Experimental rock

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Experimental rock, also called avant-rock, is a subgenre of rock music [2] that pushes the boundaries of common composition and performance technique [11] or which experiments with the basic elements of the genre. [12] 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. [3]


From its inception, rock music was experimental, but it was not until the late 1960s that rock artists began creating extended and complex compositions through advancements in multitrack recording. In 1967, the genre was as commercially viable as pop music, but by 1970, most of its leading players had incapacitated themselves in some form.[ clarification needed ] In Germany, the krautrock subgenre merged elements of improvisation and psychedelic rock with electronic music, avant-garde and contemporary classical pieces. Later in the 1970s, significant musical crossbreeding took place in tandem with the developments of punk and new wave, DIY experimentation, and electronic music. Funk, jazz-rock, and fusion rhythms also became integrated into experimental rock music.

Early 1980s experimental rock groups had few direct precedents for their sound. Later in the decade, avant-rock pursued a psychedelic aesthetic that differed from the self-consciousness and vigilance of earlier post-punk. During the 1990s, a loose movement known as post-rock became the dominant form of experimental rock. As of the 2010s, the term "experimental rock" has fallen to indiscriminate use, with many modern rock bands being categorized under prefixes such as "post-", "kraut-", "psych-", "art-", "prog-", "avant-" and "noise-".



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.

Bill Martin writing in his book Avant Rock (2002) [13]

Although experimentation had always existed in rock music, [nb 1] it was not until the late 1960s that new openings were created from the aesthetic intersecting with the social. [15] [ jargon ] In 1966, the boundaries between pop music and the avant-garde began to blur as rock albums were conceived and executed as distinct, extended statements. [16] Self-taught rock musicians in the middle and late 1960s drew from the work of composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio. Academic Bill Martin writes: "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." [17]

The Beatles working in the studio with their producer George Martin, c. 1965 Beatles and George Martin in studio 1966.JPG
The Beatles working in the studio with their producer George Martin, c.1965

Martin says 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. [18] Drawing from the influence of George Martin, the Beatles' producer, and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, music producers after the mid-1960s began to view the recording studio as an instrument used to aid the process of composition. [19] [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. [21] [nb 3]

Frank Zappa with Captain Beefheart, seated left, during a 1975 concert Frank Zappa - Capt. Beefheart - crop.jpg
Frank Zappa with Captain Beefheart, seated left, during a 1975 concert

In the late 1960s, groups such as the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, the Monks, Red Krayola, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd and the Beatles began incorporating elements of avant-garde music, sound collage, and poetry in their work. [24] Historian David Simonelli writes that, further to the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" (Revolver, 1966), the band's February 1967 double A-side single, pairing "Strawberry Fields Forever" with "Penny Lane", "establish[ed] the Beatles as the most avant-garde [rock] composers of the postwar era". [25] Aside from the Beatles, author Doyle Greene identifies Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, Plastic Ono Band, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Pink Floyd, the Soft Machine and Nico as "pioneers of avant-rock". [26] [nb 4] In addition, The Quietus ' Ben Graham described duos the Silver Apples and Suicide as antecedents of avant-rock. [28] Pitchfork cited Red Krayola as being "likely the most experimental band of the 1960s". [29]

In the opinion of Stuart Rosenberg, the first "noteworthy" experimental rock group was the Mothers of Invention, led by composer Frank Zappa. [2] Greene recognises the group's debut album, Freak Out! , as marking the "emergence of the 'avant-rock' studio album" at a time when Warhol's presentation of the Velvet Underground's shows was redefining the parameters of a rock concert. [30] According to author Kelly Fisher Lowe, Zappa "set the tone" for experimental rock with the way he incorporated "countertextural aspects ... calling attention to the very recordedness of the album". [31] This was reflected in other contemporary experimental rock LPs, such as the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Smile , the Who's The Who Sell Out (1967) and Tommy (1969), and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). [31] The Velvet Underground were a "groundbreaking group in experimental rock", according to Rosenberg, "even further out of step with popular culture than the early recordings of the Mothers of Invention". [32] The band were playing experimental rock in 1965 before other significant countercultural rock scenes had developed, [33] pioneering avant-rock through their integration of minimalist rock and avant-garde ideas. [34] [nb 5]

The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's inspired a new consideration for experimental rock as commercially viable music. [36] Once the group released their December 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour , author Barry Faulk writes, "pop music and experimental rock were [briefly] synonymous, and the Beatles stood at the apex of a progressive movement in musical capitalism". [37] The musical passage recorded by the Doors in 1968, "Not to Touch the Earth", is what critic Mick Wall described as "nearly four minutes of avant-rock." [38] As progressive rock developed, experimental rock acquired notoriety alongside art rock. [2] [nb 6] By 1970, most of the musicians which had been at the forefront of experimental rock had incapacitated themselves. [40] [ clarification needed ][ verification needed ] From then on, the ideas and work of British artist and former Roxy Music member Brian Eno—which suggested that ideas from the art world, including those of experimental music and the avant-garde, should be deployed in the context of experimental rock—were a key innovation throughout the decade. [41]


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Germany's "krautrock" scene (also referred to as kosmische or elektronische musik) saw bands develop a form of experimental rock [6] [42] that drew on rock sources, such as the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, as well as wider avant-garde influences. [24] Groups such as Can, Faust, Neu!, Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Tempel, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Popol Vuh merged elements of psychedelic rock with electronic music, funk rhythms, jazz improvisation, and avant-garde and contemporary classical compositions, [43] [42] as well as new electronic instrumentation. [24] The ideas of minimalism and composers such as Stockhausen would be particularly influential. [24] The movement was partly born out of the student movements of 1968, as German youth sought a unique countercultural identity [42] [24] and wanted to develop a form of German music that was distinct from the mainstream music of the period. [6]

Late 1970s–present

The late 1970s post-punk movement was devised as a break with rock tradition, exploring new possibilities by embracing electronics, noise, jazz and the classical avant-garde, and the production methods of dub and disco. [44] During this era, funk, jazz-rock, and fusion rhythms became integrated into experimental rock music. [45] Some groups who were categorized as "post-punk" considered themselves part of an experimental rock trajectory, with This Heat as one of the prominent players. [46] The late 1970s no wave scene consisted of New York experimental rock bands that aimed to break with new wave, [8] and who, according to Village Voice writer Steve Anderson, pursued an abrasive reductionism which "undermined the power and mystique of a rock vanguard by depriving it of a tradition to react against." [47] Anderson claims that the no wave scene represented "New York’s last stylistically cohesive avant-rock movement." [47]

Sonic Youth perform in Sweden in 2005. SonicYouth.JPG
Sonic Youth perform in Sweden in 2005.

The early 1980s would see avant-rock develop significantly following the punk and new wave, DIY experimentation, electronic music, and musical cross-breeding of the previous decade, according to Pitchfork . [48] Dominique Leone of Pitchfork claims that the first wave of 1980s experimental rock groups, including acts such as Material, the Work, This Heat, Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, James Blood Ulmer, Last Exit, and Massacre, had few direct precedents for their sound. [48] Steve Redhead noted the resuscitation of New York's avant-rock scene, including artists such as Sonic Youth and John Zorn, in the 1980s. [49] According to journalist David Stubbs, "no other major rock group [...] has done as much to try to bridge the gap between rock and the avant garde" as Sonic Youth, who drew on improvisation and noise as well as the Velvet Underground. [50]

In the late 1980s, avant-rock pursued a "frazzled, psychedelia-tinged, 'blissed out'" aesthetic that differed from the self-consciousness and vigilance of earlier post-punk. [51] The UK shoegaze scene was seen by some as a continuation of an experimental rock tradition. [52] Pitchfork described contemporary acts My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3, and the Jesus and Mary Chain as "avant-rock icons." [53] According to Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell, some 1980s and early 1990s avant-rock acts such as the British musicians David Sylvian and Talk Talk returned to the ideas of progressive rock, which they call "post-progressive". [54] During the 1990s, a loose movement known as post-rock became the dominant form of experimental rock. [9] In a reaction against traditional rock music formula, post-rock artists combined standard rock instrumentation with electronics and influences from styles such as ambient music, IDM, krautrock, minimalism, and jazz. [9] 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." [55]


  1. Young John Watson's 1954 single "Space Guitar" has been cited as an early example of experimental rock due to its extreme usage of dissonance and noise. [14]
  2. In the popular music of the early 1960s, it was common for producers, songwriters, and engineers to freely experiment with musical form, arrangements, unnatural reverb, and other sound effects. Some of the best known examples are Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production formula and Joe Meek's use of homemade electronics for acts like the Tornados. [20]
  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 [22] and, with the Beatles' Revolver , a prime proponent in revolutionizing rock music from live concert performances to studio productions which could only exist on record. [23]
  4. Author Barry Miles commented on Pink Floyd, "They were the first people I'd ever heard who were combining some kind of intellectual experimentation with rock 'n' roll". Photographer John Hopkins remembers: "The band did not play music, they were playing sounds. Waves and walls of sound, quite unlike anything anybody in rock 'n' roll had played before. It was like people in serious, nonpopular music". [27]
  5. According to Clash Music , the group's debut March 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico was the first art rock record. [35]
  6. 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". [39] Specific influences on rock musicians were: improvement in musicianship, broad eclecticism, utopianism, romanticism, and a commitment to experimentation. [39]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Progressive music</span> Type of music that emphasizes expansion of form and stylistic variety

Progressive music is music that attempts to expand existing stylistic boundaries associated with specific genres of music. The word comes from the basic concept of "progress", which refers to advancements through accumulation, and is often deployed in the context of distinct genres, with progressive rock being the most notable example. Music that is deemed "progressive" usually synthesizes influences from various cultural domains, such as European art music, Celtic folk, West Indian, or African. It is rooted in the idea of a cultural alternative, and may also be associated with auteur-stars and concept albums, considered traditional structures of the music industry.

Art rock is a subgenre of rock music that generally reflects a challenging or avant-garde approach to rock, or which makes use of modernist, experimental, or unconventional elements. Art rock aspires to elevate rock from entertainment to an artistic statement, opting for a more experimental and conceptual outlook on music. Influences may be drawn from genres such as experimental music, avant-garde music, classical music, and jazz.

Progressive rock is a broad genre of rock music that primarily developed in the United Kingdom and United States through the mid- to late 1960s, peaking in the early 1970s. Initially termed "progressive pop", the style was an emergence of psychedelic bands who abandoned standard pop traditions in favour of instrumentation and compositional techniques more frequently associated with jazz, folk, or classical music. Additional elements contributed to its "progressive" label: lyrics were more poetic, technology was harnessed for new sounds, music approached the condition of "art", and the studio, rather than the stage, became the focus of musical activity, which often involved creating music for listening rather than dancing.

Post-rock is a form of experimental rock characterized by a focus on exploring textures and timbre over traditional rock song structures, chords, or riffs. Post-rock artists are often instrumental, typically combining rock instrumentation with electronics. The genre emerged within the indie and underground music scene of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, due to its abandonment of rock conventions, it often bears little resemblance musically to contemporary indie rock, borrowing instead from diverse sources including ambient, electronica, jazz, krautrock, dub, and minimalist classical.

Krautrock is a broad genre of experimental rock that developed in West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It originated among artists who blended elements of psychedelic rock, avant-garde composition, and electronic music, among other eclectic sources. Common elements included hypnotic rhythms, extended improvisation, musique concrète techniques, and early synthesizers, while the music generally moved away from the rhythm & blues roots and song structure found in traditional Anglo-American rock music. Prominent groups associated with the krautrock label included Neu!, Can, Faust, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Popol Vuh, Amon Düül II and Harmonia.

Noise rock is a noise-oriented style of experimental rock that spun off from punk rock in the 1980s. Drawing on movements such as minimalism, industrial music, and New York hardcore, artists indulge in extreme levels of distortion through the use of electric guitars and, less frequently, electronic instrumentation, either to provide percussive sounds or to contribute to the overall arrangement.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carnival of Light</span> Composition by the Beatles

"Carnival of Light" is an unreleased avant-garde recording by the English rock band the Beatles. It was commissioned for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, an event held at the Roundhouse in London on 28 January and 4 February 1967. Recorded during a session for the song "Penny Lane", "Carnival of Light" is nearly 14 minutes long and contains distorted, echo-laden sounds of percussion, keyboards, guitar and vocals. Its creation was initiated by Paul McCartney's interest in the London avant-garde scene and through his connection with the design firm Binder, Edwards & Vaughan.

<i>Pretties for You</i> 1969 studio album by Alice Cooper

Pretties for You is the debut studio album by American rock band Alice Cooper, released on June 25, 1969, by Straight Records. At this time, the name "Alice Cooper" referred to the band and not its lead singer Vincent Furnier. The album has a psychedelic flavor to it; the group had yet to develop the more concise hard rock sound that they would become famous for. Most of the tracks feature unusual time signatures and arrangements, jarring syncopation, expressive dynamics, sound effects, and an eclectic range of music influences. A few songs, such as "Levity Ball", show the influence of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, with whom the band hung out during the British group's U.S. tour. Alice Cooper guitarist Glen Buxton stated he could listen to Barrett's guitar playing for hours on end.

Art punk is a subgenre of punk rock in which artists go beyond the genre's rudimentary garage rock and are considered more sophisticated than their peers. These groups still generated punk's aesthetic of being simple, offensive, and free-spirited, but essentially attracted audiences other than the angry, working-class ones that surrounded pub rock.

"Who Needs the Peace Corps?" is a rock and roll song written by American musician Frank Zappa and featured as the second track on the 1968 album We're Only in It for the Money by The Mothers of Invention.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Here She Comes Now</span> 1968 single by The Velvet Underground

"Here She Comes Now" is a song released by the American rock band the Velvet Underground in January 1968, from their second studio album White Light/White Heat. As the shortest song on the album, the performance and mix of the song are both considered simple and traditional, making it somewhat distinct from the other five songs on the album, all of which contain some degree of experimental or avant-garde elements in terms of sound.

"Willie the Pimp" is a song from Frank Zappa's 1969 album Hot Rats. It features an idiosyncratic Captain Beefheart vocal and one of Zappa's classic guitar solos. It is the only track that is not instrumental on the album, though the track features a long guitar solo.

"Trouble Every Day" is a song by the Mothers of Invention, released on their 1966 debut album Freak Out!

Post-punk is a broad genre of rock music that emerged in the late 1970s in the wake of punk rock. Post-punk musicians departed from punk's traditional elements and raw simplicity, instead adopting a broader, more experimental approach that encompassed a variety of avant-garde sensibilities and non-rock influences. Inspired by punk's energy and do it yourself ethic but determined to break from rock cliches, artists experimented with styles like funk, electronic music, jazz, and dance music; the production techniques of dub and disco; and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature. These communities produced independent record labels, visual art, multimedia performances and fanzines.

Art pop is a loosely defined style of pop music influenced by art theories as well as ideas from other art mediums, such as fashion, fine art, cinema, and avant-garde literature. The genre draws on pop art's integration of high and low culture, and emphasizes signs, style, and gesture over personal expression. Art pop musicians may deviate from traditional pop audiences and rock music conventions, instead exploring postmodern approaches and ideas such as pop's status as commercial art, notions of artifice and the self, and questions of historical authenticity.

Experimental pop is pop music that cannot be categorized within traditional musical boundaries or which attempts to push elements of existing popular forms into new areas. It may incorporate experimental techniques such as musique concrète, aleatoric music, or eclecticism into pop contexts. Often, the compositional process involves the use of electronic production effects to manipulate sounds and arrangements, and the composer may draw the listener's attention specifically with both timbre and tonality, though not always simultaneously.

Avant-pop is popular music that is experimental, new, and distinct from previous styles while retaining an immediate accessibility for the listener. The term implies a combination of avant-garde sensibilities with existing elements from popular music in the service of novel or idiosyncratic artistic visions.

Post-progressive is a type of rock music distinguished from vintage progressive rock styles, specifically 1970s prog. Post-progressive draws upon newer developments in popular music and the avant-garde since the mid-1970s. It especially draws from ethnic music and minimalism, elements which were new to rock music. It is different from neo-progressive rock in that the latter pastiches 1970s prog, while "post-progressive" identifies progressive rock music that stems from sources other than prog.

Proto-prog is the earliest work associated with the first wave of progressive rock music, known then as "progressive pop". Such musicians were influenced by modern classical and other genres usually outside of traditional rock influences. They often employed longer and more complicated compositions, interconnected songs as medley, and studio composition. Some of the artists that were essential to the development of progressive rock, rather than just anticipating the movement, include the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Doors, the Pretty Things, the Zombies, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield and Pink Floyd.


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Further reading