The following serves as a primer for those interested in learning more about experimental rock and its origins. Similar to how it’s said that the blues are the roots and rock & roll is the tree and branches, this article will take a look at experimental rock’s lineage throughout the decades via ten milestone albums. A lot will be left out, but the main touchstones upon which genres like post-rock, shoegaze, industrial, math rock, and the like build their foundations will be hit upon.
Before we begin, let’s take a moment to put some guardrails around what’s eligible for this list, with the word “rock” serving as the main delineator. Although pioneering genres such as minimalism, avant garde classical, free jazz, and experimental pop are inexplicably intertwined in this genealogy, they will not be considered as I see those as unique categories unto themselves. Understandably then, classics such as Bitches Brew, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Stravinsky/John Cage/Edgar Varese will all be left out.
Let’s begin our list in the 1960’s with a now well know avant garde rock ‘n roll band…
I. The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Artist: The Velvet Underground
A strong argument can be made that Lou Reed and company pioneered a large variety of genres, but with their debut they undeniably blazed a trail that the following artists have taken, and experimental rock’s Mt. Rushmore surely must feature a bust of Lou Reed. Although some may argue that White Light/White Heat was more boundary pushing, this debut record, featuring droning violas, free/noise guitar solos, and great song writing, make this record is as good a starting place as any in tracing this history.
With “Sunday Morning”, the album opens innocently enough, but the simple melody quickly morphs from lullaby into something more unsettling. A bit further along “Venus In Furs” immerses the listener in what could easily be called trance music from a pagan cult ritual. The combination of primitive drumming, droning guitars and violas, and Lou Reed’s lyrics invoke a slowly unfolding ancient ceremony featuring a bunch of guys in black robes. But fortunately, or unfortunately, the chorus brings things back into a familiar zone, a “rock” zone, connecting the album where “I’m Waiting For My Man” left off to where it will next pick up with “Run Run Run”.
Every track is essential, and it would be tiresome to mention them all here. But obviously the epic “Heroin” is the centerpiece, and “European Son” finds the band stretching out a bit for an extended avant jam session, very much reminiscent of what would be coming just a year later on their next album. For those interested in more, be sure to investigate Lou Reed’s solo career, especially Street Hassle, The Bells, and The Blue Mask.
II. Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Artist: Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band
With Trout Mask Replica we’re still in the neighborhood of what can be considered “avant garde rock ‘n roll”, but things have gotten a lot weirder, and probably purposely so. It may come as a surprise to some that, despite all the recited poetry, out of time guitar parts, and other generally bizarre moments, Trout Mask Replica was vigorously rehearsed to the point where the band played it the same, note for note, cover to cover, every time they performed it. This is not simply a case of a bunch of musicians making noise and improvising on the spot.
This is most clear in tracks like “Moonlight On Vermont” and “Pachuco Cadaver”, where grating, borderline irritating sections give way to a joyous release of sweet melody. These more taxing sections, as in both songs just mentioned, work to provide a brilliant counterpoint when the chorus finally hits, and it’s this “pain” that makes the magnificent parts seem all the more stunning. These elements, adapted from classical music, will be seen as a theme throughout the rest of this list.
III. Tago Mago (1971)
Can has done many great things, but for the sake of choosing just one album, I think…I think it has to be this record. It is raw sounding, the drums are vigorous and generously set high up in the mix. The openings of the two best tracks “Halleluhwah” and “Paperhouse” may not sound too exotic to an ear weaned on 1970’s era rock, but these pieces, and they really are more so “pieces” than “songs”, evolve like Zeppelin and the like never attempted, forging new sonic territory for following generations to pick up and run with.
The main gripe many have with this album is the last three tracks, and admittedly, they are weaker, but also different, and they are moments worth mining from those extended tracks. Other great Kraut-Rock bands to check out are: Neu!, Popol Vuh, Kraftwerk, Cluster, and Faust, just to name the best of the best.
IV. Close To The Edge (1972)
Prog Rock gets a bad rap, and just because I’m penning this list doesn’t mean I’m going to defend it. Prog just has not aged well, if it were ever fully ripened to begin with. None the less, Yes, a band that will always be historically mentioned in the same sentence as prog, is a great band. And Closer To The Edge is probably their definitive statement, one they had been working up to ever since and could not repeat subsequently on albums such as Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973) nor Relayer (1974).
Consisting of three epic tracks, Closer to the Edge takes a few listens to sink in and its full picture doesn’t come into view until hearing it from end to end. The title track, similarly to what was mentioned above regarding Beefheart, makes use of the ugly/beautiful dynamic quite well. The cacophony of the intro segues right into what is most likely the band’s catchiest guitar lick in their entire catalogue. The other interesting element to this record is the beautiful folk songs buried within, mainly in “And You And I”. Stripped down to the basics, it would stand as a classic British folk tune.
V. Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)
Artist: Brian Eno
Before Brian Eno pioneered ambient music, and really the production aesthetics of much of music history to follow, he had a run of strong experimental rock albums. Beginning in 1973 with Here Come The Warm Jets though 1977’s Before And After Science, the four albums found here rank amongst the decade’s finest. It was his debut, however, that was his best, both in terms of experimental techniques and song writing.
The first two tracks are a good indicator of what will follow throughout the rest of the record, a straightforward pop-rock song in “Needle In The Camel’s Eye” and the much stranger “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch”. Even a simple song like the former, in Eno’s hands, keeps the interest level high with interesting production values, hard panned drums, synth/guitar wall of sound, etc. The latter is a quirky little song, but with quirkier instrumental moments. I still remember the first time I encountered that synth solo and realizing I had never heard anything like it. It’s still one of my all-time favorite instrumental moments.
In a similar vein to Eno, Bowie’s late 1970s/early 1980s work is a recommended next listen in this line, especially the albums Station To Station and Low.
VI. Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
Artist: Frank Zappa
Zappa may be best known as a Jazz Rock pioneer (Hot Rats and The Grand Wazoo), for 1960’s freak-rock (Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, and We’re Only In It For The Money), novelty songs (“Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl”), or his one Grammy received during his lifetime (Jazz From Hell), but unfortunately, today he is not as well remembered for his incredible boundary pushing experimental rock. Any of his early 1970s albums would be a great showcase for this side of his music, Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Apostrophe (1974), Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), and One Size Fits All (1975).
On his 1973 effort, two main things are of note. Firstly is Frank’s blazing guitar solos, but maybe blazing isn’t the best word because he was never a mindless shredder. “Instant Composition”, as he liked to call it, would probably be better. Secondly, are the innovative song structures and compositional techniques that he has fit into these traditional riff based rock songs. “Zomby Woof”, for instance, has a remarkable number of instruments, quick interludes, and surprise turns as one could hope for, but it never sounds forced and the end result is still just a great rock song. For a deeper dive into Frank’s back catalogue see my primer for beginners.
VII. Loveless (1991)
Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Skipping ahead a decade and we come upon one of the great guitar records of all time. The most remarkable thing about Loveless is probably the sound of the guitars themselves, as opposed to what they’re actually playing. This spectacular wall of noise is remarkable upon first listen and has spawned a lot of followers, but it’s my opinion that no shoegaze band has really done justice to what this record had pioneered and the best followers come from other genres completely. Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins, on early albums Pisces Iscariot and Siamese Dream, clearly owe a large debt to this record and have pushed it farer than any of the shoegaze bands.
VIII. Agaetis byrjun (1999)
Artist: Sigur Ros
Sigur Ros are the masters of the subtly epic, pieces that slowly build up to grand crescendos. On Agaetis byrjun the melodies are sweet and the Eno influenced atmospheres are a large part of what makes this album a classic. Although bands had been creating similar styles of music since Galaxie 500 in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until Sigur Ros that the style reached full maturity, and the 10 tracks on this album are a testament to how grand a statement it can make.
IX. Frances The Mute (2005)
Artist: The Mars Volta
The Mars Volta rank as one of the most innovative bands of the new millennium and Frances The Mute is their space-rock masterpiece. The opener, “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” segues seamlessly from an acoustic opening to hard rock, funk, then ambient, all without appearing forced. The instrumentation is topnotch and the guitar solos wail throughout thanks to the talents of John Frusciante.
The climax of album takes place somewhere in the midst of the epic final track, the 32 minute “Cassandra Gemini”, which Spotify groups as all one track, unfortunately. On the CD version, this behemoth is split into more manageable chunks. Despite all the ambient/avant garde flourishes, the riffs stay heavy and funky, which is an incredible balance to strike. Regrettably, The Mars Volta has broken up ending the run of the only truly innovative stadium rock band we had, but between their first three albums and parts of the next three, they left quite a legacy.
Other modern experimental albums to check out are All Hour Cymbals by Yeasayer, tUnE-yArDs’ Whokill, and Menomena’s Friend and Foe.
X. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (2011)
Artist: Explosions In The Sky
And now we finally come to the end of the line, in our current decade, and although you can easily trace Explosions In The Sky’s relevance back more than a decade prior to the release of this album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care is their crowning achievement. It’s neither their most well-known nor probably most beloved by fans, but it is their most consistent album with not a moment wasted. A rare feat for any post-rock band.
One of the things that set EITS above all the other very good post-rock bands is their ability to create beautiful guitar melodies and counterpoints that weave in and out of one another with the most glorious of guitar tones. One fatal flaw of any aspiring experimental artist is the neglect for nice melodies, as if having a catchy tune makes the music “less serious”. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. No matter what the genre, crafting a fine melody is the hardest part of the task and really, is what music is all about.
Rock’s death has been proclaimed loudly and vehemently many times since its creation in the early to mid-20th century, but despite all this, it is still going strong. One can hope that experimental rock will continue to evolve, innovate, and pull the mainstream ever so slightly down the path of new creation. Although it maintains its status on the fringes of public conscious, it is experimental music that propels the music of the masses ever forward.