I realise that with a title like this, we are wandering dangerously close to the sort of clickbait layout typical of viral blog whores like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and the like. But, come on, lists can be cool if put in a decent context. And what better a context than saluting the classic math bands of yester-decade.
You may or may not have been following our ‘Throwback Thursday’ routine on Facebook, where we post bite-sized homages to classic math rock groups. Well, here we are presenting the cream of the crop: 15 of the most important contributions in the ‘math’ scope through time. Of course, for some, we would need to travel as far back as the 1970’s and tip our wigs to prog bands like Yes, King Crimson and Wishbone Ash before lauding what appears to be the more contemporary wave (although I’m sure that I’ve appeased my PhD supervisor by simply mentioning these bands). But, as it is, we think our list encompasses a special period in underground rock where there was a need for tweaking meters and melodies to form more elaborate music.
Now let it be known that picking a solid 15 was a seriously tricky feat, considering the breadth of math rock history. And we’re sure that we’ve pissed some of you dweebs off by not including US Maple or June Of 44 or The Edmund Fitzgerald or whatever. Let it also be known that this list is by no means restricted to a root genre or sub-genre; here we have presented bands undertaking mathematical experimentation across post-hardcore, indie, grunge and metal genres. Finally, as always, we are not forcibly allotting these bands into a ‘math’ canon. Rather, we are applying an adjective that praises their irregular and experimental approach to music-making, they are ‘mathematical’ musicians. If you’re still having issues with this, perhaps try going here.
The bands in this list are presented in no special order, but hopefully, combined, they will tell somewhat of a story. Also note that we are presenting these entries all within one page and not one list entry per page so you are exposed to lots of advertisements, as seems to be the norm with these type of posts. We’re not fucking capitalist scumbags. Ok, here goes…
Slint (US – 1986-present)
Thought of by many as the pioneers of post-rock, Slint craft sounds that are dark, moody and, at times, sinister. It may seem ironic to some that their first show was at a church service (and oddly met with considerable praise). Their magnum opus, Spiderland is a beautiful collage made with blunt scissors; an eerie array of twisted rhythms, syncopated notation, and complemented by bleak monologues. It is said that some of the members were actually receiving psychiatric therapy during the recording period; and, reflecting on the nature of the album, to some this may seem no surprise. Spiderland was a critical success, and remains holdfasted to many Top 100 lists. Furthermore, it influenced many of the prominent post- bands, including Explosions In The Sky, Isis and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Slint present a scrapbook of raw and dark Americana, which happens to be undeniably mathematical.
Don Caballero (US – 1991-2006)
I feel we should slot Don Caballero in somewhere near the top, simply due to the fact that we swiped our name from one of their songs. One of the key bands responsible for igniting (or reigniting) the technical math rock flame of the 90’s, Don Caballero started out making sludgy, grungy instrumental rock, which slowly morphed into experimental and dissonant math rock driven by markedly unconventional rhythms and guitar phrasings. The band’s sound was multifarious but at the same time cohesive; technical but never ostentatious. Don Caballero led the listener into new worlds but never left them stranded there. What Burns Never Returns, arguably their finest instalment, marks the point at which Don Caballero started to really experiment and get the most out of their instruments, incorporating pedal and electronic effects to vitalise the sound. Guitarists Ian Williams and Mike Banfield went on to form Battles and Knot Feeder, respectively.
Cheval De Frise (France – 1998-2004)
French two-piece Cheval de Frise were a discourse in technical art rock. Before Hella swept the US underground scene with their noisy math rock, Cheval De Frise were showing the world what two talented experimental musicians were capable of. Slightly more subdued than the tumultuous Hella, Cheval de Frise vitalised their music with highly sophisticated guitar licks and chord progressions, and dense polyrhythmic percussion. Occasionally, their songs appeared to dither, drifting between melodies with a slight vacillation and giving their music a raw ‘decompositional’ feel. Instead of showcasing fabricated poetry to us, we as listeners seemed immersed in their unrehearsed and unabridged explorations. Acoustic guitarist Thomas Bonvalet and drummer Vincent Beysselance had a clear solidarity about them. Somewhere amongst the articulations a firm coalescence was formed between their instruments, and with it a signal that it was okay to start wandering through the human psyche.
Bastro (US – 1988-1993)
Following the 1988 demise of hardcore outfit, Squirrel Bait, Britt Walford went on to form Slint, and guitarist David Grubbs rejoined forces with bassist Clark Johnson and recruited drummer John McEntire to form post-hardcore band Bastro. Their sound is somewhat typical of the sound that was coming out of Washington DC, the birthplace of what could be considered true ’emo’. The guitars were noisy and distorted, and the vocals were a cathartic release of emotion. Bastro’s sound, in particular, was dynamic. The constantly shifting time signatures and whimsical chord progressions gave Bastro a hyperactive, quicksilver demeanour, like a ride on a very elaborate rollercoaster. The band underwent some reconstruction, ultimately forming Gastr Del Sol, from which John McEntire would eventually leave to pursue Tortoise.
Shellac (US – 1992-present)
From the ashes of post-hardcore band Big Black, Steve Albini formed math rock band Shellac. No stranger to breaking taboos, Albini continued to pen lyrics centred around sex, violence and anarchy, and were projected with hostile growls. Shellac’s fittingly abrasive and edgy noise rock was also packed with many experimental meter changes. 30 years on from its inception, their debut At Action Park still packs a whopping punch both lyrically and musically. Bob Weston’s classic deep, rusty bass tone has been emulated by many of today’s great noise rock bands, and Albini’s fierce vocals remain unrivaled in terms of pissed-off-ness.
Uzeda (Italy – 1986-2006)
Most older math rockers can probably sniff out a Uzeda track by the cool, monotone wails of frontwoman Giovanna Cacciola, which adequately reflected the collective attitude of the Sicilian quintet. Uzeda made no compromises for anyone. Their sound was punky and dirty, typically comprising a basic chord progression played over odd metered percussion and distorted guitar doing, well, anything it wanted. It was probably their nonchalant, DIY approach to music writing that lead to the unpredictable time changes and structural shifts now deemed to be pertinent to their sound. Whatever the case, it feels good to do away with technical instrumental wankery every now and again and, instead, indulge the raw energy of a band like Uzeda.
Chavez (US – 1993-present)
Chavez are a math/indie rock from New York and, incidentally, inherently linked to the term ‘math rock’. Like many math rock bands of their time, Chavez’s style is dominated by angular melodies and drastic stylistic shifts in their songs, but still keeps a cool indie interface. Their finest achievement, Ride The Fader, was a critical success. This was probably because, complementary these mathy elements, Ride The Fader‘s choruses were strong and locked together with beautiful indie guitar hooks. Frontman Matt Sweeney also played in Zwan, that brief project of Billy Corgan and Slint’s David Pajo.
Heavy Vegetable – (1993-1995)
Californias’ Heavy Vegetable were pop’s overly excitable and probably rabid lapdog. Their music was a highly vivacious and wacky mix of math rock, indie and college-rock with punk-esque brevity (many of their tracks clocked in at under 2 minutes). Rob Crowe and Eléa Tenuta’s soothing vocals retained a sense of composure amidst the ruckus, almost mocking the listener with their calmness. Much like the dog in the album cover of their 28-track 1995 release Frisbie, Heavy Vegetable were playful and uncontrollably exuberant.
Faraquet (US – 1997-2001)
Faraquet was one of the many math rock bands on Ian Mackaye’s monumental Dischord record label. Faraquet fused post-hardcore with quirky time signatures and angular riffage. Their only LP, The View From This Tower, received great press at its time of release and still lives on as a stellar example of simple, organic math rock. Frontman Devin Ocampo later formed the equally awesome Medications, bringing many of the quintessential Faraquet components to a new generation.
Polvo (US – 1990-present)
Polvo were renowned for their elongated instrumental intros, dissonant song structures and stop-start eccentricities. I’ve always found that their discography went through highs and lows so, to save you any troubles, Today’s Active Lifestyles is definitely where you want to be. It is a winning mix of indie, noise-rock, math rock, and a whole lot of whammy bar.
Ghosts and Vodka (US – 1998-2001)
Okay look, you can pick and choose amongst Kinsella/Villareal/Zurick projects coming out of Illinois in the late 90’s. In fact, I’m sure that many will throw litter at us for not picking American Football, or Cap’N’Jazz, or Owls. What I think was exciting about Ghosts And Vodka was their pursuit of instrumental music, which placed pressure on the instruments to guide the listener and form the storytelling. Ghosts and Vodka were a strong influence on bands like TTNG, and this is evident their music.
My Disco (Australia – 2003-present)
Many current math rock bands often drop Melbourne’s My Disco as a key influence, and the drop is deservedly so. Releases such as 2003’s Collapse Of An Erratic Lung and their 2006 magnum opus Cancer (produced by Shellac’s Steve Albini) sound like the grunge-rich US math rock of the 90’s: noisy, groovy, but also rich in complex time signatures. My Disco incorporate many of the minimalist elements that made bands like Shellac so exciting: abrasive and dirty guitar tones, prolonged noisy riffs and intermittent cathartic vocals. Whether they intended do so or not, My Disco have kept essential counterparts of the US math rock movement alive in the Southern Hemisphere.
Chevreuil (France – 1998-2006)
Following the two-piece noise-rock wave popularised by Lightning Bolt, and before the electro-math-noise-rock wonder of Three Trapped Tigers and Battles, a bizarro French two-piece known as Chevreuil bruised ears with their dissonant and highly experimental electro-math. Like Don Caballero, Chevreuil were never afraid of executing long and drawn out sections that featured heavy experimentation with different time signatures. Capoëira is Chevreuil’s go-to album for this, but prepare to get happily lost.
Meshuggah (Sweden – 1987-present)
Okay, we might turn some heads here. They’re obviously not a ‘math rock’ band, but Swedish metalmeisters Meshuggah will always have a firm spot on our list of mathematical quintessentials. In between the guttural thrash-cum-djent guitar stylings lies a very sophisticated interplay of irregular meter changes and polyrhythms. Before The Dillinger Escape Plan started bashing out their beguiling ‘mathcore’ rhythms, Meshuggah had set a standard in avant-garde metal with their 1995 LP Destroy, Erase, Improve, a record which, weighed against the contemporaries, still packs an almighty punch. Palm-muted guitar and percussion are played out with markedly different time signatures, but retain extreme precision. It was also around this time that Fredrik Thornendal’s guitar work started to incorporate a more jazz/fusion component; this seemingly improvised solo-work is combined with irregular staccato riffing in ‘Soul Burn’, and has to be heard to be believed. Their experimental counterparts, concomitant with their evident brute force, puts Meshuggah in a different arena to generic metal. I’ve heard this is where the cool metal kids go.
Piglet (US – 2004-2005)
To wrap up our list, we think that Piglet deserve acknowledgement for being at the forefront of the popular shift in math rock to a more clean-toned guitar-tapped style, pertinent to so many of today’s contemporaries. From the moment that ‘bugstomp’ kicked into life on their seminal EP, Lava Land, Piglet had foundered a new way forward for math rock: chaotic, messy and jazzy, but at the same time clean and tidy. Piglet executed this sound so well that it feels like the sound has never really evolved, it has only been emulated.
What do you think of our list? Who did we miss? Who didn’t we miss? What is meaning of life? Leave us a comment here or on Facebook…
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