April 15, 2021

Piercing feedback and pig noises: what’s the most out-there album ever?

Defying tradition and bothering the mainstream, the likes of John Cage, Matthew Herbert, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed battle it out for the best of the bizarre

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all

In April a new album, Sounds of the Unborn, is being released by an up-and-coming young artist. So young, in fact, that when they cash their first PRS cheque it’ll be to buy a round of babyccinos. The movements of now-infant artist Luca Yupanqui were recorded in the womb by her parents during five hour-long “joint meditation” sessions and turned into wobbly synth drones. It follows other unique concept albums around lifecycles, such as electronic music duo Matmos’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, made primarily of recordings of medical procedures, or Matthew Herbert’s One Pig, which followed a pig from birth to slaughter. Avant garde music has long held this thirst to pioneer at its core – but what is the most out-there record ever made?

The true definition of avant garde music is debatable but, for the sake of brevity, let’s say it’s a radical work that defies tradition. John Cage’s 4’33” is a touchstone example – instructing musicians not to play for the titular time period; the art coming from the meditative state achieved from a room in silence, as well as atmospheric noises: coughs, scratches, sighs and sneezes.

However, when discussing experimental music, context is crucial. Anyone can record themselves pulling out their own teeth, or headbutting a horse, and stick it on Bandcamp for a handful of dedicated noise freaks. For avant garde music to truly transcend it needs an audience, thereby giving it the opportunity to rage against and provoke the mainstream. Cage, whose 4’33” peaked at No 21 in the UK charts in 2010, did this masterfully in the classical world, as have countless jazz artists such as Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. But perhaps it’s in the pop world where most heads can be melted.

Delia Derbyshire’s self-explanatory White Noise project may be a revolutionary early exploration of electronic music, but nobody bought it. Similarly, Henry Cow may be foundational in the world of avant-rock but never infiltrated your auntie’s record collection. However, releases such as Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, which reached No 2 in the UK charts, managed brilliantly to disturb the mainstream with the avant garde. So did Captain Beefheart by following up foot-tapping, psychedelic pop rock with Trout Mask Replica, a freeform art-rock opus that still divides people.

If there’s one artist who subverted their audience and expectations then it’s Lou Reed with 1975’s Metal Machine Music. Three years prior, Reed was having chart success with Transformer, his slick Bowie-produced rock LP. On MMM, for more than an hour, Reed lets rip nothing but spewing guitar feedback. “Ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time,” said Rolling Stone.

In the US, 100,000 people bought it, many returned it, it was pulled from shelves, and declared one of the worst records ever. Yet, over the years, it’s been realigned as a benchmark in experimental music. By utilising a locked groove on the original vinyl to create an infinite loop, Reed’s unrelenting, piercing feedback could play in your ears for ever. And what’s more out-there than turning tinnitus into art?