Weird music genres have been defying expectations for decades. Through these obscure genres of music, we're invited to experience something completely new, even jarring to our current sensibilities.
In the spirit of the wonderfully weird, we explore the music genres that broke through the net, often against unfathomable odds, so that we music fans can continue to expect the unexpected.
WEIRD MUSIC GENRES: DRIVEN BY CREATIVITY
Sometimes weird music genres are created just for the sheer fun of it. Sometimes they're based on a cross-over between a musician's interests and music taste. But they're almost always born from an innate compulsion to be creative.
Without this natural inclination for creative types to push the boundaries, experiment and hark, even be viewed as 'weird' or outsiders, we wouldn't have such luminaries as Frank Zappa, Kate Bush, Prince, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Björk, and the list goes on.
AN ‘EXPERIMENTATION IN SOUND’
Critics and listeners alike even met Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (now one of the most famous songs ever produced) with confusion at the time.
Why? "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975) was far enough outside the common zeitgeist to be considered pretty damn weird.
Freddie Mercury didn't just stray from one genre or musical style. He diverged from a bunch of them. And further, he combined them all to create something entirely new, something wonderfully weird: “a mind-blowing genre-bender” or, in Mercury's words, an “experimentation in sound”.
A BREAKAWAY MOOD: WEIRD MUSIC GENRES
But we can go back in time, even before the trailblazers mentioned above, to some of the renegades who strayed from the musical conventions and constraints of their day to produce something new… something considered a weird music genre at the time, although they're widely accepted as “normal” now – whatever “normal” means.
MODERNISM (MUSIC): RICHARD STRAUSS
Richard Strauss. Credit: Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons
As the 19th century drew to a close, composers prepared the ground for an era of innovation in music: modernism.
Composers began to reimagine the structures and categories that went before them. Among the elements challenged were rhythmic, harmonic and melodic conventions. Meanwhile, songsmiths placed no genre above another.
While there's contention over when the first stage of modernism ended (1910 or 1930, depending on your source), most agree it started in 1890.
But Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan (written in 1888) is archetypal of the transformative mood found within modernism before such a label existed.
Strauss first staged Don Juan in November 1889. It was a global success and established him as a pioneer of modernism.
AVANT-GARDE: JOHN CAGE
John Cage (1988). Credit: Rob Croes for Anefo/Wikimedia Commons
By the early to mid-20th century, some elements of modernism had splintered into a fully actualised avant-garde movement. While both genres challenged the accepted conventions of the day, avant-garde sought to provoke an audience's artistic and cultural sensibilities.
Thus, the avant-garde was “political” by nature. Conversely, being political isn't a prerequisite for modernism.
And unlike experimental music (a derivative of the avant-garde), which typically rejects any facet of tradition, avant-garde is radical within a designated tradition. So avant-garde music will consciously leave some of the accepted elements of a particular style to make a statement, but it won't stray from every aspect.
Influential composer and music theorist John Cage is a trailblazer in experimental and avant-garde music. But his notorious 1952 piece, 4′33″, has become synonymous with the avant-garde movement.
Cage believed there was no such thing as absolute silence, and to prove his theory, he instructed the orchestra not to play their instruments for the duration of 4′33”.
By doing so, every audience member had a unique experience because everyone hears sound differently. His Zen-like approach was radical for the day, and the four minutes and 33 seconds of “silence” still feel jarringly beautiful.
MINIMAL MUSIC: JULIUS EASTMAN
By the early 1960s, composers inspired by modernism, avant-garde and experimental music began to produce the next strain of “weird”: minimal music.
Typical music motifs included the limited use of musical materials alongside repetitive pulses, drones and consonant harmony.
Philip Glass, La Monte Young and Steve Reich are notable minimalist composers. But American composer and multidisciplinary artiste, Julius Eastman, was one of the first to fuse elements from pop music within his minimalist compositions.
His 1973 piece Stay On It, with its use of progressions inspired by pop music, is one of the earliest examples of this approach, making Eastman a true visionary.
He also took inspiration from the political aspect of the avant-garde by giving his pieces titles intended to provoke a reaction and, therefore, inspire a conversion about specific issues.
10 WEIRD MUSIC GENRES CONTINUING TO DEFY ‘NORMAL’
Following Mercury, Strauss, Cage and Eastman, the creatively inclined continue to push the boundaries and invent music genres. From funny, unique and always odd, prepare to break away from the norm with these weird music genres.
PIRATE METAL: ALESTORM
Alestorm (2017). Credit: Elliot Vernon/Wikimedia Commons
Pirate metal is a subset of heavy metal. The music incorporates elements of metal and combines them with folk instruments to produce something unique and, well... “piratey”.
On the lyrical front, the themes are heavily inspired by pirate folklore. So expect to hear mentions of treasure, sea monsters, bloodlust, eye patches and tales of making unsuspecting landlubbers walk the plank.
The first sign of pirate metal arose when Running Wild released their third album, Under Jolly Roger (1987). The German heavy metal band inspired many pirate-themed metal bands, including Scottish natives Alestorm.
Alestorm was formed in 2004 and initially set sail (pun intended) as a traditional metal band. But after their single “Heavy Metal Pirates” received success, they decided to become a pirate metal band for the long haul.
GERMAN REGGAE: GENTLEMAN
Gentleman (2021). Credit: Stefan Brending (2eight)/Wikimedia Commons
German reggae (yep, you heard that right) has existed since the late 1970s. After the reggae genre spread from Jamaica to a global audience, a wave of German reggae artistes adopted the music as a form of counterculture expression.
Then in the mid-90s, this obscure music genre took flight, primarily due to German reggae musician Gentleman. Tilmann Otto, the man behind Gentleman, first discovered his love of reggae while travelling to Jamaica aged 18.
If you're curious about this genre, check out Gentleman's 2005 single "Send a Prayer"... Or attend one of the many open-air reggae festivals held throughout Germany annually.
HAUNTOLOGY MUSIC: CARETAKER
Hauntology music is a genre that started in the 2000s and relied on nostalgia to create something new. The genre typically infuses elements of the past and reinvents them using contemporary digital technology.
Hauntology takes inspiration from private and collective British cultural memory, usually from around the 1940s to the 70s. Electronic artistes might sample anything from 1960s psychedelic rock to public information announcements from the 1950s and reimagine them through modern music techniques.
The Caretaker was a music project spearheaded by Stockport-born ambient artiste Leyland James Kirby.
Through the Caretaker, Kirby explored memory, melancholy and nostalgia. His debut album, Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom (1999), used samples of 1930s ballroom pop to create a creepy and unsettling atmosphere archetypal of the Hauntology genre.
KAWAII METAL: BABYMETAL
Babymetal at The Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles (2014). Credit: Iancinerate/Wikimedia Commons
What do you get when you fuse dark heavy metal imagery with fun J-pop melodies? The wonderfully weird world of kawaii metal.
Kawaii metal (or kawaiicore) appeared in Japan circa 2010. It has a wide-ranging following outside Japan, primarily due to the genre's Eastern and Western elements.
Babymetal were not just one of the first kawaii metal bands but the first to achieve global success, with many of their tour dates located outside Japan. Listen to their second album Metal Resistance (2016), for a quintessential intro to the kawaii metal sound.
According to Babymetal founding member Suzuka Nakamoto, "We've noticed that even though we sing in Japanese, our fans study Japanese and sing along with us, and that people who like J-pop and people who like metal both enjoy our music just the same."
SIMPSONWAVE : LUCIEN HUGHES
The internet has gifted us with many things: good, bad and outright terrible. But how about good, weird and funny simultaneously? The 2016 emergence of the Simpsonwave genre inspired by meme culture and 1990s nostalgia is an example of the latter.
Simpsonwave music incorporates the chill summer vibes of Vaporwave alongside sound and visual samples from the iconic 90s cartoon series, The Simpsons.
Nineteen-year-old British native Lucien Hughes was the mind behind most of the oddly addicting Simpsonwave videos.
Hughes describes the genre as a “melancholic nostalgic online audiovisual genre” and chooses clips based on the atmosphere he wants to convey.
NEO-MEDIEVAL MUSIC: DEAD CAN DANCE
Dead Can Dance (1989). Credit: Sara Leigh Lewis/Wikimedia Commons
Neo-medieval music is inspired by medieval music composition and instruments like bagpipes, shawm and hurdy-gurdy.
Music commentators could argue that any medieval-inspired music created after the late 15th century could be “neo-medieval'”. But in the interest of narrowing down the field, neo-medieval music came into its own in the late 1980s.
During this era, artistes began to create medieval-inspired electronic music infused with folk rock elements.
Australian duo Dead Can Dance was formed in 1981. Their self-titled debut studio album (1984) consciously integrated Gregorian chant, Gaelic folk, and electronica, a blend that shaped the neo-medieval genre.
LOWERCASE: STEVE RODEN
Lowercase is an ambient genre that adopts a radical approach to the minimalist music tradition established in the early 1960s.
Like Cage's experimental-avant-garde piece 4'33", Lowercase investigates our relationship with sound. But instead of questioning “absolute silence”, the genre significantly amplifies quiet or unheard sounds.
Lowercase emerged as a fully-fledged genre after Steve Roden's experimental musical album, Forms Of Paper (2001). However, Roden had been experimenting with this style of music since the late '80s.
To create Forms Of Paper, the artiste recorded himself handling different kinds of paper (including pages from a book of German poetry) and subsequently distorted the raw sounds.
WITCH HOUSE: PICTUREPLANE
Pictureplane at Meadowlark in Denver (2009). Credit: Ryan Price/Wikimedia Commons
Witch house is almost uncategorisable as it takes influence from multiple genres. And unlike the name suggests, it takes very little from house or black metal. Instead, think synth-pop, gothic rock, chopped and screwed, and ethereal wave.
Like the underground music genre drill 'n' bass, witch house was derived from a joke. But unlike the entire genre being playful satire (like drill 'n' bass), the name witch house was a jest.
According to Travis Egedy, the man behind Pictureplane and the first to coin the term witch house: "Myself and my friend Shams – he makes house music, too – we were joking about the sort of house music we make, [and we were calling it] witch house because it's, like, occult-based house music."
Egedy said that after his 2009 "best-of-the-year thing with Pitchfork", when he jokingly used the term.
“Different people started posting about it on blogs, and it sort of became an internet meme."
Check out Pictureplane's "Goth Star" (2009) for an example of what "was never meant to be an actual genre" but became one; and a weird one at that.
MATH ROCK: HELLA
Math rock is an off-shoot of indie and prog rock known for using highly complex time signatures, dissonant chords, and changeable time structures that stray from the norm.
Another unique quirk of math rock is that lyrics are seen as secondary to the music. And because complex rhythms drive the genre, drums are more significant than guitars.
Notable prog rock artistes like Rush and King Crimson are cited as having paved the way for math rock, as well as minimalist composers like Steve Reich.
Meanwhile, purely instrumental math rockers Hella, who formed in 2001, exemplify the fully realised genre.
NEUROFUNK: ED RUSH AND OPTICAL
Ed Rush and Optical at U Street Music Hall in Washington, D.C. (2015). Credit: Messnerix/Wikimedia Commons
Neurofunk or neuro music is an off-shoot of techstep, both of which are derivatives of drum and bass.
Neurofunk hailed from London towards the end of the 1990s when artistes began contrasting darker aspects of funk against energised techno music and jazz elements.
The genre is thought to be a sonic representation of how the human brain experiences neurological chemicals and the emotional spectrum. British DJs Ed Rush and Optical were vital in taking neuro beyond techstep.
With its use of samplers like Emu E6400 and re-sampled drum beats from 70s funk tracks, their first album, Wormhole (1998), is a classic example of neuro.
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Cover Credit: Stefan Brending (2eight)/Wikimedia Commons
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.