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A short guide to math rock for dummies

by Samuel Provost-Walker October 27, 2015
A short guide to math rock for dummies

This week’s genre takes your least-favourite class and makes it way more hardcore

Take the stereotype of a bunch of nerds crunching numbers in math class, apply it to music and you get a complex, sweaty and often beautiful thing called math rock.

Graphic by Charlotte Bracho.

Graphic by Charlotte Bracho.

Math rock is all about complex time signatures, stop and start polyrhythms and angular, frayed riffs. Somewhere around the late 1980s and early 1990s, noise rock and post-hardcore outfits began experimenting with new dissonant chords and song structures, throwing out the standard 4/4 time signatures in favour of asymmetrical 7/8 and putting a greater emphasis on calculated atmosphere.

Many of the genre’s earliest examples are indebted to the sounds that came before, blending the intensity of post-hardcore with these new chaotic song structures; San Diego outfit Drive Like Jehu are one such band. Combining the harsh intensity of noise rock and the yelped manic vocal stylings of post-hardcore with off-kilter rhythms and incredibly precise drumming, the band released two widely acclaimed albums of increasing mathematical complexity before disbanding. Though their career was short-lived, their influence is still felt today.

Perhaps the single most important band to contribute to the genre’s genesis was Kentucky-based quartet Slint, a math rock band of incredible ambition and sonic breadth. Though their debut, the criminally overlooked Tweez serves as a noisy class in math rock’s fundamentals, even enlisting Big Black frontman Steve Albini on production duties, the band’s sophomore album, Spiderland, has attained legendary status as a central pillar of the genre. Largely credited with establishing many of post-rock’s key tropes, namely the genre’s sparse crescendo-based structure, Spiderland is a haunting experimental opus of startling rhythmic diversity and artful propensity absolutely brimming with fresh ideas even today.

With the turn of the 21st century came a shift in math rock’s general focus, with bands like Don Caballero and Tera Melos switching to a more noodly and riff-based format. Some math rock bands tend to hang in limbo somewhere between jazz and emo, most notably Japan’s melancholic instrumental outfit Toe, Oxford-based TTNG (formerly This Town Needs Guns) and Irish post-rock/math rock hybrid Enemies. This added emphasis on technical virtuosity comes with a firm grasp on melody, often working together to create some truly evocative and sharp pieces.

According to a 2006 Pitchfork interview with Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney, “[Math rock] was invented by a friend of ours as a derogatory term for a band me and James played in called Wider. But his whole joke is that he’d watch the song and not react at all, and then take out his calculator to figure out how good the song was. So he’d call it math rock, and it was a total diss, as it should be,” he said.

With the return of genre pioneers like Shellac and the increasing popularity of more modern outfits like Battles, 65daysofstatic and, to an extent, Oxford’s successful Foals, math rock has seeped its way into the public consciousness. Through its versatility and various tonal modes, math rock has confidently escaped its origins as a niche spinoff of art punk, providing something for just about anyone. Don’t let its name fool you; you don’t need a foundation in calculus to understand and enjoy what this mathematical subgenre has to offer.

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