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Unheard music genres: Math rock

Math rock is an esoteric and intriguing offshoot of rock music. Left: American Football. Right: Steve Albini (Images via Instagram @americanfootball and @steve.albini)
Math rock is an esoteric and intriguing offshoot of rock music. Left: American Football. Right: Steve Albini (Images via Instagram @americanfootball and @steve.albini)
Aditya Mandhane

This week, we take a look at math rock as part of SK Pop's 'Unheard Music Genres' series.

Rock music has evolved from being "rock'n'roll" to a diverse collation of styles and subgenres. One of the most esoteric offshoots of rock music boasts of complex, atypical rhythm structure, with irregular start and stop points. Though it may appear bizarre at the onset, this genre has a certain... formula behind it.

This is the genre known as math rock. It is irregular, complex and exhaustively unexplored. Pioneers of this genre have been overlooked and miscategorised, which makes encapsulating its history and milestones an interesting challenge.


Math rock: Hallmarks, origins, milestones, and gateways

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Hallmarks

Rhythmic complexity is the greatest hallmark of math rock. The genre derives its name due to a certain mathematical character it displays via rhythmic structure. This complexity is achieved using counterpoints, odd time signatures, angular melodies, and extended, often dissonant, chords.

For instance, while the majority of rock music uses a 4/4 meter, however accented or syncopated, math rock typifies non-standard and frequently changing time signatures such as 7/8, 11/8, or 13/8.

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The genre can also be seen as a confluence of a myriad of rock subgenres such as punk, hardcore and progressive, and 20th century minimal music, with all the influences which constitute the parent genres themselves.

The sound is still dominated by guitars and drums as is customary in rock. However, drums become even more essential in this genre, as they provide driving, complex rhythms. Guitarists playing this genre use tapping techniques and loop pedals to build on these rhythms.

Lyrics often take a backseat in math rock. The voice is treated as yet another instrument in a complex array of structural components. Most of the genre's prominent proponents are entirely instrumental, such as Don Caballero or Hella.

The colloquial name for the genre began as a joke but has now developed into an accepted moniker for the musical style, despite the rebuff from certain music critics.


Origins

King Crimson pioneered progressive rock with their seminal album In The Court Of The Crimson King. With their albums Red and Discipline, they laid the foundations for off-kilter rhythms in rock.

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Canadian punk rock group Nomeansno is another hidden gem, as it predated much of the genre's development by more than a decade since its inception in 1979. The group has been cited by music critics as a "secret influence" on polyrhythmic rock.

Massacre is an even more avant-garde group of the same era. Guitarist Fred Frith and bassist Bill Laswell were influenced by the rapid-fire energy of punk, which they added complex rhythmic characteristics to.


Milestones

Math rock truly came into its own in the post-hardcore era of the '80s and '90s. It sprouted in multiple indie rock scenes across America.

Formed in 1976. Black Flag brought an overwhelmingly bellowing, fierce and ferocious sound to punk rock, thus solidifying ‘hardcore punk’.

But the group's 1984 release My War was a clear deviation from previous albums, comprising several primordial math rock tracks with polyrhythmic percussion: Swinging Man, Three Nights and Scream.

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In 1985, Black Flag recorded the entirely instrumental album The Process of Weeding Out, which was perhaps frontman Greg Ginn’s attempt to write music as enigmatic as his diverse influences, primarily Mahavishnu Orchestra and The Descendants. This was perhaps the first-ever math rock album.

Double Nickels On The Dime (1982) was the magnum opus of another prog-influenced punk band named Minutemen. Interestingly, a track on the album is named God Bows To Math. It is a short yet complexly syncopated tune, and an ironic omen for the coining of the term.

Meanwhile, Steve Albini produced for and co-founded the bands Big Black and Shellac in Chicago. His frustration with the homogeniety of mainstream music and his acetic, stark production style gave birth to a plethora of DIY bands in his recording studio, Electric Audio.

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Spiderland (1991) by Slint is another seminal influence this genre. It remains an enigma of a record three decades after release, with winding, discordant guitar lines, and odd-time, off-kilter drumming paired with grimly evocative lyrics.

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Gateways

Don Caballero was a pioneering force in the burgeoning math rock scene of the 90’s, with an almost entirely instrumental sound centered around drummer Damon Che. The peak of their innovation was American Don, their magnum opus.

Recorded by Steve Albini at his famed Electrical Audio studio, Che’s pristine drumming took center stage with unconventional patterns interwoven to craft a signature style that has become a cornerstone in math rock history.

Along with Che, Ian Williams incorporated intense guitar looping for the entirety of American Don, while also ditching the use of heavily distorted guitars for jazz-sounding clean tones, allowing him to reinvent his tapping skills and display his revolutionary style.

It paved the way for math rock's signature sound to enter a new era.

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Chicago trio Piglet's album Lava Land took a while to become a cult favorite. The album's title, writing, recording, and even the artwork were whimsical affairs at best, to go with the band's image of utter noncholance.

Despite this percieved lack of effort, the combined speed and technicality of the guitars solidified the ‘twinkly’ motif that is now pervasive across contemporary math rock.

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Hold Your Horse Is (2002) by Hella is a chaotic yet complex burst of short, quick looping patterns, freely diving into experimental-instrumental math-spazz. The Sacramento duo of Spencer Seim and Zach Hill craft propulsive riffs along with technical, dexterous drumming, going maximum on speed and attack.

Biblical Violence is a frenzied, virtuosic whirlwind of raw syncopation, clatter and melody. Republic of Rough and Ready is a blast of dizzying starts and stops. The album comes at the listener with dizzying twists and turns, spiraling into a beautiful mess of improvisational sonic mania.

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Britain's TTNG's (formerly This Town Needs Guns) transitioned from early indie and post-hardcore-leaning sound to the lighter, guitar-driven math rock on Animals (2008). Guitarist Tim Collis produced the most technical, producing dazzling and complex guitar melodies, the likes of which have scarcely been seen since.

The concept, the execution, and the ability to mesmerize make this album a staple listen.

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Math rock was a global phenomenon, albeit an underground one, with a prominent presence in Japan. Bands like Toe, Tricot, and Lite kept the movement going far east.

While the genre dissolved into other genres in the new millennium, it has a special place in music history for the sheer unique nature it possesses.


Edited by Saman

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