Experimental music worth listening to

It was around the end of high school that my musical tastes took a drastic turn.

An older friend burned me a CD (so throwback) featuring some early White Stripes, Modest Mouse and selections off Radiohead’s Kid A. It took multiple listens to get over how odd the music sounded to my unaccustomed ears; but it wasn’t long before I was hooked.

I was awed by the diverse instrumentation, the complexity of their melodies, and more than anything, the uniqueness of their expression. This was music that leapt over the boundaries of formulaic chord progressions and predictable lyrical patterns; this was music you could get lost in, and I realized that most of the contemporary Christian bands I’d been immersed in during my teenage years just couldn’t compete.

More and more, heading into college, I was attracted to innovation in music, to acts that were doing something new and bold and not afraid to sound weird or shocking at first listen, in their attempts at accessing a unique and authentic musical expression.

I found an appealing humility and authenticity behind some of the strangest and most experimental bands. These are people who know their music is too weird to ever spin at a party, but that’s not going to stop them from making music exactly how they feel it should be made.

It’s been a continued encouragement to my faith to find that as I investigate the charming world of experimental music, there are a number of Christians who are at the forefront, and highly respected in the broader field of alternative and experimental music.

Here are six experimental bands or musicians who have squawked, wailed and electronically gurgled alongside me, as they explore some of the strangest and most wonderful corners of the Christian faith through their art. I’ve chosen the following six based on two criteria:

1. that they have succeeded as experimental artists, have done something new in their genre, and been critically well-received.

2. that a significant portion of their music has been invested in exploring their faith as Christians.

 

The Gothic Rambler: Wovenhand

Lead singer David Eugene Edwards, previously of 16 Horsepower, is a singularly focused and utterly captivating musician. The intensity and power with which he delivers his songs just has to be witnessed. His songs have a gothic, backwoods feel, and evoke emotion similar to what you might feel reading through an Old Testament prophet, with their starkness, harshness, and often ominous effects. His lyrics are more often than not passionate, intense prayers for greater devotion to Christ, and for a more devoted pursuit of holiness. “Holy King cause my skin to crawl, away from every evil thing,” he sings, stone-faced. I sometimes think Isaiah and him would get on just fine.

Tagged: gothic folk, , alternative country, ancient/primal

The Operatic Powerhouse: My Brightest Diamond

When I first heard Shara Worden sing on record, I was impressed; when I first watched a Youtube clip of her, I was blown away; if I ever have the opportunity to see her live, I know I will swoon. Worden was classically trained as an opera singer and then made her switch into experimental folk. Her songwriting has only improved with each of her three albums. Also, I challenge anyone to start their morning by watching this Nina Simone cover and then proceed to have a bad day.

Tagged: opera-folk, experimental, orchestral

The Ingenious Shapeshifter: Sufjan Stevens

Charmingly folksy albums Welcome to Michigan, and Come on Feel the Illinoise—along with a rash, slightly tongue-in-cheek promise to write an album for every state—allowed Stevens to break through the ranks of obscurity. However, his latest, the brilliant, heavily electronic Age of Adz, seems a pretty clear statement that Stevens remains at heart an experimentalist and an innovator. Stevens spoke openly about his struggle with mental and physical illness and creative discontent leading up to this album, and has himself described the album as a “working through health issues” and even compared it to a kind of an “emotional therapy” session for himself and his bandmates. The electronic beeps and burbles all fall into place when viewed as a way of expressing some of the mental turmoil that has accompanied his, and I’m sure our, spiritual journeys. Vesuvius, particularly, is an intensely beautiful portrayal of man’s struggle to surrender to God.

Tagged: diverse/Sufjan’s present mood

The Family That Started it All: Danielson

20 years ago, Daniel Smith had a spiritual awakening, which resulted in a headlong return to his Christian faith, and subsequently a decision to record an album of weird, spiritually fuelled songs for his senior thesis. Pulling his ample supply of gifted siblings along with him, Daniel Smith has been recording and touring ever since.

His early music is completely unclassifiable, with its maniacally diverse instrumentation, cacophonic guitar effects, and Daniel’s pervasive squeaky falsetto. The band matured and mellowed just enough to create the wild and stunning Ships in 2006. It is the most ambitious, least weird (it’s still really weird), and best of their albums. With the collaborated help of over 20 musical friends from around the alternative rock world, the entire album is one gigantic, bombastic, shouted thank you! to the Lord. It takes work to get over the initial shock value, but I assure you there’s an abundance of nougaty goodness inside once you crack the shell.

It should also be noted that we have the Danielson Family to thank in a large way for Sufjan Steven’s rise to prominence. Steven’s was mentored by Daniel Smith, and toured with them before his own music took off. I’m pretty sure he got the whole wacky costume idea from them as well (check out Daniel’s 9-foot handmade tree costume, which he wears to remind him to “bear good fruit” while on stage).

Tagged: Unclassifiable, alternative rock (or post-alternative rock? Anyways, much more alternative than what you might think of as alternative, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend etc.)

The Caffeinated Janitor: Half-handed Cloud

I take great pleasure in reading reviews of Half-handed Cloud on secular alternative music websites. The reviewers can’t make up their minds whether they are baffled or awed by HHC’s mix of gleefully innocent Bible-soaked lyrics and wickedly chaotic ADHD songwriting. Lead John Ringhoefer lives in Berkely, CA, and works part-time as a Church custodian in return for free lodging. Appropriately, his songs could be translated easily into Sunday School lessons, exploring biblical themes directly, reverently, yet with a hyperactive energy that is completely Ringhoefer’s own. The songs usually clock in around a minute to a minute and a half, each packed with as many hairpin musical 180s and mood shifts as you’d expect in a full album.

You’d be embarrassed for me if you knew how many times I’d come home from work and had solo HHC dance parties as I cooked dinner, so I won’t tell you. Start here, but I warn you that listening to one HHC song is like eating half a cheesie.

Tagged: Hyperactive gospel, freak-folk sermon bites

The Quiet Radicals: The Innocence Mission

The Innocence Mission are not technically an experimental band, but I’ve always found that there is a certain quiet defiance in just how unrebellious they are. Don and Karen Peris are a happily married Catholic couple with two kids, and they have been releasing stunning, simple, piano and guitar based albums for almost 30 years. There is a perfect innocence and purity to their music that is profoundly counter-cultural yet self-aware (consider their band name). It’s inspiring to see how they’ve made their mark in the alternative music world—their albums receiving consistent critical acclaim—with such an unassuming and minimalist approach. Karen’s exquisite, confessional lyrics are certainly one of the chief draws. I don’t think I’ll stop returning to Birds of My Neighbourhood as the most peaceful and wonderful album I know. “July July, I’ve seen the greatest Light,/too much light to deny.

Tagged: Soft folk, Appalachian, poetic

Honourable mentions:

Welcome Wagon, Derek Webb, Valleymakers, Josh Garrels, Anathallo

 

is starting his M.Div at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. He rolled out from under a log near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, potentially explaining his banjo obsession and continual urge to return to the wilderness.