Have you ever listened to a song where the music is great, but the singing got in the way? I think most of our modern music is expected to have a singer and to be structured around lyrics. That kind of constraint can be so boring and predictable!
Enter the instrumental album.
Welcome to the world where an artist can compose in any style they want, throwing away the shackles of pop music and exploring any theme or compositional style that suits their fancy. No more singers. No more explicit meaning transmitted through language.
Here is a small handful of my favourite instrumental albums (in no particular order):
Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV
Probably the most obvious choice of the lot.
I know lots of people stopped paying attention to Trent Reznor after the mediocre With Teeth album. But in 2007-2008, NIN had an explosion of creativity that produced the beautiful, noisy, distorted album Year Zero and the super-clean, dreamy instrumental album Ghosts I-V.
Thirty-six short tracks, each one long enough to produce a mood or feeling before dying away to let the next piece take over. It’s not unfocused or unfinished. Each piece builds in complexity, blending many instruments and exploring different themes. Some of them are so distinct and fully-developed that you can hardly believe they can keep coming at you for almost two full hours.
It’s a really beautiful album, totally different from anything else Trent Reznor has made. Almost anybody could enjoy this album.
Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music
I don’t know why I like this album. It’s just an hour of guitar feedback. But I like listening to it, and I’m amused by the fact that it was ever released at all. It’s really just noise.
But it definitely sounds like meticulously constructed noise. It never gets boring. It feels like I’m meditating on technology somehow. And there is rhythm and something that resembles melody. Reed creates these things by experimenting with his machines in unorthodox ways. I use this as background music when I’m writing.
The Fucking Champs – III
A solid hour of badass rock and metal riffs. I wish more rock bands would take this route and just churn out some hard rock heaviness without imposing lyrics and singing where they’re not necessarily needed.
The style on this album reminds me of old ’80s metal. This is like old school Anthrax with no singer.
Matmos – Supreme Balloon
The catchiest and most sprawling release from this creative electronic duo. A fun, complicated stream of layered melodies that make you feel happy. It’s so catchy that it must be pop music, except it follows its own structure and has no singing. It’s so experimental and sprawling that it must be psychedelia (and maybe it is, a little bit). Some of the tracks have no percussions, so the synthesizers produce all the rhythm, giving it a somewhat classical feel.
They play live instruments so they’re more like Kraftwerk than many modern computer-based producers of electronica. Their whole discography is interesting, but this is their most accessible.
The League of Gentlemen – Self Titled
Imagine you’re surfing through a spiral vortex of purple and black while monsters and household appliances swirl around you. This is the evil surfer-music pouring out at you from the unreachable centre.
Robert Fripp’s guitarwork is so complex it’s like listening to math. He’s responsible for King Crimson, a band known for their technical musicianship. This is more minimalistic, but the tracks often build to an intense crescendo.
Frank Zappa – Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar
Rock, meet jazz.
A genre-defying explosion of guitar wizardry and rhythmic mayhem. He plays his guitar like Ornette Coleman plays sax. There are drums going everywhere. This is one of those albums where I can rarely pinpoint the time signature, or anything about the structure. I never know where the band is going next, but they go there together and it’s a beautiful thing to hear.
All of Zappa’s music is interesting and full of musical ideas and originality. While I often enjoy his lyrics and singing, I’m really glad that he made a few instrumental albums. This is the first in a series including, Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar Some More, and Return of the Son of Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar. So, even though there are no lyrics, he still managed to convey his snarky attitude.
About the Author
Matt Payne is a self-published author and electronic musician. He lives in Guelph, ON. You can see his work at http://www.pattmayne.com.