Impossible Time Signatures: The History of Math Rock So Far
It's no secret that certain music branches, particularly those most active in the underground scenes, have always been about challenging listeners.
By recording music that broke with tradition – or found at the edge of what was considered listenable, courageous bands have pushed the limits of music complexity. They did this with provoking music, which was magnified by incredible musical skills.
Not many genres in the rock realm can boast such a plethora of influences as math rock.
To the untrained ear, it might seem like every band with a passion for polyrhythmic melodies could well be a math rock band – however, even in such a fluid style, there are sonic structures and influences that unite bands into a single, coherent movement.
Rooted in the sonic experimentations of the late 1970s and early 80s, math rock features a fascinating, extremely diverse range of bands that might have drawn inspiration from the post-hardcore and noise scene – as much as they did from the articulate sonic progressions of King Crimson.
In between the evocative soundscapes of post-rock, the punchy and belligerent hardcore scene, and the extreme experimentations of ambient rock and noise, lies math rock – a safe haven for skilled musicians who want to evoke feelings through sonic complexity.
CHARACTERISTIC OF AN UNCATEGORISABLE MUSIC GENRE
Defining math rock is as difficult as listing all the bands that define this subgenre. All in all, music might be considered “math rock” if the bands producing it rely consistently on polyrhythmic textures, unpredictable time signatures, improvisation, and dissonance.
Complexity in the songs’ structure and a free-form approach to music compositions are crucial elements that define math rock.
So how do you draw the line between progressive and math rock?
As a rule of thumb, prog rock songs feature a more linear (although complex) structure, while a math rock piece feels much more unrelated to the standard features of traditional rock.
However, the difference between the two genres can get particularly blurry.
THE ORIGINS OF MATH ROCK
John Coltrane (1963). Credit: Hugo van Gelderen (Anefo)/Wikimedia Commons
Every math rock band falls along the axis that separates 1970s progressive rock and the post-hardcore of the 80s, which is like saying that Earth is somewhere between Mercury and Neptune.
Still, it should give you an idea of how vibrant and diverse this rock subgenre is.
The story began with the free jazz experimentations of the late 50s and early 60s. At the time, jazz icons like Miles Davis and John Coltrane pushed the boundaries of jazz and opened up the genre to new “contaminations”.
In particular, Davis’ album Bitches Brew is an early example of the structural complexity of free jazz merged with more accessible rock patterns. The album became one of the most ground-breaking albums across multiple genres, inspiring decades of rock and jazz musicians worldwide.
The next piece of the math rock puzzle was the progressive textures introduced by the likes of Can, NEU!, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the 70s.
The complex structure and unpredictability of their tracks started a legacy of artistes who wouldn’t abide by the rules of standard rock – an approach that’s crucial in the development of the contemporary math rock scene.
In the 80s, and on the other side of the sonic spectrum, the post-hardcore genre laid the foundation for the ferocious guitar riffs and drumming that would define the math rock genre to come.
Seminal bands like Black Flag and Nomeansno would add the structural complexity of prog rock and the erratic vibes of free jazz to punk, bringing to life a raging style that was unheard of at the time.
THE RISE OF MATH ROCK IN THE 1990s
Steve Albini (2015). Credit: Mixwiththemasters/Wikimedia Commons
The early 90s saw this new derivative of experimental rock music become more defined and fall under the umbrella of indie rock, mostly because of the most representative bands distancing themselves from the at-the-time more popular hardcore punk scene.
The pre-Nirvana era was a period of great musical experimentation, with bands defining the structure of alternative rock music for the following three decades.
One name stands above the crowd when talking about math rock in the 90s: Steve Albini.
Aside from playing in some of the most emblematic punk bands of the era (Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac), Albini became a sought-after record producer and audio engineer, capable of capturing the raw sound of the indie underground and making it sound appealing to a wider audience.
Over the years, Albini produced thousands of albums, ranging from the ethereal post-rock textures of Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Nirvana, from Don Caballero to PJ Harvey – always promoting a sound that was as close to the live effect as possible.
From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, two independent record labels became the epitome of this new generation of underground rock: SST Records and Touch and Go.
SST Records mostly focused on alternative rock music, releasing albums by post-punk cult bands Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr.
Chicago-based Touch And Go, which collaborated extensively with Albini, was all about noise and extreme experimentation – with releases by the critically-acclaimed Polvo and Don Caballero that’ll define the following decades of post-rock and math-rock music.
In the late 90s, an interesting combination of jazz-infused rhythmics, melodic intimacy and a subtle pop approach brought to life an emo-oriented math rock sub-genre.
It saw American Football and their 1999’s self-titled album becoming the foundation for a style that would inspire bands worldwide, from TTNG to And So I Watch You From Afar and Tubelord.
On the heavier side of the spectrum, The Melvins deserves a special mention, whose endless influences ranging from avant-garde music to free jazz became a source of inspiration for new generations of metal bands such as Tool, Mastodon and Sunn O))).
MATH ROCK IN THE EAST
Toe performing at Electric Owl Social Club in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (2015). Credit: Grassbag/Wikimedia Commons
The broad experimentation and intricate musical constructions of math rock found fertile ground in the underground Japanese rock scene, dominated by noise rock bands until the late 1980s.
With their disorienting mix of punk, noise and prog, Ruins became the pioneers of math rock in the Far East.
Their compositions, demanding even for the trained ears and often improvised, are to this day the most frenetic representation of math rock. The sudden changes in tempo and odd time signature are close to impossible to follow, yet they feel coherent (after multiple listening sessions).
Founded in 2000, the Japanese rock band Toe is undoubtedly one of my favourite examples of contemporary math rock. With a mix of explosive rhythmics and ethereal guitar riffs, Toe reinterprets free jazz in a modern key, adding a soul to the complex metrics that define the genre.
Mouse on the Keys is an experimental rock trio from Tokyo. Their cinematic compositions blend contemporary classical and jazz-infected complexity with a subtle reference to the energy of post-hardcore and some fascinating electronic textures.
The careful blend of punk, progressive rock and pop provided by the all-women math-rock band Tricot is a refreshing approach to this fascinating genre, with eclectic vocals that smoothen the instrumental complexity of the band’s extensive output.
Finally, the Taiwanese trio Elephant Gym is the last piece of the puzzle of the ever-evolving math-rock landscape.
Classically trained and relying on compelling bass guitar riffs, Elephant Gym perfectly embodies the thought-provoking and free structure of math rock, a genre that’ll inspire generations of skilled musicians for years to come.
Cover Credit: Miles Davis at North Sea Jazzfestival 1984. Credit: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo/Wikimedia Commons
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.