21 Albums Featuring Unusual Time Signatures

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 no longer 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 behind modern music. As such, I see a distinct parallel with the willingness to experiment in literature (See also 21 Experimental Albums). 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 – Known to the cognoscenti only on its release. 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.
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Experiments with time

And we could easily add 21 more… Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, Frances the Mute by The Mars Volta, Control and Resistance by Watchtower, Henry Fool by Henry Fool, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater, The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, The First Day by David Sylvian and Robert Fripp…

All text and images © PSR 2013

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14 Responses to “21 Albums Featuring Unusual Time Signatures”

  1. atempleton December 8, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Even older Genesis- “Supper’s Ready” off the Foxtrot album.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves December 8, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

      Ah, yes, some tricky time signatures there… I used to know the entire lyric when I was a sixth former.

      • atempleton December 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

        Impressive! They were a little before my time, but through their back catalog, I’ve come to love early Genesis.

      • Paul Sutton Reeves December 9, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

        Much more interesting than the bland stadium schmaltz of later years…

  2. 333, the SC February 27, 2016 at 7:20 pm #

    FEAR- The Record. Seriously. Those guys punked in 5/4 often.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves February 28, 2016 at 10:38 am #

      Hmm, I don’t know them… I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for the tip 333.

  3. Kevin fernley February 27, 2016 at 10:02 pm #

    What. How can there be no mention of gentle giant?

    • Paul Sutton Reeves February 28, 2016 at 10:32 am #

      Hi Kevin and thanks for commenting. It’s just a personal view. I’m aware of Gentle Giant… and they’re not really my cup of Arabica.

  4. Eric Kurtz February 27, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    No Gentle Giant?

    • Paul Sutton Reeves February 28, 2016 at 10:37 am #

      Hi Eric. Nope, no GG. I appreciate what they did but they’re not to my taste.

  5. Mark February 28, 2016 at 11:05 pm #

    What about Marillion and Falling Up?
    (Particularly their last 3 albums)

  6. Skogg May 5, 2017 at 2:54 am #

    You can say you are not a fan of Yes, I don’t love the band either, but “overrated”? Please. That’s a little much. A band like Coldplay is overrated, they are super popular, and they suck. Yes never had mega popular appeal to be called overrated. And, the were wickedly talented.

    I would call the Beatles overrated before I called Yes overrated. As a matter of fact, Yes, and a lot of other prog bands like ELP, we’re largely hated, except by their rabid core of followers.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves May 5, 2017 at 11:11 pm #

      Well, we can all say whatever we want, and are entitled to our opinions, especially on our own blogs! You are perfectly entitled to your opinion about Yes. Some people think Coldplay are great, and that’s fair enough too. Yes have sold 13.5 million albums in the USA alone and yet you say they were never “mega popular” and “largely hated”. That’s an opinion too, a rather strange one, but an opinion nonetheless. I suspect if you asked the members of Yes themselves whether they were more talented than The Beatles, they wouldn’t think so.

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