Illustration by Tilly Binucci.
This week we are taking a trip into the world of ‘math rock’. It’s a genre that I have grown to love over the last few years, but I still feel uneasy talking about it. Perhaps it’s the fact that it sounds completely pretentious, or maybe that the genre is saturated with white male artists and its listener base largely reflects that. It almost feels inherently problematic to listen to math rock at times. However, as I’ve explored more bands and albums, I’ve discovered math rock from across the world, which has somewhat reduced the feeling that my music taste is a walking red flag. Since math rock is an instrumental genre at its core, its derives inspiration from a variety of genres, from prog rock and hardcore through to jazz. It emerged in the US indie rock scene in the late 80s, and its defining features are: minimalist production consisting largely of guitar, bass, and drums; unusual time signatures that often change throughout the track; as well as a fairly loose structure that is often entirely instrumental. The term ‘math’ refers to the complicated meter and use of technical syncopation that diverts listeners’ expectations. Even from this, it is easy to see why it can be quite an off-putting genre, since it often presents itself as being ‘too complicated for the everyday listener’. However, it is definitely a myth that you need to be able to understand the music to appreciate it, and it’s this kind of damaging rhetoric that keeps fringe genres exclusive and undiverse.
Possibly the most talked-about band especially for people starting to listen to math rock is American Football. Based in Illinois, they started making music in the late 90s, and their sound is a blend of ‘Mid-west Emo’ (rock with an emphasis on emotional expression) and repetitive layered tapping sequences and clean guitar loops which are often used in math rock. “Never Meant” from their 1999 self-titled album follows a fairly regular structure unlike most math rock and the time signature is also less complex, but the interweaving of clean guitar riffs makes it a comfortable introduction into the genre. The use of alternative tuning also evokes a beautiful bittersweet tone that represents one side of the math rock spectrum which is characterised by a gentler and more wistful quality.
The next band that is also more accurately described as math rock adjacent is Foals, whose first album Antidotes in 2009 featured similar technical layering, especially in tracks such as “Two Steps, Twice”. Here, a steady beat allows repetitive guitar motifs to layer in an unexpected way, shifting the listener into a new context with each riff added. Foals primarily deserve a mention because they are an Oxford band (and what would we do without a healthy sprinkling of narcissism), but they have been very influential in the UK scene. Frontman Yannis was also involved in the more quintessentially math rock band The Edmund Fitzgerald while at Oxford which disbanded in 2005. Their track “My Quiet Hearts Slight of Hand” (which can be found on Youtube) has a much more irregular meter and structure than Foals’ early work, leaning more into the experimental, hardcore, and noise aspects of math rock, with the accompaniment of heavy feedback and metal-style power chords.
The New York two piece-band Floral makes creative use of loop pedals as frontman Nate Sherman plays both rhythm and lead. The track “Climbing a Wall” is an entrancing demonstration of storytelling through guitar. Erratic rippling riffs wander up and down, interspersed with sharp bursts of chords. From this energetic start, we transition into a gentle sway, petals fluttering in the breeze, before the guitars builds again and the wallflower continues its search upwards. The stages of the track perfectly capture the perpetual motion of life, and Floral allows peaceful moments to admire its beauty. The lack of lyrics invites listeners to immerse themselves in the song and derive their own meaningfulness from it.
Japan has been especially influential in the math rock scene, with a plethora of Japanese bands making their own unique mark on the genre. 3nd is a band from Tokyo who often take inspiration from the Japanese ‘noise’ genre. At its peak in the 90s, noise uses heavy feedback, distortion, and unconventional instruments to create a chaotic and highly textured sound, as the name suggests. The track “waltz for lilly” from 3nd’s 2019 album world tour is an interesting take on a classical waltz featuring two key twisting guitar riffs that seem to call to one another. Winding scales and arpeggios dance across the first half of the song before we change meter, shifting us into a new scene. When we arrive back at the waltz, the song crescendos into a progressively more dissonant and chaotic sound before the shredding comes to a halt with a gentle guitar ticking. Despite the ‘math’ element, the music feels alive and full of emotion.
Moving away from the minor key we turn now to Totorro, a French quartet known for their unique joyful approach to math rock. Chevalier Bulltoe on their 2014 album Home Alone begins with some fun guitar texturing and clapping to start in an upbeat mood. Strummed power chords glow with a resonant and rich sound before it returns to a minimal fast riff that gradually builds into a steady rhythm that begs to be danced to. Although it is still a musically technical song, the positive energy radiating from their music is a refreshing change from the often serious and reflective tone of the genre.
It would be wrong to talk about math rock without acknowledging its complicated influences. Although the genre developed from other rock genres in the 80s and 90s, the ‘math’ element with the use of polyrhythm (rhythms stacked on top of each other) is arguably inspired by traditional African music, more specifically West Africa. Despite this crucial influence, African math rock bands or those that might be considered adjacent to math rock are rarely featured in discussions about the genre. Nevertheless, one wonderful band I stumbled across is Tal National from Niger. Although their music might not be strictly categorised as math rock, many of the songs feature clean and complex guitar picking which aligns well rhythmically, as well as the use of unconventional song structures. Songs such as “Zoy Zoy” from their 2015 album with the same name combine these polyrhythmic guitar riffs with West African call and response vocals and inspiration from West African folk music. It seems that, in many ways, the term ‘math rock’ is a tool to keep the genre exclusive, evoking a sense of intelligence and superiority that is based fundamentally in white supremacy. Since math rock is already a relatively broad genre, the bare minimum is to include such bands in the conversation.
Another diversity problem within math rock is the lack of female artists. Since it is a genre that requires fairly extensive knowledge of music theory and skill, the variety of systemic issues hindering women artists are heightened, such as gender stereotypes about ‘appropriate instruments’, as well as issues of access to education and support from the music industry itself. However, there are a handful of all-women bands, especially in Japan. My personal favourite all-female math rock band is paranoid void, a trio based in Osaka. The first track “Dog of Karma” from their 2017 album Literary Math traverses through multiple styles, with some sections that are heavily jazz-influenced with swung hi-hats, transitioning all the way to hard rock riffs. The path is skillfully crafted with repeated motifs that link throughout the song to create a coherent yet endlessly fascinating track.
Another band that is hugely popular in Japan is tricot: a Kyoto-based woman-led band. Their 2019 single “Afureru” features fast-paced drums, slap bass, and plenty of heavy layered guitars, but they are unlike other bands mentioned as their music is accompanied by vocals, with a more traditional verse and chorus structure. Since tricot sing in Japanese, they have often been associated with anime by Western audiences. However, this seems a troubling association to make, as if music sung in Japanese is limited to this lens, and cannot stand on its own right and merit. Furthermore, it brings up the problematic idea that music sung in a different language has a lesser value to a Western, English-speaking audience, just because we have the privilege that almost all popular music we consume is built for our ears. It seems an injustice to incredibly talented bands like tricot that they have to contend with these prejudices as well as the fact that they are women fighting for their space in a male-dominated genre.
To conclude on a positive note, I will end this week’s playlist with the enchanting work of Yvette Young, who is the Californian guitarist of the band Covet, but also has released her own solo work. Her acoustic EPs from 2014 and 2017 are simply magical, with delicate and intricate tapping sequences that oscillate and shift like water while her voice floats above. The artistry of Covet is just as impressive, especially on tracks such as “Parachute” which is from the 2020 album technicolor. Her signature tapping sparkles amidst a rambling bass, with the lead guitar and drums building before settling into a shimmering haze at the end of the song.
Each artist brings someone unique to their music, and math rock allows artists to draw on a wide variety of genres, which propels innovation. Its instrumental nature also invites listeners to take part in the musical process and to experience music consciously, especially since the complex rhythms play on your expectations and keep your constant attention. The reputation that math rock has (especially considering its artist demographic and tendency to sideline minority artists and influences) does not do itself any favours, but if you search for just a moment, there is an incredibly diverse array of music to be discovered!