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Experimental rock or avant-garde rock is a type of music based on rock which experiments with the basic elements of the genre, and/or which pushes the boundaries of common composition and performance technique.
Performers may also attempt to individualize their music with unconventional time signatures, instrumental tunings, compositional styles, lyrical techniques, elements of other musical genres, singing styles, instrumental effects or custom-made experimental musical instruments.
The mid- to late 60s was an era of explosive growth and experimentation in rock music. Bands drew influences from free jazz artists such as John Coltrane and Sun Ra and avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Velvet Underground, which at one point counted Lou Reed, John Cale, and Angus Maclise among its members and was associated with Andy Warhol and LaMonte Young, fused elements of minimalism and avante-garde music with standard rock song structures. The sounds of Indian music and Arabic music were also widely admired and adapted. Even such popularly successful bands as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were able to incorporate outside and foreign influences into their songs without sacrificing their broad fanbase.
In the television program Howard Goodall's 20th-Century Greats, Goodall says that in mixing pop and classical techniques, and cross-fertilising them with Indian and electronic music, The Beatles refreshed and revitalised western harmony. They also transformed the recording studio from a dull box where you recaptured your live sound, into a musical laboratory, of exciting and completely new sounds.
Other important experimental bands in this period include The Monks, The Fugs, The Godz, Red Crayola, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and The Mothers of Invention. These bands were also the inspiration for Plastic People of the Universe, which emerged in the 1970s behind the Iron Curtain.
Influenced by the experiments of these groups came another wave of experimental rock bands in the early 1970s. There was, for instance, the so-called Krautrock scene in Germany, which included psychedelic bands like Amon Düül II and Popol Vuh, sound-collage artists like Faust, and the extremely improvisational and almost unclassifiable Can. Brian Eno was another important figure, especially after his departure from Roxy Music in order to pursue his own ideas (which ultimately led to his invention of the term "ambient music"). Some other artists in this period, such as David Bowie and Scott Walker, also departing from more pop-oriented styles in order to experiment with songwriting and production. Some of Miles Davis' early-70s work such as On the Corner or A Tribute to Jack Johnson straddles or even defines the line between Jazz fusion, Funk and Rock. At the same time, there was the experimental wing of the already somewhat experimental progressive rock scene, including a number of bands who were influenced by contemporary classical music -- Magma, Henry Cow, Area, Univers Zero, and so on. In the late 70s, punk rock developed a number of experimental offshoots, most notably post-punk. This genre includes everything from arty punk rockers like Pere Ubu, The Electric Eels and Suicide to the dub-influenced Public Image Ltd.. Other punk offshoots included Industrial music (bands such as Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle) and No Wave (bands such as James Chance and the Contortions and DNA).
Experimentalism was a large part of the College rock and underground music scene in the 1980s. Influenced by their punk and post-punk predecessors, bands like Sonic Youth, Band of Susans, and Live Skull who all originated in New York's No Wave scene, The Scene Is Now, Negativland, Butthole Surfers, Swans, Beme Seed and Dinosaur Jr. further expanded the boundaries of rock by introducing influences from minimalism and conceptualism, as well as pop art, situationism and fluxus and influences from the new media culture of the 1980s. Sun City Girls. The late 80s underground scene saw the rise of a number of bands influenced by the Velvet Underground and 1960s psychedelia, including Agitpop, Opal, The Pixies, Yo La Tengo, and Big Black. Hardcore punk, with its DIY ethic was also a big influence on many of the experimental rock bands of the day. Toward the end of the 1980s rap emerged into a mature, experimental phase exploring the possibilities of sampling and dealing with social and racial issues. Sampling technology had been present within pop music for a large portion of the decade, however, artists such as Kate Bush, Brian Eno and so forth innovated an experimental pop music take on the use of sampling technology. The influences of this form of sampling also aided as an influence on modern electronica. Rap's impact on experimental rock was huge, as many rock bands were impressed by the power and innovation of rap artists such as Public Enemy, Dream Warriors and Digital Underground and sought to incorporate aspects of rap and hip hop into their music, with Sonic Youth's 1990 Kool Thing featuring an appearance by Chuck D. of Public Enemy.
The commercialization of underground music in the first part of the 1990s led to the rise of a representative "Alternative" style which featured multiple, layered distorted guitars and overwrought male vocals. The experimentalism that had characterized the 1980s declined as grunge took hold as the dominant style in rock music. Originated in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s by Heavy Metal, psychedelia and punk influenced bands such as Mudhoney, and Mother Love Bone, Nirvana was the genre's breakout artist. Soon follow up bands like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden were dominating the charts while hewing close to the accepted list of influences on their genre and even adding elements of arena rock such as extended guitar solos and intricate time signatures to what had been a stripped-down, nonvirtuosic style. Bands such as the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth discarded many unconventional and abrasive elements and began working within traditional structures. Artists such as Ween and Redd Kross continued their predecessors inventiveness with less impact, as did some bands referring to 1970s funk music such as Praxis.
Half way the ninties the lo-fi movement became a prominent factor in exploring new recording techniques at home with direct plugged in guitars as well as heavily pre amps channels for acoustic instruments raising the noise in the music. Experimental lo-fi rock bands are Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Half Japanese, Eric's Trip.
In the later 1990s, many indie rock bands diverged into a style called Post-rock, which has been described as "using rock instrumentation to make non-rock music"; major influences on this style include Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Slint, who were influenced by Hardcore punk, and Talk Talk's later works, which were influenced by Miles Davis and ambient music. By now "post-rock" can refer to almost any complex instrumental rock coming out of the indie scene, from the delicate, classical-influenced chamber rock of Rachel's to the massive, forbidding sonic landscapes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Other experimental rock styles of this period are math rock and post-hardcore, with bands like Shellac, Fugazi, Les Savy Fav. Noise rock took a more radical course and speedy with bands like Melt-Banana and Lightning Bolt. At the end of the ninties some indie rock bands like The Notwist and Enon went into a more electronic way of music making to explore new textures.
As the 90s passed, non-instrumental forms of indie rock also became increasingly experimental. Some of the innovators in this area were bands associated with the Elephant 6 and Jewelled Antler collectives, such as Six Organs of Admittance, Comets on Fire, Josephine Foster and the Supposed, Le Butcherettes (a duo that experiments with raw meat and symbolisms), Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control; later experimental indie bands include Deerhoof, Kling Klang, Liars, U.S. Maple, Xiu Xiu, Man Man, The Fiery Furnaces, and TV on the Radio. Also, British band Radiohead, who had become popular in the 1990s with their Alternative rock, began making more Avant-garde style music at the turn of the millennium, with the album Kid A, and then in 2001 with its sister album Amnesiac. These albums took influence from Electronica, Krautrock and at times Jazz and classical music to create a radical shift in direction for the group.
The New Weird America movement with bands like Animal Collective, the Dodos emerged as a distinct presence both harkening back to an imagined 1960s heyday and pointing the way forward for rock music in the era of online distribution. The punk band Mindless Self Indulgence contains many elements of experimental rock, seamlessly combining punk, techno, and hip hop. There are many avant-prog bands still active, including Sleepytime Gorilla Museum,Y O L K (dunkerque) and Koenjihyakkei. Bands like Life Without Buildings and Chicks on Speed draw on the No Wave sounds of the early 1980s. Other experimental rock acts founded after 2000 are These Are Powers, Women, HEALTH, Ponytail, The Luyas, Abe Vigoda, PRE. Experimental luthier Yuri Landman creates several experimental musical instruments for notable experimental rock acts like Liars, Enon, Sonic Youth, Jad Fair, Mauro Pawlowski, Lou Barlow. The band Neptune also built several similar electric instruments. With multi layered sound over sound delay tracks Liam Finn as well as Ill Ease incorporated noise rock sound structures in their singer songwriter songs.
A collection of second wave post hardcore and new prog bands have dabbled in experimental stylings, notably The Mars Volta, Thrice, Glassjaw and Circa Survive.
Some of the more common techniques include:
- Extended techniques: Any of a number of methods of performing with voice or a musical instrument that are unique, innovative, and sometimes regarded as improper.
- "Prepared" instruments—ordinary instruments modified in their tuning or sound-producing characteristics. For example, guitar strings can have a weight attached at a certain point, changing their harmonic characteristics. A different form is not hanging objects on the strings, but divide the string in two with a third bridge and play the inverse side, causing resonating bell-like harmonic tones at the pick-up side.
- Unconventional playing techniques—for example, the tuning pegs on a guitar can be rotated while a note sounds (called a "tuner glissando").
- Extended vocal techniques — any vocalized sounds that are not normally utiliized in classical or popular music, such as moaning, howling or making a clicking noise.
- Incorporation of instruments, tunings, rhythms or scales from non-Western musical traditions.
- Use of sound sources other than conventional musical instruments such as trash cans, telephone ringers, and doors slamming.
- Playing with deliberate disregard for the ordinary musical controls (pitch, duration, volume).
- Creating experimental musical instruments for enhancing the timbre of compositions and exploring new techniques or possibilities.