A few months back author, academic and damn fine producer Sean Albiez posed the question ‘which experimental leftfield popular musicians have actually turned their backs on traditional songwriting and fully embraced the avant-garde?’.
Naturally the usual names were thrown around, before being rejected. David Bowie’s Berlin albums? No, the instrumentals were supported by very traditional pop songs and anyway, as instrumentals go they were hardly going to challenge John Cage in the ‘challenging’ category. Indeed, with tracks like ‘V2 Schneider’ lifting sax riffs from an old R&B songs and others borrowing heavily from Kraftwerk and Cluster these instrumentals didn’t stray too far from the experimental mainstream. And anyway, ever since these albums Bowie has stuck to the rock formula – despite flirting with avant-garde and electronica techniques.
Who else then? Surely Brian Eno and David Byrne? Again, not easy to place them in the heart of the experimental, let alone avant-garde. Eno’s ambient phase was intended as background sound. If it had politically challenged, or inspired beyond the act of scoring everyday routine it would have failed. No matter how ‘nice’ much of it was to listen to.
Since then his debt to David Byrne’s skewed world pop has been huge. Hardly challenging, but still preferable to his production work with U2 and Coldplay. Byrne himself is someone we might have expected to disappear down the road marked ‘difficult’ in the years following My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But his love of festival camp and musical theatre has kept him comfortably in the pop-centric zone.
So which other former pop stars can be considered? Lou Reed? Yes, for Metal Machine Music, which the rock fraternity considered his RCA ‘contract get out’ album. RCA’s sister label RCA Red recognized its avant-garde qualities though. Not that he ever explored that musical terrain again. Radiohead perhaps? Fleetingly maybe, for a few minutes on Hail the Thief. How about Muse? In their heads probably. But only in their heads.
After slinging endless names around we were only able to come up with two artists that can be truly be seen to have turned their backs on pop music and immersed themselves in the avant-garde; Scott Walker and David Sylvian.
Both Walker and Sylvian have rejected their pop star lives and slowly disappeared from view; reappearing every few years with another endlessly challenging, but consistently brilliant album. Sylvian’s recent albums have been especially powerful, with both Manafon (2009) and Died in the Wool – Manafon Variations (2011) finding the artist applying glitch techniques to random orchestration and counterpointing this with richly dark harmony.
Full time Dad and occasional artist David Bowie has suggested he’s tired of pop music and would rather take photos of everyday objects these days. Other musicians often complain about being sick of playing the hits and lay claim to desires for a more experimental sound, something with more depth than pop music.
To these people I would suggest that they get acquainted with latter day Walker and Sylvian to discover what it is to be an artist who constantly attempts to push at the boundaries of their own ideas. Any other route would be lazy, and profoundly empty.
That we could only agree on two musicians was quite sad. In fact it was a process that forced me to challenge a lot of the pre-conceieved ideas I have about the so-called experimental artists I like.
So, who have we missed from this disappointingly short list? There’s got to be more!