Mixtape Primer: An Introduction to “Math Rock”

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Like many genre titles, “math rock” is a label abhorred by pretty much everyone that it’s been applied to. But that doesn’t make it any less fitting a description for the complex, highly rhythmic guitar music that emerged from the Midwest in the early 1990s. Math rock grew out of hardcore, working with the basic elements of rock ‘n’ roll — guitar, bass, drums — but shifting the emphasis away from melody toward rhythm and sonic dynamics. The result was a distinctive sound characterized by sonic minimalism, robotic drumming, and strange time signatures. The genre arguably had its heyday in the ’90s, but with Battles’ new single “My Machines” out this week, along with a new record by reunited veterans Braid, it seems a fine time to cast an eye back over math rock past and present — so here’s a mixtape of some of our favorite songs. And we don’t use the word “angular” once!

Battles — “Atlas”

We’re all for Gloss Drop, but this is still undoubtedly Battles’ finest moment, seven minutes of driving, cyclical rhythms and metronomic precision. As far as Flavorpill’s concerned, it’s the single greatest math rock moment of the 2000s, and thus makes for a fine place to begin.

Shellac — “My Black Ass”

If the genre has any sort of figurehead, it’s Steve Albini, whose spartan approach to sound has always had far more to do with rhythm and texture than it has with melody. His work with Bob Weston and Todd Trainer in Shellac, in particular, is arguably where math rock really diverged from hardcore and became its own entity — the songs were all machine-gun drumming and dynamic shifts, and their approach to music was unashamedly geeky (the sleeve of their debut album At Action Park credited Albini, Weston, and Trainer with “velocity,” “mass,” and “time,” respectively, instead of guitar, bass, and drums.)

Fugazi — “Repeater”

As we’ve mentioned, math rock emerged from hardcore, and it’s easy to trace the sound’s roots in the sound of bands like the aforementioned Shellac… and, of course, Fugazi. Ian MacKaye’s post-Minor Threat group were long one of the most interesting bands in (post-)hardcore, their music moving over the years from a relatively conventional punk sound into far more musically involved territory. While they were rarely lumped into the math rock genre, their exploration of tempo changes and dynamic shifts certainly shared plenty of common ground with math rock’s intellectual take on music.

Slint — “Good Morning, Captain”

It seems entirely appropriate that post-rock’s cerebral take on the guitar-bass-drums formula should share plenty of common ground and inspiration with math rock. Slint’s debut Tweez (produced by, yes, Steve Albini) certainly sounded like it came straight out of post-hardcore, but they went somewhere else completely with their second album, a record that’s entirely deserving of all the critical plaudits and column inches that it’s garnered over the years. Spiderland‘s sound marks a conjunction for hardcore, math rock, and what would become post-rock, sharing the aggression of the first, the precision of the second, and the textural, dynamic nature of the third.

Don Caballero — “Dick Suffers Is Furious with You”

Their later albums expanded their sonic palette into electronica and other exotic areas, but genre mainstays Don Caballero’s early work is full of some of the purest math rock styles you’ll ever hear. Their second record Don Caballero 2, in particular, is a classic of complex rhythmic structures and start-stop guitar dynamics.

Chavez — “Break Up Your Band”

Apart from being responsible for three of the genre’s finest records, Chavez singer Matt Sweeney is also indirectly responsible for the name “math rock” — the term was apparently invented by a friend to describe his former band Wipers. He told Pitchfork in 2006 that, as with many genre names, it started as a joke: “It was invented by a friend of ours as a derogatory term… but [the] 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.” That’s as it may be, but having been to a fair few such shows in our time, we’re not entirely convinced that the friend in question wasn’t actually totally serious.

The Dillinger Escape Plan — “43% Burnt”

The thinking 2000s metal fan’s band of choice, The Dillinger Escape Plan are also largely responsible for the incorporation of metal sounds into math rock-influenced song structures. We’ll leave it to other writers to debate the minutiae of exactly where math rock, metalcore, and mathcore intersect — suffice it to say that this stuff is a) intimidatingly heavy, b) intimidatingly loud, and c) intimidatingly complicated.

Drive Like Jehu — “New Math”

Before the word “emo” became a noun and a stereotype, it was an adjective applied to bands like this — literally, emotional hardcore punk. And, in the case of Drive Like Jehu, emotional hardcore punk with lots of weird time signatures. Not quite Dashboard Confessional, is it?

My Disco — “Sunray”

One of our favorite minimalist/math-influenced groups of recent years, this Australian trio wear their inspirations proudly — they’re named after a Big Black song, and bassist Liam Andrews wields the same aluminum-necked Travis Bean bass that Shellac’s Bob Weston used. But the band’s work is interesting and innovative enough to avoid being mere pastiche — particularly their most recent record Little Joy, which eases up on the determined minimalism just a bit, with consistently excellent results.

Foals — “Balloons”

Foals? Math rock? Really? It’s perhaps difficult to believe these days, given their more dance-friendly direction, but Yiannis Phillipakis et al’s roots lie in a math rock trio called The Edmund Fitzgerald. Some of these sounds seeped through onto Foals’ debut record Antidotes — especially “Balloons,” which was also covered by Holy Fuck, whose own work bears a fairly substantial math rock influence. An exploration of mathtronica will have to wait for next time, though…