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Rock and Roll Experimentation: 10 of the Strangest Musical Compositions Part 2, The Present
This is part two of an article dedicated to looking at the more experimental side of rock and roll. The first half all consisted of songs that were recorded long before my time (aka the past). This half is focused more on how that tradition has continued in the times after my birth (aka the present).
As with all lists, there are always far too many songs to choose from and each person will have their own personal preferences. These 5 are just a few of mine.
6: Radiohead "Like Spinning Plates" from Amnesiac
When it comes to experimental and often times downright strange tracks, there are countless songs from Radiohead that come to mind as they've been pushing creative boundaries for a while. This song transcends traditional songwriting even more than usual though, with inventive and unique techniques. On first listen it might sound relatively straight forward with the standard Radiohead twist, but there is something else going on as well, namely that the track itself is... backwards. When recording this song the band laid down a sonic landscape as the background and then used it playing in reverse as a bed to further build on. This sort of reverse philosophy even goes as far as the vocals where Thom Yorke learned to sing some parts backwards specifically so that when used in reverse, they would come out sounding like words spoken forward, but slightly mutated into something else. The overall effect of all this forwards/backwards stuff is a track that is haunting and sweeping, but also slightly disturbing because of the odd sonic effects that come from running various sounds in reverse. What I think really pushes this effect is that along with these backwards moments, there are also regular sounds in the track as well. This sort of grounds it in reality, while those distortions come forward more as an indication that something is off, upping the intensity. For pure technique alone it's one of the more unique tracks from rock history, but the fact that it works so well as a complete composition is really what it's all about.
7: Jane's Addiction "Thank You Boys" from Nothing Shocking
When listening to the "glammed up" alternative hard rock of Jane's Addiction everything seems like it's going well until you reach this track from their first major release. It follows along in the tradition of odd atmospheric tracks as part of concept albums, although I don't think I'd really consider this album in that category. Why they chose to include a one minute bit of jazz in the middle of such an adrenaline driven album I'll probably never understand 100%. That isn't to say that it doesn't work well, as it is a pretty interesting track despite being so short. The image it conjures is very much that of a lounge singer thanking that last group on stage for their efforts. In a more traditional concept album setting it would work to create that atmosphere, but I find that in this context it just seems a little bit like filler. Sure, it's jazzy lounge filler, but still. Definitely one of those odd rock and roll moments though where your ears perk up and you go: "Ok what just happened?"
8: The White Stripes "St. Andrews (This Battle is In the Air)" from Icky Thump
Continuing the noise rock tradition of the Stooges and the Beatles this psychedelic break down that comes seamlessly from the previous track, is based around two things primarily: a prayer to St. Andrew, and bagpipes. The bursts of screeching guitar overlaid on the pulsing, stomping bagpipe melody recalls both the experimentation of "Revolution 9" and the work of another band on this list: Sonic Youth. Although I do like how this track serves as sort of a sonic breakdown conclusion of the previous one, it also seems slightly out of place amongst their more stripped down compositions. I wouldn't necessarily say it's not successful as it certainly does add a bit of spontaneous color and depth to the album, but on first listen it certainly left me scratching my head just slightly. I think the best way to look at this song though is to look first at a White Stripes live show, which is very dynamic, spontaneous and improvisational and even noise rock based. Through that lens, this type of composition actually seems closer to how they perform in concert than any other.
9: Sonic Youth "In Kingdom #19" from EVOL
Sonic Youth is another band that might have more than a few songs register on the weirdness meter upon first listen. To me this track is both one of their purest as well as one of their strangest. When I think about Sonic Youth I see them more as creating sonic landscapes that are related to specific stories and tales than to actual songs. This song is almost a pure form of that idea. This spoken word story shows a bit of their Velvet Underground influence recalling "The Gift" in style, level of detail and the somewhat morbid feeling. Instead of metal shears to the head though, this one is all about a pretty gruesome car crash. What really makes this track work artistically though is the way the band uses their noise guitar techniques to create all the screeches, sparks flying, hearts beating... the whole picture in it's sonic landscape. This makes the story more like a personal narrative where it feels almost like the listener is standing there watching all this unfold before their eyes. That makes it very successful... not song... sonic landscape. Still, as with all experimental tracks, a successful artistic statement doesn't necessarily mean the best listening experience. It's an interesting one though.
10: Tool "(-) Ions" and "Faaip De Oiad" from AEnema and Lateralus respectively
I decided to talk about these two tracks together for this piece instead of trying to pick only one as they are really similar in style and are actually two of the more frightening sonic compositions I've ever heard. "(-) Ions) consists of a series of metallic rumblings, like wind over a corrugated metal roof, with echoes of thunder and this electric spark sound that travels repeatedly from one side of the stereo image to the other. Now you might ask yourself: "What's so frightening about that?" Well as this minimal elements rumble, build and repeat I find it almost impossible not to be sucked into the anxiety and anticipation of the moment and you end up expecting some sort of explosive release of all that energy that never comes. It's really not the event that is frightening but that anticipation and this track seems to have plenty of anticipation. "Faaip De Oiad" is similar in that it's more of a sonic track than an actual song and has the same level of expectation in terms of a violent release. Compositionally though, it is far more noise based with tons of static, drums and scratchy noise over which a spoken word vocal track is played where a man frantically tries to describe how he worked at "Area 51" and discovered extra dimensional beings that are in league with the governments and are out to take over the earth... pretty wild eh? It's the timber in the mans voice that makes this track so disturbing as it's just drenched in pure terror, especially as the track surges to it's conclusion. These are both definitely headphones tracks, preferably headphones in the dark, but beware that they can be a little overpowering if you really let yourself become engrossed in them, and that can be a bit freaky. Both are worth checking out though as they work very well with the tone of the albums they are on and the tone of Tool as a band.
Bonus: Frank Zappa... again
I've thought I'd include Frank Zappa as a bonus in both the past and present parts of this document because his music throughout the years has been consistently impressive, innovative and more than a little strange as well. Personally, I consider his work during the 60s and 70s to be his peak, but that doesn't mean that there aren't great songs and albums from more recent. All of his works are extremely complex and often outside the realm of "traditional" musical ideas. Just like before, I won't single out any single tracks. The music speaks for itself so check out something from Frank Zappa as it might be a little weird, but it's also pretty great.
What I found most interesting over putting together this piece on the experimental side of rock and roll is how it's easy to see the influence the innovators of the past had on the bands of the future. Take the noise rock of the Beatles "Revolution 9". Perhaps something that might have initially been dismissed by those fans not more "intune with the psychedelic mind set" as nothing but noisy chaos, and yet look at how many bands took that style and sound to heart and created their own noise rock artistic statements or even made it their primary sound.
I think that is the real success of any art. It's not necessarily about how it is perceived at first, but more so how influential it is on those who follow. That is a testament that these 10 songs (and Zappa) are more than just artistic statements in the form of a sonic composition. Sure, each one is that, but they are also the driving force behind continued experimentation in rock and roll. I'm sure there will be strange tracks popping up from rock and roll bands for years and years to come, and when we look at those new offerings, we'll be hearing these influences taken in new directions. I wouldn't want it any other way as whether they are successful or not, these kinds of musical compositions serve as interesting, creative breaks in from the norm and as proof that the artist isn't sitting still, but is constantly looking for new exciting ideas about what music can be.
Really because experimentation has been part of rock and roll for so long, I don't think we should really even refer to these tracks as strange as really they're just new manifestations of what's been there the whole time.
Maybe you're one of the people who has always dismissed experimental compositions before or maybe you're one of the people who "gets it" and doesn't understand how no one else will. Either way, I think it's time to take another look at the strange side of rock and roll and prepared to be freaked out.
Check out part 1 of this piece here: Rock and Roll Experimentation: 10 of the Strangest Musical Compositions Part 1, The Past