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Mixtape Musings: Art Rock

Illustration by Tilly Binucci.

Art rock is a particularly vague term that has been used since the ‘60s to describe bands that challenge conventional aspects of rock, transforming rock from entertainment to art. It often features experimental and avant-garde instruments and textures—an element that has thrived from the technological advancement of music. Art rock is commonly associated with concept albums, which allow artists to cover a variety of genres and sounds while creating a complete and cohesive piece of art. Despite the broad scope that this genre covers, its male legacy continues to stifle women in the industry. In this week’s issue, we will be exploring some important questions about the context of making experimental music and how this interacts with the allocation of genre. 

The ‘60s and ‘70s saw a rise in the number of bands that incorporated experimental features in their rock music. The Beatles for example used the unusual technique of playing guitar recordings backward in their 1966 album Revolver. David Bowie and Kate Bush, on the other hand, were influential in their use of storytelling through conceptual albums, especially when paired with visual media. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars from 1972 is a brilliant example of how music can be a part of world-building, aided by layered synths to provide that ‘space-age’ feeling. Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love from 1985 was another key album. Tracks such as “Waking the Witch” feel cinematic and vivid, with broken digitalised vocals talking back and forth with the vocal representation of a demon figure. The added dissonance of the church bells brings a striking sense of reality to this song. 

On the other side of the spectrum, inspired by the psychedelic phenomenon of the ‘70s, Pink Floyd developed their own style within this rising art rock genre. Their concept album in 1973, The Dark Side of the Moon, has repeated motifs throughout the album to create a whole and cohesive feel, for example, the famous guitar riff found in both “Time” and “Breathe (In the Air)”. “Echoes” from their 1971 album Meddle is often referenced in relation to this introduction of concept albums, as it takes up the entire B-side of the record at 23:33 minutes long. The track journeys through a traditional rock section, blending into experimental synths that evoke the feeling of walking through a dark tunnel, with scattered electronic sounds that give the feeling of animals crying out in the dark, painting a vivid mental image. This abstract portrayal of the world around us is a key element of the genre, but it is also significant that the music evokes a strong emotional response through this freedom of expression. 

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, often described as a ‘chamber rock’ band, takes an approach similar to Pink Floyd with the use of symphonic elements such as violin and brass instruments that allow the music to build and disperse. This is well demonstrated in their track “Storm” from their 2000 album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Changes in tempo and the transition to the minor key mimic the storm shifting to wreak havoc, capturing the sense of destruction through the swelling tides of the music. 

These two art rock artists make an interesting comparison for a female artist Grouper, who similarly expresses emotion in an abstract and layered way. In her 2008 album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, she uses almost exclusively guitar and vocals, often heavily distorted and edited at input which allows her to replicate these sounds alone when live, through a complex system of loops. The first track “Disengaged” begins with a representation of a storm, waves crashing and the roar of the wind achieved through heavily distorted reverb guitar before this accompanied by mournful echoing vocals. Grouper blends these songs into one another as a whole work, exploring emotions throughout with the common themes of water and weather. Yet surprisingly her work is often limited to categories like “dream pop”, and not associated with this abstract art rock. It puts into question whether there is something within the term ‘rock’ that has become inherently gendered, only applicable to women who fit into an androgynous or ‘masculine’ idea of rock that is loud and aggressive, even though rock is not always defined in such a way. Is there a possible feminine conception of rock, or should women always be forced to exist within already present frameworks of genre? In terms of experimental music, too, there seems to be a different approach between men and women, just as in the visual art world. Women (and gender minorities) have far more to lose from ‘failing’ at their art, so they cannot tap into the same confidence that allows their male counterparts to thrive and explore. Grouper spoke about her insecurities around her music and musical abilities in a 2018 interview, saying, “If I feel too seen or checked upon I freeze. I was teased too much I think, for spacing out, for not being a great word-user. I couldn’t explain to anyone what I was doing, talking to rocks and animals, feeling electricity coming off the ocean”. It is interesting to think about what women could create in experimental genres without these existing structural constraints. 

Radiohead, for example, is arguably placed on a pedestal in the world of art rock. This is not to say that the music is not brilliant—their 2007 album In Rainbows is a wonderful example of the variety that this genre can cover. “15 Step” features complex highly syncopated drums which have been unusually textured, while “Nude” is an interesting blend of violin, synth, and plenty of experimental noise. However, how much of the praise for Radiohead comes down to a name? This also raises the interesting question of who is responsible for the prevalence of white men within such genres. It seems at every step of the way, from the number of artists and the influence of record labels and the industry, to the advertisement of the music by critics and music platforms, and finally, the listener themself who is surely also influenced by society and personal circumstance, there is a shared responsibility for maintaining this status quo. 

Unsurprisingly, the picture still gets more complex. PJ Harvey is well-loved for her music and contribution to the art rock genre. Her album 1998 Is This Desire? is simply magical, transitioning through a variety of musical styles, and demonstrating immense musical complexity.  “The Wind” features percussion inspired by hip-hop with layered whispered vocals and wobbling guitar effects. “The Garden” also has a similar sound to Radiohead, with strong percussive bass with synth and bass layered on top. As a key figure in the genre, it is interesting how a lot of other female artists are compared to her, even when their style is not particularly similar. It is as if female artists can only be legitimised by comparison to other female artists, rather than including them within the untouchable male corpus, hence limiting their musical horizons. Especially in genres such as art rock which are quite closely aligned with visual art, the concept of the relationship between the artist and listener is peculiar. Does our judgement of the art depend on whether we know the artist? Perhaps hearing a female voice in such a context also affects what we associate the art with. Can art and music ever be separated from gender? 

St. Vincent, an American artist who explores the interesting uses of electronic sounds within her work, spoke about what it feels like to try and make art within this context: “Ultimately, she tells me, Clark isn’t too fussed about building an immaculate legacy as St. Vincent, or scrapping to be recognised among the greats. “I don’t know that there’s any way to control any of that anyway, except to just try and make great work. You know, in some ways it’s so complicated, and in other ways, it’s just hideously simple”.” Her album Strange Mercy from 2011 is,  essentially, a big beautiful mash of sounds, each song a joyful exploration of interesting textures alongside powerful lyrics and groovy beats. There seems to be an exciting wave of female artists who are using these experimental techniques to flavour their work, such as Japanese Breakfast, Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, and countless more. It will be a test of the music industry to see whether the genre can adapt to incorporate them. 

Art rock is certainly a more accessible genre now than during the end of the last century: anyone can have access to recording software from a laptop and experiment with sounds, and it feels relatively common to hear songs that contain these avant-garde inspirations. However, it seems uncertain how much this increased access to music will impact the societal pressures on women who make art. Furthermore, the way that music made by women is categorised and talked about in the media continues to contribute to both the underappreciation of women and the enforcement of the gender binary in the arts. For a genre that, through its instrumental and experimental nature, often de-prioritises the presence of the artist in the music, it is disheartening that it is still characterised by its male white artists.