1981 recording of their final performance (in their initial incarnation) in San Francisco just pips them all.
For a band that was fuelled by bad vibes, this finds them at a point where antagonisms within the group had reached breaking point, so naturally what we get is a set played with feverish intensity by a group seemingly on blistering form. The bootleg quality to the sound only adds to the cultish, obscure nature of the document, with the sounds produced by each member merging with that of the audience into something ominous, primeval and entrancing. On particular fine form is Genesis P-Orridge, whose normally alienated, dissociative monotone is raised to a demonic intensity. Just hear the sermonising chant on opener ‘Dead Souls’, where waves of delay seem to command a churning bass to rise up like some monstrous from hell.
This album from 1988 opens with two solid pop tunes. First the chart ‘hit’ ‘Godstar’ about Brian Jones as a sacrificial scapegoat of the 60s, prefiguring the Stones-obsessed psyche of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. Then the perfectly produced, ‘Just Like Arcadia’, with beautifully wistful boy/girl duetting chorus. Things then start to go all over the place and it’s a familiar story of frayed relationships, with this being the last of P-Orridge’s collaborations with Alex Fergusson before PTV ploughed a trajectory into dance music for the next few years. Elements of that move are prefigured to an extent here, with the Moroderesque disco pop of ‘She Was Surprised’ and the sample-heavy Art of Noise stylings of ‘Ballet Disco’. Alongside these relative niceties though we have the galloping ‘Starlit Mire’, with it’s desperate Austin Osman Spare (whose occult artwork graces the sleeve) inspired visions incantated over scrabbling klezmer violins. From these soaring heights the album collapses into the post-apocalyptic Tom Waitsian blues dub of ‘Thee Dweller’, replete with wolf howls and scattershot drum echoes. It’s a strange, twisty album that’s beautifully recorded (and reissued) and unexpectedly moving as a whole.
Coil released this beauty under the alias Black Light District in 1996, it’s since had the lavish, albeit limited, reissue treatment it deserves from Dais. Seen at the time as a turn towards less song-oriented material and a more abstract, avant garde focus, it is in fact a deeply immersive album that carries real emotional weight as well as as being intellectually stimulating.
While its mixture of drones, loops, field recordings and gorgeous synth work would put it broadly in the ambient music camp, the music so vivid and finely developed that it is positively hallucinogenic in its ability to convey rich and detailed imagery. John Balance’s vocals are used sparingly, but where they do appear they seem haunted with a melancholy that’s almost otherworldly, as on ‘Refusal of Leave to Land’ and ‘London’s Lost Rivers’; which are all the more affecting in light of his subsequent untimely death. And then the album closes with ‘Chalice’, just about the saddest, headiest melding of elegiac synths with sampled vocals and wheezing loops of mechanical noise you could ever dream of.
This 1992 album is a favourite among connoisseurs of the band and often touted as a good starting point for those wanting to dip their toes into Current 93’s rewarding but intimidating sound universe. It opens with ‘A Beginning’, a fairly straight arrangement of some pastoral English folk with a cryptic spoken word coda from Shirley Collins about (non) communing with the forest. We then get some of Tibet’s most gorgeous songwriting with the usual impassioned vocal performance and dense lyrical allusions of Biblical grandeur.
Standout tracks include ‘A Sadness Song’, with its exquisite use of a recorder and Rose McDowell’s backing vocals, giving dimensional depth to a deceptively simple tune, the perfect foil for Tibet’s dense allegorical musings. Elsewhere the album is more experimental, melding traditional song-forms with electronic drones and processed voices- adding to the sense of the album approximating a kind of epiphanic, revelatory experience. The most epic track here, ‘Hitler as Kalki’ is a psychedelic slow-burner, with heated electric guitar lines following exotic harp patterns and violin riffs across a fluid stomp before flying loose. And as always, Tibet chanting, wide-eyed and rapt in yet another apocalyptic vision.
Although technically the fifth album credited to Nurse With Wound, Homotopy To Marie (1982) was produced entirely by Steven Stapleton and so is considered by many as the first, proper NWW release. As such it’s as good as any entry point into the strange sonic world on offer. It starts off challengingly enough with some dry crunching sounds, giving way to some tortured, death rattling screams, all seeming to coexist in a hushed vacuum of menacing near silence.
The second title track has panned cymbals clattering for a while. Then from these decaying overtones a bizarre dialogue emerges with a bewildered little girl’s voice repeating things like ‘When I woke up, I didn't know where I was, and there was a funny smell’, with this harshly cut down with an older woman’s disdainful ‘don’t be naive, darling’. Other ratty textures are gradually introduced, and the metallic clanging and squeaking almost forming an uneasy dialogue of itself before clattering toy instruments interject an abrupt climax. The whole album showcases Stapleton's startlingly unconventional approach to sound processing and editing with results that disarm, disrupt and are somehow cinematic, taking you to places no other music ever could.
The first of Whitehouse’s recordings made with Steve Albini after a three year hiatus saw them expand and refine their musical vocabulary somewhat. While the painful microphone squeals are still omnipresent and more noxious than ever, thanks to Albini’s engineering skills- there are more developed dynamics to the performances here. Pulverising walls of noise come and go and are layered against feedbacking flangers, only to fall back to make way for seething hiss and uneasy rumble. All the better foil for the sadistic imagery of the coldly spat vocals to make maximum impact between the sickening maelstrom.
According to Albini’s reviews of albums he’d recorded (including the fee he’d charged) that he wrote for Forced Exposure magazine in the 90’s, all the tracks on Thank Your Lucky Stars are structured on famous heavy metal songs. Though probably apocryphal, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you listen to tracks like ‘Sadist’: with almost call and response dynamic between aggressively sneered tirades of sexual aggression followed with throbbing, bestial synth groans and slithering metallic textures; dissonance, both tonal and cognitive, that’s as hypnotic as it is repellent.
Recorded in 1987 solely by Mundy, more out of necessity than by choice, because he ‘wanted to revive the band but couldn't find anyone to do it with’, Hole in the Heart is a true one off gem. The 2009 reissue by Dirter Promotions is even more revelatory, compiling work from various Ramleh cassette releases on Broken Flag from 87. Across the two discs we get a series of searing soundscapes etched with incendiary guitar, cyclical keyboard mantras and muezzin-like distorted vocal moans. The dark intensity of the music perfectly matches the stark, blasted-Earth landscape of the cover. This is raw, uprooted music that is in equal measure angry, sorrowful and ecstatic - almost a new form of the Blues.
This recent split 12” on Blackest Rainbow offers an ideal starting point to get to grips with the subtle variations on a theme offered by Skullflower founder Matthew Bower and his partner Samantha Davies, in three of their various recording guises. The Voltigeurs track is a pummelling machine-drum driven open-ended Black Metal fugue, with aggressive upper-mid distortion frothing over the surface of ominous rising chords and bestial hissings. The Black Sunroof has synth-like drones dripping with neon heat and dense guitar crunch over clunking beats. The Skullflower side bursts in with an infinite chugging drone raga; the longer it runs, the more complex tonal interactions emerge, with throaty resonances gurgling to the fore as metallic effects, reversed hi-hats and wayward overtones dance wildly before everything cuts out rather brutally, leaving you wanting more. Noise music raised to it’s most narcotically transfixing.
- Colin Potter
- This Heat
- Cabaret Voltaire
- The Pop Group
- Drew McDowall
- Stefan Jaworzyn
- Ashtray Navigations
- Astral Social Club
- Richard Youngs
- Cut Hands
- Vibracathedral Orchestra
- Andrew Liles
- Death In June
- Throbbing Gristle - Heathen Earth & 20 Jazz Funk Greats
- Coil - Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 1
- Skullflower - Xaman
- Current 93 - Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain
- Whitehouse - Bird Seed
- Cut Hands - Festival of the Dead
- Nurse With Wound - Salt Marie Celeste
- Coil - Time Machines
- Colin Potter - The Where House?
- Chris Carter - The Spaces Between
- 23 Skidoo - Seven Songs