Unusual Time Signatures – New Blog Page

4 May

From time to time, this blog drifts into a consideration of music, one of the great pleasures in my life. And as my Twitter profile suggests, I’m drawn to music that makes use of unusual time signatures. I once even suggested a book on the subject to my publisher. He wasn’t keen… Instead, I’ve sneaked a discussion of 5/4 time into one of my two current fictional projects. I’m not a fan of progressive rock and its myriad derivatives, but it’s probably what got me interested in the first place. It all goes back to Stravinsky, of course, and those other modernist composers. I see it as an indicator that a musician or band is willing to think beyond the obvious, avoiding the temptation always to fall back on 4/4 time, the all-pervasive beat in modern music. As such, I see a distinct parallel with the willingness to experiment in literature. Just as successful experimentation in the novel requires the writer to have mastered his or her craft, so complex time signatures call for a considerable degree of musicianship. Unless there’s some purpose behind it, though, it’s simply showing off. Talking of which… any list of such albums is bound to include the occasional progressive rock title (ah, guilty pleasures!). I must be getting withdrawal symptoms from my previous incarnation as a freelance music journalist because listed below are 21 albums featuring unusual time signatures, spanning the half century from 1959 to 2007, each described in 21 words…

  1. Red (1974) by King Crimson – Okay, so this one is prog rock, but it’s prog rock of the best kind. The title track is majestic.
  2. OK Computer (1997) by Radiohead – Ah, dance music you can’t dance to, as I once saw it described. One of the finest albums ever recorded?
  3. Carnavas (2006) by The Silversun Pickups – Unusual time signatures abound on this assured début album. ‘Lazy Eye’ and ‘Three Seed’ are already classics. A band to watch.
  4. The Raven (1979) by The Stranglers – The Stranglers soon transcended their supposedly punk origins. The tracks here have extended instrumental introductions, frequently played in odd time signatures.
  5. Deloused in the Comatorium (2003) by The Mars Volta – Well now, this band is musically insane. Its début album is manic and beautiful all at once. Check out ‘Inertiatic ESP’.
  6. Illinois (2005) by Sufjan Stevens – Stevens has been the great proselytiser for unusual time signatures in rock music over the last decade. This is his masterwork.
  7. Orpheus – The Lowdown (2003) by Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge – The early noughties were a golden age for unusual time signatures and this is one of the oddest albums you’ll ever hear.
  8. Yanqui U.X.O. (2002) by Godspeed You: Black Emperor – Most of the tracks on this album are in 3/4 time, not so unusual in classical music, more so in rock.
  9. Time Out (1959) by The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Modern jazz album that had a big influence on the use of unusual time signatures in rock music. RIP Dave Brubeck.
  10. Amnesiac (2001) by Radiohead – Called ‘Kid B’ by some, implying its inferiority to its predecessor, this is festooned with odd time signatures. ‘Pyramid Song’ is sublime.
  11. Song for America (1975) by Kansas – This one’s pretty prog-based too but much more interesting than the band’s later AOR focused albums. Overlooked and beautiful.
  12. Michigan (2003) by Sufjan Stevens – Sufjan may have been listening to ‘Song for America’ when embarking on his apocryphal mission to chart the USA’s 50 states.
  13. Discipline (1981) by King Crimson – On which King Crimson made their triumphant return, in 7/8 time and so on. ‘Indiscipline’ is mad and wonderful. Try working out what it’s about.
  14. Gone to Earth (1986) by David Sylvian – Mr Sylvian had been hanging out (musically) with Robert Fripp of King Crimson. From opener, ‘Taking the Veil’, onward, it shows.
  15. Sons and Fascination (1981) by Simple Minds – Formerly a Euro-electro act, latterly a stadium rock one, in between, Simple Minds were experimental and interesting.
  16. Candylion (2007) by Gruff Rhys – This little known lo-fi masterpiece  contains a number of songs with interesting time signatures. Seek out ‘Painting People Blue’ and listen.
  17. Five Leaves Left (1969) by Nick Drake – Only the cognoscenti knew of this album and only ‘Riverman’ is in 5/4 time. But what other song do you need?
  18. 154 (1979) by Wire – The ground-breaking third album by the post-punk band that found them at their most experimental, both musically and lyrically.
  19. Tarkus (1971) by ELP – Ouch! I’m sneaking the real prog rock in at the end. This is a stinker, really, but the song cycle that took up side one of the LP is rhythmically interesting.
  20. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) by Genesis – Ah, but this still is good, four decades later. For unnerving use of strange signatures check ‘Lilywhite Lilith’ and ‘Broadway Melody’.
  21. Close to the Edge (1972) by Yes – I never liked this band, but grudgingly, I’ll admit, the title track is pretty damn fine. Otherwise, they’re overrated.

Experiments with time

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2 Responses to “Unusual Time Signatures – New Blog Page”

  1. PK Read May 6, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    Cool post, and a wide spectrum of music, Paul. Lots of my own faves here – who plays King Crimson anymore?

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves May 6, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    Hi PK and thanks for your comments.

    My tastes tend to be eclectic. And I still play King Crimson! I’m guessing you do too…

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