It’s hard to write about experimental art without sounding pretentious. Experimental music is obviously a niche genre, but I have a strong appreciation for artists who attempt to deviate from the norm and try something new. Casual listeners might find the albums in this guide a little on the weird or even pretentious side, but those who delve deeper into the art form might have a different opinion. With the success of Animal Collective’s wonderful Meriwether Post Pavilion last year, I can only hope that more listeners are willing to give experimental music a chance.
The Human Animal
Considering how corrupt the music industry has become, it's rare to find a modern label who’s name can act as a stamp of approval. With the sheer number of quality ethereal albums they’ve released over the last 20-odd years, Projekt Records continue to be the exception to that. Android Lust, an industrial darkwave artist who first joined the label with 2002’s excellent The Dividing, is the kind of original artist that is keeping labels like Projekt honest. The Human Animal is an album for industrial fans who want something unique and creative. It’s not beautiful in the way that darkwave often is, nor is it catchy or particularly heavy. However, it has a distinct ambience about it, and it does an excellent job of combining electronic and industrial sounds with stringed instruments and melodic guitars. It can be haunting, but The Human Animal is a kind of non-commercial album that is more for people who appreciate the art of music and the genres that the songs covers.
Dirty Granny Tales
There are weird albums and then there is Didi’s Son. Dirty Granny Tales, the insane artists who have this mess of an album, are a completely demented avant-garde group that capture the essence of a dark cabaret performance on album. There are elements of opera, folk, swing, orchestral, and even black metal, all of which are implemented in strange but interesting ways. It’s weird as hell, and not always coherent, but Didi’s Son is incredibly unique and entertaining. I’d love to see this adapted to an actual stage show, although I’m not sure I’d be able to keep my sanity in check watching it.
Pulse of the Earth
Pulse of the Earth is admittedly a bit of a disappointment. Coming six years after their last album, a trip-hop and darkwave masterpiece, Hungry Lucy’s fourth studio albums is a little on the safe side. It’s still very good, and the music is anything but generic darkwave, but it’s hard not to compare it to the band’s better work. It’s still incredibly catchy for the genre, while still being dreamy, ambient, and even psychedelic, and as such it still has the band’s trademark sound in tact. Pulse of the Earth is definitely worth picking up for fans of darkwave, and once the disappointment wears off Hungry Lucy fans will find a legitimately great album beneath it.
Kayo Dot may never live up to maudlin of the Well, the former band from Toby Driver, but the avant-garde metal band’s third album is another weird trip into uncharted territory. Billed as the first “goth fusion” album, Coyote takes elements from 80s and 90s goth and darkwave music, and infuses it with heavy metal, jazz, and plenty of other random styles. Labeling it as a new genre is a little much, as it’s really is just avant-garde metal with a gothic twist, but Coyote is an interesting album nevertheless. It’s weird enough to satisfy any fan of heavy experimental music, and it’s certainly one of the more original darkwave-influenced albums in some time.
While many indie rock bands are starting to fall into one of a few different trends, it’s refreshing to hear a band like Menomena. Mines is an album done in the Portugal. The Man and TV on the Radio style of indie rock. That is to say, it’s an album that works as both an experimental and indie album. It’s unique, creative, and often weird, but it’s still simple when it needs to be, and it’s almost always catchy. If there’s one thing that can be said about Mines, it’s that it’s completely unpredictable. On first listen, the direction this album takes is truly surprising, and it rewards careful listening the second and third times around. Choosing whether this albums better fits in the “Experimental” or “Indie” section was difficult, but deciding to include it in this guide was anything but.
Athiest and Cynic fused death metal with jazz brilliantly in the 1990’s. However, it’s taken until 2010 to hear a black metal band mix free form jazz into their sound. Shining (not to be confused with the more famous Swedish Shining) happen to be that band, and Blackjazz is that album. The technically of death metal is a better match for jazz than the raw noise of black metal, but Shining makes it work here. This is heavy free form jazz with down tuned guitars and growled vocals, and there are even some psychedelic elements thrown in for good measure. It’s one flaw is that is relies a little too much on its central idea, as it would be hard to recommend Blackjazz purely as a jazz or black metal album. The music isn’t as technical as that of most quality jazz artists, and the black metal elements are really pretty generic. However, that complaint really more minor than it sounds. Blackjazz is much more of an experimental album than a black metal or jazz one, and on that level it’s brilliant. This is a truly original album, and one of the most avant-garde releases in years.
Norrøn Livskunst is proof that weird music doesn’t need to sound random. Solefald have made a very calculated album, but that only adds to its weirdness. If Norrøn Livskunst wasn’t expertly written, it simply wouldn’t be listenable. This odd combination of black metal, jazz, acoustic rock, and prog is beyond insane at times, but again, it’s listenable. Few avant-garde bands are weird as Solefald, but few are as a fun and even accessible to those who don’t mind the genres they mix. The lyrics are mostly written in høgnorsk, a 1917 form of Norwegian, although it’s debatable whether that tops the four languages used to tell the story in In Harmonia Universali. If you’ve actually made it through this paragraph with your interest peaked, you’ll likely enjoy the insane but wonderful mess Solefald have created.
My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
The long overdue comeback album from the criminally overlooked Swans reminds me a lot of the comeback album Dinosaur Jr. released in 2007. The Dinosaur Jr. album didn’t necessarily elevate the band’s sound, but it marked a return to their roots without sounding dated or repetitive. Swans’ My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky does mostly the same things, as it’s simply more of what fans of the band have loved for the past 25 years. It’s nothing new, and yet it sounds oddly modern. Maybe that shows the strong influence Swans have had on modern art rock, but more than anything it’s just great to hear some new music from one of rock’s hidden gems.
Avant-garde rock is rarely as beautiful as it is on Yugen’s Iridule. This is an album with numerous influences and sounds, but they all blend together nicely. Yugen plays expertly with volume, not just in a literal sense, but also in terms of where the influences are placed. There are always loud and soft sounds contrasting each other, and often those are different from the ones the listener might expect. The point is that Iridule is a unique album that is both beautiful and chaotic, and as strange as it is, the band always seems to have a grasp on what they’re doing. This is a masterful album, and one of the highlights of experimental music in 2010.
Two of the best EP’s of 2010, Zola Jesus’ Stridulum and Valusia have been compiled and released as a single full length album. It’s not easy to find in this format, but regardless of how you hear it any fan of beautiful, trippy, and haunting music should give this collection of masterful psychedelic songs a listen. Zola Jesus has often been compared to Siouxsie & the Banshees, and that’s actually a pretty accurate comparison. Like Siouxise, Zola Jesus has a beautiful haunting voice, and she possesses an incredible talent for songwriting. These lo-fi tunes are brilliantly written, riddled with tension and atmosphere, and it’s worth noting again just how incredibly haunting Zola Jesus’ voice is. Stridulum II has moments that can potentially leave the listener shaking, and any album that can do that deserves to be listened to.