Archive for the ‘Art Rock’ Category

Maximalist vs. Minimalist Aesthetics in 20th Century Rock Music

April 20, 2010

Maximalists – value dynamic showmanship, idiomatic breadth, instrumental eclecticism, heroic virtuosity, harmolodic complexity, compositional grandeur and lavish sonorities. Maximalists essentially view showbiz as a meritocracy of virtuosity; the libertarian capitalism of rock.

Minimalists – value amateurism, sparse arrangements, a paucity of notes and chords, rudimental skill, compositional simplicity, rawness/underproduction and abrasive sonorities. Minimalists generally spurn showmanship, stressing D.I.Y. activism at the localized scene level; the collectivist socialism of rock.

Aesthetic Breakdown


  • Maximalism – The progression from high foundationalism, which peaked in 1966 with the release of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Revolver by the Beatles. Officially launched with the June 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles.
  • Minimalism – The step beyond low foundationalism, as embodied by the mid-60s garage rock compiled in the Nuggets series. Accidentally spawned by the February 1967 release of The Velvet Underground and Nico, the debut album by the Velvet Underground.


  • Maximalism – Rose in the late-60s, triumphed in the early-70s, reached its broadest global latitude during the mid-70s, and slowly decelerated between 1978 and 1983 amidst the reinstatement of foundationalism via disco and dance pop.
  • Minimalism – Had little influence as maximalism ascended, but congealed slowly between 1969 and 1977 from disparate sources, finally emerging as the dominant subterranean aesthetic in the aftermath of punk.


  • Maximalism – Progressive Rock (Prog), Heavy Metal (early), Brass Rock, 70s Funk, Fusion, 70s Electronic, Pomp Rock/Arena Rock, New Romantic
  • Minimalism – Garage Rock, Proto Punk, Kraut Rock, Punk, Post Punk, Industrial, Pop Metal, alt.rock, Grunge


  • Maximalists – Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, The Who (post-1968), Jethro Tull, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, Deep Purple, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Mike Oldfield, PFM, Tangerine Dream, Magma, Harmonium, Supertramp, Al Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Rupert Holmes, Queen, Electric Light Orchestra, Steve Harley, 10cc, Styx, Kate Bush, The Stranglers, Ultravox, Magazine, Japan, U2, Simple Minds
  • Minimalists – The Stooges, The Shaggs, The New York Dolls, T.Rex, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, Neil Young, Graham Parsons, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Faust, Can, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Pere Ubu, James Chance & the Contortions, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, Wire, Bauhaus, Gang of Four, AC/DC, Nerdvana, Violent Femmes, Suicide, Throbbing Gristle


  • Maximalism – London, Birmingham, Chicago, Montreal, Rome
  • Minimalism – London, Manchester, Berlin, Cleveland, Seattle

Philosophical Antecedents

  • Maximalism – Classicism, Romanticism, Objectivism
  • Minimalism – Naturalism, Existentialism, Postmodernism

Noted Champions

  • Maximalists – Musicologist, professor, author and composer Ed Macan (born 1961) – “The whole underlying goal of progressive rock – to draw together rock, classical, jazz, folk, and avant-garde styles into a new metastyle that would supersede them all – is inherently optimistic.”
  • Minimalists – Sociologist and critic Lester Bangs (1948-1982) – “The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.”


Secret Understanding: The Idiomatic Breadth Between Maximalism and Minimalism

March 3, 2010

Over the course of a creative cycle spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the incendiary musical form known as rock underwent a series of categorical reductions. But since most of those categories were devoid of musical concretes, their meanings were all but trivial. For when rock is broken down to its core foundations, there are merely two distinct outgrowths of the music: maximalism and minimalism. This is not to say that those two streams were devoid of any stylistic range; but that the developments were more associative than the factionalists cared to recognize. Therefore, I set out to chart the genesis of maximalism and minimalism in the annals of rock, and examine the variables of idiomatic breadth which the two streams attained.

First we need to define the traits which embody minimalism and maximalism within the context of rock. Minimalism in rock is an eschewal of musicality, marked by skeletal, abrasive and atonal sonic scars of the rawest nature. Skeletal traits are bore through a paucity of instrumentation and compositional breadth; rudimental songs played by tiny combos. Abrasiveness stems from tunnel frequency, in which traits like bludgeoning volume and fogbound murk are employed to lock listeners into a single state of mind. Atonality is symptomatic of carpus inertia, in which the player’s lack of tactility obliterates the fundaments of musicality for un-centered and often shapeless noises.

Maximalism in rock is an embrace of musicality, embodied through expressions of complexity, eclecticism and grandeur at the highest level. Complexity is achieved when musicians maximize the elements of composition and musicality, exploring variant song structures to the utmost extent, with full regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, sonority, lyrics, meter and counterpoint. Eclecticism is mastered when musicians achieve a synthesis of styles with adept instrumental latitude, fusing various idiomatic impulses in the spirit of creation. Grandeur is reached through presentational dynamism, in which performers transcend themselves through theatrical showmanship, elaborate stagecraft and heroic virtuosity; frozen through time in lavish, state of the art productions.

Background: From Static to Flexible Foundationalism

Rock n’ roll coalesced during the mid-1950s, as touring blues and country players throughout the eastern and southern regions of the United States fed from the musical breadth of the cross-cultural landscape; mutually radiating this explosive new form. The music swiftly caught hold because of its accessibility to upstart musicians, who could easily adopt to this raw idiom and cut cheap records with their own lean combo’s; free from the constricts of formal training and costly orchestration which had been the requisites of pre-rock pop. But rock n’ roll rescinded after a few short years due to its stylistic limitations, with performers having exhausted the twelve-bar blues structure inherent to this primarily rhythmic form. Likewise, the American public shifted upstream, for rock n’ roll started to sound uniform once the racy novelty of its chief performers had worn off. In retrospect, rock n’ roll of the 1950s could be viewed as the makeshift form of budding musicians who ultimately aspired to attain mastery of their formative idioms: country, bluegrass and blues.

Rock didn’t die entirely, however, for its torch soon passed overseas. By the dawn of the 1960s, rock itself had become a formative idiom for the young musicians of England, who stripped the music to its unfettered core, dressed it with the flexible strum of folk, and applied the melodic idiosyncrasies of their own music hall tradition, thereupon fusing a new and revitalized form of rock which, owing to its locale of origin, became known to the world as Merseybeat. Given the broadened musicality now embedded into rock, the music could only progress from this point forward. The static nature of 1950s rock had rendered the music a passing fad; the expansive richness of 1960s rock transformed the music into an art form of global vitality and cross-generational sustenance.

The rock generation’s march to the maximalist summit commenced in 1964, spearheaded by the worldwide outbreak of Beatlemania and the attendant British Invasion. Buoyed by the notion that rock could now comprise a multitude of shapes, thousands of new musicians arose during the second half of the 1960s to expand upon this vast creative template. Over the ensuing lustrum, dynamic strides were made in developing the musicological tenets of melody, harmony, sonority, meter and compositional syntax within the framework of rock, with each successive year comprising an epoch unto itself. (more…)

Stranglers sui generis

March 19, 2008

The Stranglers: Not only did they match a confluence of styles – prog rock, punk rock, psychedelic, art rock, New Wave – to their four highly idiosyncratic personalities, but they juxtaposed various elements of these styles in the most bewildering of ways, with many of their prime tracks pairing prog chops and metric twitches to psych/punk sonorities. More confounding were the ways in which their stylistic detours subverted the central tenants of a given idiom. How might one define “Peaches”: a funk song with the rhythm track wiped in favor of a metronomic beat approximated by drummer Jet Black? Is “Nice n’ Sleazy” supposed to be a reggae track, with Black forgoing that idiom’s side-tom taps to mimic guitarist Hugh Cornwell’s choppy 1/3 roll, above which bassist JJ Burnel and keyboardist Dave Greenfield sweep the proceedings into a steamy, sonic haze at the virtual gap betwixt the Doors and concurrent (Barry Andrews era) XTC?

Vocally, the Stranglers often forwent singing in favor of ‘play-acting’ the lyrics verbally, such as with Burnel’s drunken, lecherous tone on “Princess of the Street” and Greenfield’s snarling dark-alley drawl on “Do Ya Wanna”. Surely all these topics had been sung about by other bands before, notably the Rolling Stones. But Mick Jagger always sounded like Mick Jagger, whether he was shagging a tramp in the first person, or singing about a seedy nightwalker in the narrative tense. This play-acting of the words would have been dismissed as “goofing off at the mic” by earlier bands, because no one had theretofore succeeded in presenting such vocal characteristics in a musically solvent way, free from mawkishness and self-effacing irony (ala Frank Zappa.)

Furthermore, the Stranglers’ ensemblic interplay made for unique inversions to the lead vs. rhythm section norm. At times, the sinewy slabs of Burnel hammered down the front while Greenfield and Cornwell walked around them. In other instances, Burnel and Greenfield would interlock at the melodic mainframe whilst Cornwell splashed shapeless shards of sound from sideways, analogous to Eno. A chord was seldom strummed, but formed instead by the tonal sum of their arpeggiated, ensemblic interplay. Harmolodically speaking, the Stranglers were the most vertically-rich band this side of Yes and Gentle Giant.

The Divine Rarity of Pomp Wave

January 9, 2008

I’ve long asserted that Magazine were thee band to have expertly woven the buzzsaw bite and trebly sonorities of punk and New Wave with the lavish textures and monumental scope of pomp rock and symphonic progressive. Just listen to the brimming colors of “Definitive Gaze” and watch the video to “Motorcade” for two perfect examples, the latter of which suggests a New Wave “Dance On a Volcano” with its uncanny triplex intro and myriad sections.

From there you can check out some other exceptional entities from the New Wave/post-punk movement, like Random Hold and Red Noise, in the “top friends” of Magazine.

Musically, it was the instrumentalists in Magazine who should be given credit for the prog leanings in that band. Particularly their keyboardist Dave Formula, who’s polyphonic arsenal gave Magazine that sweeping, grandiose sound and feel, totally beyond the confines of the post-punk aesthetic (where sparse primitivism was the order of the day.) Additionally, their guitarist John McGeoch lent dynamics to the proceedings with his eminently lyrical, immanently scything leads. The idiosyncratic maximalism of Magazine’s music made them, with honor, a luminous light within the sonic shadow of Genesis, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator and Hawkwind, with due respect to the ubiquitous if over-emphasized mark of Roxy Music and David Bowie.

After McGoech left Magazine to help lift Siouxsie and the Banshees from the depths of haphazard, shock-punk pantomime, intern Ultravox axeman Robin Simon stepped in to lend his sheer, ebow*-like tones to Magazine‘s thinly produced and sadly slight swan song, Magic, Murder, & the Weather.

*I don’t know Simon’s exact arsenal, per se, but the ebow was nonetheless thee guitar sound amongst NuRo (that’s New Romantic) bands and performers like Japan, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Duran Duran and the ubiquitous string-shredder-turned-key-petter Bill Nelson, who laced numerous early 80’s recordings with the sleek, luminous sound of the ebow.

The Alchemist

August 2, 2007

The first two albums by the English rustic pop quartet Home were mostly comprised of winsome little country-pop ditties in the vein of the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, with occasional forays into extended structures ala Byzantium and Help Yourself, such as “My Lady of the Birds” from their eponymous 1972 sophomore effort. The Alchemist (1973) was Home‘s most ambitious and artfully-embellished release, with their signature rootsy sound lent sway by rattling rhythmic contours set amidst a backdrop ranging from smoldering (“The Disaster”) to sparkling, as on the Hawaiian slides of “Time Passes By”.

A generous portion of The Alchemist can be heard at the link right below:

City Boy

June 29, 2007

Amongst the many beguiling debuts of 1976 was the eponymous entry from the bodacious Birmingham sextet City Boy. Over the next several years, City Boy weathered the colliding musical currents with sassy swagger (“Deadly Delicious”) and power aplenty (the thundering “Narcissus”), whilst strands of art rock, hard rock, pomp pop, folk, and the ever-pervasive prints of Little Feat etched and sprayed the graffiti walls of City Boy’s concrete urban turf. Oft-tagged as a cross betwixt 10cc and Queen, our runaround boys indeed contained a guy named Lol and possessed a polar-analogue to “We Are the Champions” in the emotionally climatic “Dangerous Ground”, City Boy’s **GREATEST** song of all!

City Boy