Best of Denver

Why 2014 Was a Breakout Year for Experimental Music in Denver

Although experimental music has been a part of the Denver scene for decades and the bands who perform it have enjoyed some critical acclaim, those artists are still largely unknown in this town. But 2014 was a breakout year for the city's experimental-music scene, with a few key tours, label signings and big-name fans suggesting that the musicians making the most adventurous sounds around may not be on the fringes for long.

See also: 2014 Was the Year That EDM Died

Itchy-O, which is experimental in both its costumed presentation and its music, signed with Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label for the release of its debut album, Burn the Navigator. That helped broaden the marching band's fan base in Denver and elsewhere.

But Itchy-O wasn't the only experimental band to experience new levels of success this year. Over the summer, Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano, who now lives in Colorado, found out about an avant-garde open-mike night at Strange Grounds held by members of the ANIMAL/object ambient-jazz outfit. Gano was so impressed that he started playing with the group at certain shows.

This was also a good year for Denver experimental bands outside of the city. Acts like industrial/noise/ambient band Echo Beds went on successful tours and, in that band's case, played to packed crowds throughout the Midwest.

This is not to say that there weren't any success stories in the local experimental scene prior to this year. Bands in that genre have been supported by a series of events, including the Denver Noise Fest, Noise Floor, Textures, the Goldrush Festival and, in past years, Titwrench. Itchy-O has certainly toured before. And John Gross of Page 27, who now helms the Denver Noise Fest, has been instrumental in cultivating a noise scene on the national level and raising Denver's profile in the world of experimental music. Still, various cultural circles have recently aligned themselves with that world, which then found itself mixing with visual art, academia and other kinds of music. This year, it seemed not just possible but somewhat inevitable that the avant-garde would enter into more mainstream music circles. Again and again, experimental music appeared in unlikely settings.

In October, for example, Victoria Lundy, who plays theremin in the Inactivists, performed a Concrete Mixer event with Mark Mosher, Rick Reid and her husband, Thomas Lundy, at the Newman Center at the University of Denver. Students and others in the audience were exposed to a variety of experimental music that day. Naropa University in Boulder has had a long relationship with the genre and occasionally hosts musical performances on campus. The University of Colorado at Boulder has often partnered with the Communikey Festival, and both the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver have hosted musical performances alongside art exhibitions.

When ANIMAL/object performed with the Violent Femmes at Riot Fest in September, it certainly seemed like a moment to remember. If one of the most avant-garde bands in the city can perform alongside a beloved (and massively popular) rock band, then experimental bands of all kinds have a shot at much wider audiences. A movement that has been building for years hit a critical mass in 2014, and the future appears to hold great promise for Denver's most musically adventurous bands.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.