There’s a piece of music for everything, whatever emotion, whatever situation – there’ll be a track to compliment it. It’s an art form that can take all forms, all sounds – it can be as experimental or as familiar as you like. That’s why whenever I’m looking at surrealism, i’ll usually have music on in the background. It helps me work but it also helps me think – and I find it interesting that so many people do the same thing. So here’s a list of five artists I would recommend you trying out to add to your ‘surrealist’ playlist. I’ve chosen them necessarily for being ridiculously experimental, they’re just artists that I always associate with the genre or particular works of the form.
I’m going to try my best not to be biased with this first one, because this guy is without doubt one my favourite musicians ever. This is the instrumental guitarist Buckethead (aka. Brian Patrick Carroll.). Surrealism can take multiple forms. It relies, mostly, on base emotions – a visceral reaction with an audience that prompts you to think and feel more so than you were before, and I think he does this amazingly. He’s a musician who isn’t often heard of outside of circles of his specific fans – despite the fact he’s worked with numerous high profile artists such as Viggo Mortensen, Iggy pop and Serj Tankian – as well as appearing in the band Praxis with funk legend Bootsy Collins and in Guns’n’Roses from 2000 to 2004. The amount of albums in his discography are ridiculous so I can’t possibly sum them up, but my favourites have always been ‘Decoding The Tomb of Bansheebot’ (2007) and ‘Electric Sea’ (2012), as well as the particular tracks ‘Nottingham Lace’ (‘Enter The Chicken’, 2005) and ‘Soothsayer’ (‘Crime Slunk Scene’, 2006.)
He’s a multi-instrumentalist who turns his hand to many styles, something like ‘Soothsayer’ is a 9:12 length track of melancholy guitar played over with a colossal solo – perhaps somewhat self indulgent, I found it beautiful – both in his ability to play impressively and simply in order to convey the right emotion. This along with the pure acoustic tones of ‘Electric Sea’ always focuses on conveying a distinct sadness, and his music never ceases to compliment the surreal images of Rene Magritte and Joan Miro. This along with his more experimental, distorted, jazz fuelled tracks such as ‘Botnus’ or ‘Lotus Island’ which mirror the jagged, frantic edges of abstract art and never fail to bring about a sense of leaving this world to instead occupy the realms of Buckethead’s head.
Speaking of jazz influenced craziness, the next artist I’d suggest is ‘Animals as Leaders’ – the fantastic three piece, instrumental metal band from Washington who’ve been amazing listeners since 2007. Guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes have intense skill, they’re ascension of scales like a tumbling landslide, playing with accurate messiness and lightning precision. Often utilising jazz elements, like 7th and 9th chords and alternating between scales, the band provide longer tracks which feel like what can only be described as space exploration. I always enjoy listening to them when viewing any surreal art, from Dali to the cosmic illustrations of Robert T. McCall. Their self titled debut in 2009, followed by ‘Weightless’ (2011) and ‘The Joy of Motion’ (2014) are breathtaking achievements both in terms of musical ability but also transcendent ambience. Much like Buckethead, they fuse frantic dissonance with calming, clean tones which do everything they can to wrap you up in their embrace. My particular recommendation is the track ‘Tooth and Claw’ (‘The Joy of Motion’.)
I’m still trying to not be biased, as much as I can. But that’ll be difficult considering the next artist wrote the first album I ever bought – and while i’d recommend their whole discography, this is one that has a special place with me. The album ‘Demon Days’ (2005) by ‘Gorillaz’ is, for me, a really special piece of music. However in terms of its relevance to surrealism, it works on several levels. Firstly the music itself is surprising. Each track has an electronic feel but comes with different elements and styles woven into it – among the consistently infectious melodies are excellent rap sections from the likes of ‘Roots Manuva’, the distorted guitars of ‘White Light’ and then the haunting rhythms of ‘El Manãna’. This constant varying of styles and forms makes for a beautiful sense of journey, so i’ll often put on the album while looking through the likes of Lara Zankoul, Joel Robison or the illustrations of Dave Mckean. For me everyone has their own interpretation of a song, and ‘Demon Days’ feels like the ultimate urban journey through modern life and the raw insanity of it. Another leave it works on is that Gorillaz often have alternative forms of publicity, rarely showing themselves and instead preferring their animated counterparts – cartoon figures who act as the band on all their music videos and artwork. The first thing I noticed when i got the album was that what should have been the lyrics book was actually just a piece of artwork for each song – suggesting some meaning or maybe just a visual representation of their style. Their music always feels visual and that’s what I like about it, their surreal art often shows characters floating on windmills in the sky or a cartoon monkey with a cigarette who’s head has smoke coming out of it. The visual music has surrealist tendencies that slip out every now and again, and I think that’s why I love it so much.
Now I’ve already briefly mentioned Jazz music before, and I imagine one day i’ll do a post about how many surrealists loved jazz. But for now I only make the humble suggestion that the next time you’re taking a dip into surrealism you listen to the legendary player, Charlie Parker. His style of Jazz is known as ‘Bebop’ and is so called for its erratically unpredictable and yet distinctly skillful romps through the scales and motifs of the jazz and blues genre. Most beats of these tracks are often in odd or irregularly played time signatures, and they feel jumpy – for want of a better word. Saying that, listening to him seems strangely soothing, I suppose the same way surrealism can. There’s never one particular album that stands out for me, so I tend to go for compilations of his music such as ‘Yardbird Suite’ – but the track that stands out for me is ‘Koko’ (featuring Duke Ellington.) The piece is so unpredictable and yet it seems so appropriate for surrealism, like a musical reflection of the movements anti-establishment vibe. I guess it’s more that this is the kind of music many of the original surrealists listened to – like surrealism, Jazz was born against standard forms of music, and instead derives from pure passion and skill (not to say that other music genres of the time didn’t necessarily.) In a social context there’s no surprise that surrealism and jazz go hand in hand, both are alternative forms of expression in their mode of art, and both became well renowned at a similar time.
This final entry is sort of me cheating, because rather than an artist I’ve got a genre. This genre has no official name as such but must people refer to it as ‘Chill-hop’ or ‘Low-fi Hip-hop’. I’d say the best way to listen to this is just by searching YouTube channels like ‘Chillhop Music’ or ‘Chilled Cow’. It’s usually comprised of samples from older music, it’s usually instrumental and it’s always laid back with a sense of peaceful melancholy. Just by the process of having the music and seeing whatever artwork the video has can convey so much emotion. Take one of Chilled Cow’s videos for example, it just has an anime figure slumped in their house, staring out the window – and yet it seemed to affect my mod so much. I love listening to this while admiring surrealist works because it feels like a process, listening to the music is both calming and engaging. With no words spoken (apart form the odd Blade-runner sample) the music conveys that same engagement that I feel when I look at Surrealist art – a sense of deepness, even though that may sound pretentious. It’s seems like the soundtrack to an escapist mind, like the others in this list it’s a kind of music that takes me away somewhere beyond the place i’m in contextually.
I think with all these artists, that’s the case. And to be honest the difficult thing about this list is that, like all art, music is subjective. You may get a similar feeling from something I don’t look twice at just by chance. Two strangers can listen and get completely different pictures from it, one might got even get pictures at all. I would encourage you to go find your own escapist playlist, anything that intrigues you to the point of feeling like you’re going inside some kind of simple complexity. That nuanced mix of happiness, fulfilment, sadness and curiosity. Hopefully though, these five will be a good start.