Math Rock - Genre Analysis


 

The other day my girlfriend and I were driving along listening to my Spotify 2019 "Taste Breakers" playlist and a song came on that I'd never heard before, and instantly loved. It had a time signature that I could barely follow but instrumentation I was familiar with. "What do you call this?" my girlfriend asked, "Math Rock?" I said, unsure. The band in question was 'Hella' and after a quick Wikipedia search I deduced that they were in fact Math Rock, but that then got me thinking, do I really know what Math Rock is? From my generally knowledge and listening ability I can deduce that Math at least has a very heavy focus on intricate time signatures.


I know for a fact that lots of Tool songs focus heavily on unusual time signatures, but I've never heard anyone refer to Tool as a Math Rock band. So what makes something Math Rock, and not just Rock?

 

Early Influence - The Progressive Rock Movement


There's never a specific time and a date you can put on the inception of a genre, but you can pinpoint particular artists and people that made significant changes to the norms of their style of music. This is even harder to track with Math Rock as artists and bands often referred to when discussing the beginnings of the genre, aren't entirely considered Math Rock. According to William Covert Cameron Pinko and Nikk Hunter, Math is derived from Prog Rock; " (the) 1970’s movement provided an arena for musicians to combine virtuosic instrumentation, metrical complexity and sophisticated structure with the stripped back nature of modern rock music, the tenets that would play a key role in math rock’s later inception" The article in question titled, "You've Got to Learn How to Prog Before You Can Math" suggests just that; you can't fully understand Math Rock without first understanding Progressive Rock, as Math borrowed heavily from the ideals of Prog. In this article, Pinko and Hunter also state that "The prog story is as expansive as the pomp and fantastical imagery conceived by its makers". Jerry Ewing of udiscovermusic.com writes that Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson told the audience at a progressive rock awards show that Prog was “music for people who get bored easily”" and also later quotes him stating that Prog “wasn’t just about breaking the rules, but knowing which rules to break in the first place!” Meaning that Prog artists weren't only trying to focus on more complex instrumentation and playing styles, but they were also looking for ways to bend the conventional idea of "complexity" in music. Similar to what was happening to Jazz when be-bop came onto the scene, a style of Jazz that developed in the 1940s and is characterized by improvisation, fast tempos, rhythmic unpredictability, and harmonic complexity (Verity, M. 2018). Some notable forerunners of Progressive Rock are bands like Genesis, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and according to Andy Greene of Rollingstone magazine, Tool! There you go, that explains why Tool isn't described as Math Rock, because it's Prog Rock! But why are Progressive and Math two different things if they're so damn similar?

 
When I first began to research the origins of math rock, I expected it to follow a direct lineage from progressive rock. After all, they share many elements, such as experimentation with song structure, use of odd time signatures, and influence from a diverse range of genres, both within and outside of rock. Both genres were birthed by musicians with the intention of creating original, intellectual music with the energy of rock and the experimentation and progressive nature of jazz and art music. Math rock shares a similar purpose as progressive rock but for the modern era, influenced primarily by more modern genres. (Sterling, K. 2018)

You only need listen to 3-4 Prog Rock tunes (which could take hours in itself) to pick up on it's complicated melodies and interesting time signatures. Some time signatures include (especially in Math Rock), 12/4, 11/8, 13/8, just to name a few.

Notation written in 12/4

13/8 time - Try clapping it out

Drum Notation for 11/8 time

11/8 time sounds a little bit like this (from 0:20);


Here's a great video of King Crimson, one of the forefathers of Progressive Rock, playing their song Discipline. Ultimate Guitar explains that "During the piece the two guitars of Belew and Fripp, respectively, move through the following sequence of pairs of time signatures: 5/8 and 5/8, 5/8 and 4/4, 5/8 and 9/8, 15/16 and 15/16, 15/16 and 14/16, 10/8 and 20/16, 15/16 and 15/16, 15/16 and 14/16, 12/16 and 12/16, 12/16 and 11/16, 15/16 and 15/16, 15/16 and 14/16"

Note the interesting style of guitar playing, using only hammer-ons with both hands on the neck.

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull told Malcolm Dome “When progressive rock started out, it was all about bands such as ourselves moving beyond merely being influenced by American blues. We stopped trying to be the next Fleetwood Mac or Chicken Shack – in other words, derivative of Elmore James – and began to take on board so many diverse musical ideas. It was exciting and dynamic. But, by the time the 1970s had begun, bands like ELP were a little up their own arses. Everything was too serious and overblown. So, we set out with Thick As A Brick to show up this side of the genre.”

So with these two examples in mind, the first being a complicated adventure through time signatures, and the second being an album made of what seems to be just one song with it's own twist on what it means to experiment as a musician, let's jump over now to Punk music in the late 80's.


Enter Black Flag, a band who's first album sounded like this;

With a fast tempo and simple guitar chords with angry political lyrics, this song is undeniably Punk Rock. Their second album definitely sounds like a progression from their previous, except for one stand out track that for some, marks the beginning of influence that lead to Math Rock;

It has those punk elements, but there's just something about that janky beat and time signature that sounds like it has a Prog influence. The last 3 songs on this album My War go for a lengthy 6 minutes each, a quality which is also found in Prog Rock. So with this being said, it's possible to link this progression in Punk Rock to later bands like Nomeansno who, in the late 80's, began pushing the boundaries of Punk in a similar fashion to earlier Prog bands. John Doran describes Nomeansno as "prog-punk-jazz-metal heroes" in his 2016 column in the guardian about their break up; so it's easy to see how they could've been considered in a similar vein as their Prog predecessors.

Looking back at the suggestion made by William Covert Cameron Pinko and Nikk Hunter that Prog "provided an arena for musicians to combine virtuosic instrumentation, metrical complexity and sophisticated structure", we can once again see that kind of mindset arise in Nomeansno throughout the 80's and 90's;

If you could try and imagine pushing those contemporary notions of what Rock or Punk is even further, with that jazz and virtuosic influence, what would it sound like?

Notice the style of guitar playing that I mentioned earlier? And that brash sound definitely shares some similarities to Punk. So is Math Rock just Prog mixed with Punk? Well let's take a step back once again into the 90's to a band called Don Caballero, who Benjamin D. Krock sites as "indicative of the genre (Math Rock)". "The rhythmic technicalities hearken back to the progressive rock of the 70's, but the pitch material, timbre, and instrumentation point toward heavy metal influences. However, as if anticipating any such remark, the liner notes which accompany the album state: "Don Caballero is instrumental. Don Caballero is rock, not jazz. Don Caballero is free from solos," which according to Cateforis (of Don Caballero) is the closest to a math rock manifesto that exists (Krock, 2014). Their experimentation with genre falls close to that of Hella's, with another display of varying time signatures and complicated compositions, and they also have a sound with similar timbre to the prior Punk Rock examples, although, as mentioned by Krock, they do have an inclination to the harsh sounds of Heavy Metal.

Which brings us again to another variation of Math, Math-Core. Put simply it's this idea of experimental playing and unorthodox time signatures, but through the lens of Hardcore.

Clearly very different to be previous example, but those time signatures are still there, and at about 1:40, the guitar tone is strikingly similar to that of a song by King Crimson or Don Caballero. The time signature for this is hard to nail down, and that's because it changes so much. Here's a guitar tab for the first few bars from Songsterr.com;

Throughout the song the time signature even switches to 6/8, 12/8 and good ol' 4/4. There are even offshoots of Math Rock under the guise of Heavy Metal, where bands like Meshuggah and Dream Theatre come to mind. However, these sub-sub-genres definitely have their own timbre and style to them, and really only follow the Math Rock sensibilities of odd time signatures and fast/complicated composition.


Math, or at least the stylings of it, is incorporated into a lot of genres, and there aren't too many bands that you could easy to a pin in and say "That's definitely Math Rock". Even bands like Toe, who tag themselves on bandcamp as Math Rock (as well as many other genres), can't be immediately put under the Math Rock banner. Asif Ayon of The Daily Star describes the first time he heard Toe;


"The sense of wonderment I felt at that point is a feeling I still can't comprehend today. It was not like exploring through Rock n' Roll or Jazz because what I had just heard was a mastery of both genres and then some more."



 

When I started this blog I considered Hella to be a Math Rock band, but since then I've heard them described as Progressive Rock, and Battles who have been called "Mathy" are described on their Wikipedia page as just "experimental". Even bands that are considered important in Math Rock history like Don Caballero are described by most publications as just "instrumental rock".


Math Rock is a very young genre, if it even is a genre, and still hasn't found its feet as a stand out, independent and easily defined genre. It's easily confused or lumped in with Progressive Rock, and can even sometimes be characterised with the broader term "Post-Rock". Prog Rock is obliviously older, so it's had more time to germinate and grow into an established genre, where as Math Rock has kind of awkwardly been shoved into so many different genres since it's inception, and in it's bare form is so similar to Prog Rock, that it's hard to separate into it's own specific thing.


Math Rock floats around amongst other genres, but there are bands, some of which I have mentioned, that take the idea of being a Math Rock band more seriously than others, and I think the intention of the artist is what makes the biggest difference when it comes to being defined in a genre.

 

Bibliography


Pinko, W, C, C. & Hunter, N. (2015). The History Of Math Rock Pt 2: “You’ve Got To Learn How To Prog Before You Can Math”. Retrieved from http://feckingbahamas.com/the-history-of-math-rock-pt-2-youve-got-to-learn-how-to-prog-before-you-can-math


Ewing, J. (2013). Prog: A Very British Kind Of Rock. Retrieved from https://www.udiscovermusic.com/in-depth-features/prog-a-very-british-kind-of-rock/


Verity, M. (2018). What Is Bebop?. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bebop-2039578


Greene, A. (2011). Readers Poll: The Best Prog Rock Bands of All Time – Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/readers-poll-the-best-prog-rock-bands-of-all-time-17276/10-dream-theater-14591/


Sterling, K. (2018). HISTORY OF MATH ROCK. Retrieved from https://www.oddtimesandatmospheres.com/blog-general/2018/3/1/history-of-math-rock


Dome, M. (2016). Jethro Tull: the story behind Thick As A Brick. Retrieved from https://www.loudersound.com/features/jethro-tull-story-behind-thick-as-a-brick


Ayon, A. (2017). Why you should listen to Math Rock. Retrieved from https://www.thedailystar.net/shout/music/why-you-should-listen-math-rock-1484899


43% Burnt Tab by The Dillinger Escape Plan - Track 3 - Distortion Guitar | Songsterr Tabs with Rhythm. Retrieved from https://www.songsterr.com/a/wsa/the-dillinger-escape-plan-43-burnt-tab-s5753t0


Krock, B. (2014) The Marriage of Math-Rock and Emo: Style, Aesthetics, and Genre in American Football, Analysis of Popular Music, 5-6. Retrieved from;

https://www.academia.edu/25064524/The_Marriage_of_Math-Rock_and_Emo_Style_Aesthetics_and_Genre_in_American_Football