Look, let’s be honest. We can attempt to write a full-fledged, well-attested, unabridged recount of four decades of math rock history and it is still going to be wrong. The bane of theorists and historians the world over is the rewriting of previous records due to emergent refutations, subjective arguments, and, in some cases, author bias. Adding to the complications is, of course, the exhaustive list of underdogs overlooked by the critics and historians, which, upon revelation, demand a restructuring of the original story: punk rock’s Death, heavy metal’s Blue Cheer, and countless others.
It is, perhaps, even more difficult with such a malleable genre as math rock. At its core, ‘math rock’ is the amalgamation of the distorted guitar riffs of punk and hardcore, and the metrical asymmetry associated primarily with 1970s progressive rock, and the history of math rock we present to you will appear to show this fusion. In his essay How Alternative Turned Progressive: The Strange Case Of Math Rock Theo Cateforis defines math rock music as being defined through “the absence of a steady, divisible pulse” . Yet, in the past the word ‘math’ has be used to describe anything dissonant in structure, and has been applied to hardcore (‘mathcore’) and metal (‘math metal’). Thus, a problem exists in that this label could cover quite large territory and, with some leeway, could be used to describe the meter-bending works of Yes, Dave Brubeck, or even Igor Stravinsky. So what is ‘math’? Is it a genre, or is it an adjective, perhaps?
In this four part series, we are stockpiling ambition up our sleeves to set the record straight not only on ‘math rock’ but the word ‘math’ itself. It’s no surprise to some that term has been consistently met with derision; for the alternative kids growing up in the 80’s and 90’s many considered it a derogatory notion, which implied showmanship, excessive virtuosity and pretentiousness (something that seems to be overlooked when it comes to solo-shredding heavy metal guitarists). We hope to provide you with a comprehensive history of ‘math’ in music, starting from the US-rooted math rock boom of the 80’s/90’s, working backwards through the 1970’s progressive rock era of King Crimson and Yes, and finally ending up all the way back in the classical works of yester-century. Perhaps then we can start to idealise what ‘math’ is. But in order to tell the story right, we need to start in Los Angeles during the 70’s…
The Early Hardcore Punk Movement: Screams, Polyrhythms, And Word Of Math
Tomata Duplenty of The Screamers was probably the first punk rock frontman to scream his lyrics. In fact, he was probably the first screaming frontman of any genre. The LA band comprised two keyboardists, a drummer, and Duplenty; an unusual combination of instruments for an undeniably punk band. The Screamers weren’t math rock, but their unconventional approach to an already unconventional genre was an influence on a fresh spawn of punk rock bands forming in LA during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Of these, two in particular are especially important to math rock.
Black Flag was formed by Greg Ginn in 1976. Initially fronted by Keith Morris (of Circle Jerks and, more recently, OFF! fame), and subsequently succeeded by the bellowing and fiercely-pissed-off Henry Rollins, the band brought an overwhelmingly raw and ferocious sound to punk rock, and were pivotal in solidifying ‘hardcore punk’. However, it is Black Flag’s 1984 release ‘My War’ that is pertinent to math rock history. A clear deviation from previous albums, the record comprised several primordial math rock tracks: ‘Swinging Man’, ‘Three Nights’ and ‘Scream’. The ‘mathiness’ of these songs were mainly based around the polyrhythmic percussion of Bill Stevenson. He’d been put on Mahavishnu Orchestra by guitarist Greg Ginn , and they had influenced his craft both here and in his other bands The Descendents and All. In 1985, Black Flag recorded the entirely instrumental album The Process of Weeding Out, which was perhaps Greg Ginn’s attempt to write as weird and as challenging music as he could. It is quite possible that this was the first math rock album.
Black Flag – ‘The Swinging Man’ from My War (1984)
The influence of Mahavishnu Orchestra on Greg Ginn’s guitar playing  suggests the influence of progressive rock on early punk rock, and thus a key constituent in the preliminary math rock blueprints. Minutemen was formed by a bunch of San Pedro kids in 1980, following the demise of The Reactionaries who, like Black Flag, had taken influence from progressive rock heavyweights like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band . Greg Ginn incidentally produced the band’s first EP, Paranoid Time, a barrage of quick and snappy punk rock tracks. The 1981 release The Punch Line was an 18 track discourse in compact, rambunctious and deliberately non-commercial music-making. While not deviating from 4/4 explicitly, the album contained experimental interplay between guitar and bass, and unusually syncopated percussion. Interestingly, the eighteenth track of Minutemen’s 1982 magnum opus Double Nickels On The Dime is named ‘God Bows To Math‘, a short yet complex piece in 9/8, which or may not be related to the coining of the term ‘math rock’. While this conflicts with claims made almost a decade later (see below), a number of musicians have informed us that the term was being used from at least the mid-late 80’s. Minutemen disbanded after the tragic passing of guitarist D.Boon in a car accident.
As progressive rock was moulding a new generation of experimental punk through the early 80’s, something interesting was also taking shape in the north. Two years prior to Black Flag’s release of My War, Canadian brothers John and Rob Wright had commenced their first studio recording as a drum and bass two-piece. Their band, Nomeansno; the album Mama. Although not as jazzy or punky as their later releases Sex Mad (1986), Small Parts Isolated And Destroyed (1988) and Wrong (1989), the influence of jazz, progressive rock and post-punk in these albums is undeniable. The experimental nature of late 70’s post-punk movements, bands like Gang Of Four and PiL, had instilled some confidence in the Wright brothers to counterbalance the absence of guitar with richer rhythms and compositions to ‘fill out the sound’. Music was always in the Wright household: jazz, rock, Beatlemania and big band. And there was certainly evidence of this in Mama. What the Wright Brothers started in Mama would quickly blossom into jazzy and prog-rich punk rock.
Nomeansno – ‘Junk’ from Small Parts, Isolated And Destroyed (1988)
No-Wave: Music Rebellion With A Touch Of Grind
There is another, and perhaps slightly overlooked, angle to the math rock story. Contemporaneous with the early experimental divergences in LA punk rock was the emergence of the ‘No Wave’ movement, a late 70’s ideological counter-response to the overt happiness and mainstream success slowly enveloping the New Wave fad . Artists were starting to make ugly, disjointed music in conjunction with their frustrations with New Wave. No Wave is likely to have started a couple of years earlier when Brian Eno, taking direct influence from a five-day festival he attended at New York’s non-profit Artists Space venue, quickly produced a compilation spotlighting what he saw as an exciting rebellious music movement. The 1978 compilation, No New York, appeared as a denigration towards New Wave music. The music lacked exuberance and, instead, was left-of-center, spacey, angular and rhythmically irregular.
Much like the hardcore punk scene booming down in LA, an interesting connection existed between 70’s progressive rock and the No Wave scene. Gong was a heavily influential psychedelic progressive rock band formed by Australian musician Daevid Allen in the UK in 1967. Following Gong’s breakup in the mid-70’s, Allen moved to NYC and became heavily immersed in No Wave, and released a new album, About Time, under the band name New York Gong. No Wave in style but still retaining the elements of psych-prog pertinent to Gong, About Time brought together two important figures: bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Fred Maher. New York Gong slowly re-collaborated as a new band in 1979, Material, and Laswell and Maher subsequently went on to form a No Wave act with an undeniably math rock dogma: Massacre. Their 1981 debut Killing Time remains a classic; a weird mix of zany chord progressions over odd time signatures.
By the early 80’s No Wave was proliferating amongst the New York venues, and a number of interesting releases are pertinent to this story. In the same year as Killing Time‘s release, John Lurie’s instrumental punk-jazz group Lounge Lizards released their highly angular self-titled album. Swans‘ 1984 sophomore release ‘Cop’ was abrasive and weirdly syncopated; and it is here that many music historians attribute the first use of the term ‘grind’. In 1983, Massacre members Bill Laswell and Anton Fier went on to join a new group, The Golden Palominos, which also featured No-Wave icon Arto Lindsay on guitar and vocals, and an at-the-time unknown John Zorn. The Golden Palominos were described as poly-style music due to their stylistic shifts between no-wave, noise-rock, jazz, funk, polyrhythmic world music, and, well, weirdness. The heterogeneity and general pithiness to their style and composition laid a lot of ground work for Zorn’s renowned spazzy jazz band Naked City, which continued the legacy of weird time changes and off-kilter compositions into the late 80’s.
Cardiacs – ‘R.E.S’, originally from The Seaside (1984)
1986 – 1998
The Rhythmic Bedlam of Cardiacs
Before we move towards the late 80’s, we must acknowledge a final band that sits uncomfortably between the branches of the math rock story hitherto. While not explicitly ‘No Wave’ or ‘punk’, Cardiacs‘ non-conventional approach to what-would-be pop encompassed the same ‘siege’ artists were making against music that was familiar to the populace. The Kingston-Upon-Thames band originally formed in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, but changed their name in 1981 in concordance with the release of their cassette album Toy World. Despite employing standard instrumentation with non-abrasive tone, Cardiacs’ style and structure was anything but conventional. Rather, it was wacky, vaudevillian and disjunctive. As far as vocalist Tim Smith was concerned, Cardiacs was simply pop music; to many listeners, including their staunch supporters, they were anything but. Having released the majority of their material on poor-quality cassette recordings , Cardiacs was not exposed widely until the CD and LP release of A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window in 1988. Here, many of Cardiacs’ previous songs were reissued, including the structurally complex ‘R.E.S’, taken from the 1984 cassette The Seaside. This and subsequent albums would be subjected to critical rebuke . And, in fairness, Cardiacs were not for all tastes. What is important here is that Cardiacs were of certain taste to rising math rock affiliated acts like Nomeansno and later pivotal figures, which we will meet further down the line.
Albini, Oberlin University and the Post-hardcore Surge
Much of the No Wave philosophy was instilled in Steve Albini‘s first group Big Black . They were the new breed of noise-makers, far more ferocious than many of the punk rock contemporaries. Big Black spat fiercely distasteful lyrics of race, sex and creed. Like the No Wavers, Albini was pissed with the mainstream , and it was probably this disdain which helped solidify math rock from the casts of a different genre: ‘post-hardcore’.
Before we touch on Albini’s pioneering work in detail, we need to travel back to Ohio, where much of the post-hardcore wave of the late 80’s had started emerging through various muscial collaborations at Oberlin University. John McEntire (who would eventually go on to form post-rock group Tortoise) went to Oberlin , which led him to meeting David Grubbs of pop punk band Squirrel Bait. In 1989, Grubbs recruited McEntire into his hardcore group Bastro, and recorded the album Diablo Guapo. Bastro later moved to Chicago and turned into Gastr Del Sol. Incidentally, Grubb’s Squirrel Bait co-members, Brian McMahan and Britt Walford, formed Slint in 1986 and recorded their lesser known but inexplicably math rock debut, Tweez, in 1989.
Bitch Magnet – Navajo Ace from Umber (1989)
Around the same time, another important Oberlin University band was active: Bitch Magnet. Guitarist Jon Fine and bassist Sooyoung Park had met rather haphazardly in their sophomore year in 1986 and subsequently recruited drummer Orestes Delatorre in 1987 . Their 1988 EP Star Booty had the brisk stylistic tendencies of post-hardcore, but it was their 1989 full length, Umber, that deserves special recognition in the math rock story. Umber‘s ten tracks were almost entirely instrumental and laden with metric irregularity. At the time of Umber‘s release David Grubbs was now a permanent fourth member in Bitch Magnet  and Britt Walford would also record additional guitar sections for their 1990 sophomore release Ben Hur. Oberlin University had, somewhat accidentally, become the cross roads for a lot of math-rock musicians.
Albini was a centralizing figure in this community for his engineering work, having produced all of the aforementioned albums, and subsequently working with a handful of early math-rock bands such as Silkworm, Cheer Accident, A Minor Forest, and Rodan. Another prominent engineer based in Minneapolis, Brian Paulson, was introduced to David Grubbs and Bastro through Albini. Slint had requested Paulson to record Spiderland after hearing his work with Bastro. Albini and Paulson were two of the best engineers who worked with some of the biggest math rock bands in the Midwest, and it was their efforts during the early 90’s that helped cement a lot of the scene.
A number of key bands appeared contemporaneously with the boom of activity around the Midwest. Snailboy was formed around 1987 by Mark Shippy, Al Johnson, Todd Lamparelli and Luke Frantom. They released two singles, Mungo (1990) and Spoo Heaven (1991), before changing their identity to Shorty in 1994. In 1990, the equally loud Virginia-based Breadwinner played a wobbling surge of structurally complex instrumental metal. Their singles were compiled into a compilation album, Burner, which was not released until 1994. In Washington DC, Autoclave had released the EP Go Far. In 1991, San Diego’s Drive Like Jehu released their self titled debut. Both Dischord Records and Touch And Go Records were steadily becoming major players in the distribution of these albums and many others.
The Kinsellas and the Rise of Midwest Emo
In 1989, a group of teenagers in the Chicagoland area had formed a band that would also prove to have substantial influence over the genre in the upcoming decades: the band was Cap’n Jazz and those teenagers were Tim Kinsella, his brother Mike, and friends Sam Zurick and Victor Villarreal. Cap’n Jazz had a sound that mixed punk with experimental song structure that was more reminiscent of East Coast emotional hardcore bands like Rites of Spring and Embrace, rather than the noise rock bands like Big Black and The Jesus Lizard that served as influences on other Midwest math rock bands at the time. Cap’n Jazz broke away from the typical melancholy and dark sound of their eastern counterparts, choosing major chords over minor chords and making emo that was catchier as well as more technical. It was Victor Villarreal’s use of guitar tapping and the band’s use of odd-time signatures that made them one of the first bands to straddle the line between math rock and emo. Their contributions will continue to pop up as the story progresses.
The Birth of ‘Math Rock’
Up until the early 90’s this proliferation of music booming in the Midwest and beyond was still predominantly tagged as ‘post-hardcore’, yet it could barely be coupled with similarly labelled bands like Big Black, Fugazi, and Naked Raygun. The music had a key distinction: it was dissonant and structurally complex. Matt Sweeney, a guitarist from New Jersey, had formed a relatively unknown band around 1987 called Wider following the demise of his high school band Skunk (incidentally, a favourite of Billy Corgan). Sweeney claims therein lay the coining of the term ‘math rock’. In a 2006 Pitchfork interview, he remarks:
“(Math rock) was invented by a friend of ours as a derogatory term… his 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.”
Don Caballero – ‘Rocco’ from For Respect (1993)
Regardless of the terms contentions, through the natural habit of press the ‘math rock’ was becoming more prolific, and would return to describe Sweeney’s prominent outfit, Chavez. Established in New York 1993, Chavez’s band members “didn’t want to play anything that sounded like something (they’d) heard before” . Their albums Gone Glimmering (1995) and Ride The Fader (1996) remain iron clad verification of this, each taking the familiar 90’s slacker rock grunge and contorting it in new ways.
Around the same time, one of math rock’s most renowned groups, Don Caballero, had released their debut album For Respect. New guitarist Ian Williams (who later formed Battles) was heavily influenced by both Breadwinner  and Cardiacs . Like Villareal, Williams had an outstanding guitar-tapping technique, which he later brought into Don Caballero’s already complex and multifarious sound.
Things were happening across the US. In Chapel Hill, Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski had met in 1990 at North Carolina University and formed a band called Polvo. The eccentric use of instrumentation and wild whammy bar experimentation made for some wild indie rock with a touch of psychopath. Polvo released a string of albums engineered by Brian Paulson (who had produced Spiderland). Paulson was also produced an album for Mark Shippy and Al Johnson’s (Snailboy/Shorty) new noise/math rock band: U.S. Maple. Across the coast in California, Rob Crow was bringing weirdly structured melodies to math rock bands like Heavy Vegetable and Thingy. Back in Chicago, Steve Albini had made his own math rock band: Shellac. He was certainly veering away from Big Black rhythmically, but it retained the stripped-back minimalist style and general pissed-off-ness. Albini was still spewing his tongue sword on sex, violence and anarchy, with all the usual hostility. Nearby in DC, a band called Shudder To Think released Get Your Goat. Like Polvo, Shudder To Think had an indie/pop demeanour, but there was something… different. Songs were filled with seemingly spontaneous stop/start interludes, and rhythms bearing close resemblance to the polyrhythmic complexity The Dillinger Escape Plan would later bring to metal. Sicilian band Uzeda had caught the attention of Touch And Go Records, with their progressively wider departure from indie rock to discordant noise rock. Touch And Go released 4 in 1995.
Polvo – ‘Feather Of Forgiveness’ from Exploded Drawing (1996)
After Cap’n Jazz broke up in 1995, Tim Kinsella formed the emo/math rock band Joan of Arc, which remains his most prolific musical project and helped to further define the sound of Midwest Emo. Mike Kinsella, Sam Zurick, and Victor Villarreal have all played in different formations of Joan of Arc over the past two decades as well as many other prominent math rock and emo musicians such as Tim and Mike’s cousin Nate Kinsella (Birthmark), Zach Hill (Hella), Ben Vida (Town & Country, Tyondai Braxton), Matt Clark (Pinebender), Cale Parks (Aloha, Owen, Yeasayer), David Grubbs (Bastro, Gastr del Sol), Bundy K. Brown (Bastro, Gastr del Sol, Tortoise), and Tim Rutili (Califone).
In 1997, Victor Villarreal and Sam Zurick formed the instrumental math-rock band Ghosts and Vodka. Around the same time of its formation, Mike Kinsella moved south of Chicago to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, for college. While in Champaign-Urbana, Mike fronted his first band that was a second-wave emo band rooted in unconventional melodic song structures as well as containing elements of math rock and slowcore: American Football. Ghosts and Vodka and American Football each released one album and both bands had broken up by 2001.
The nineties were progressing with several other notable math rock acts across the globe including The Monsoon Bassoon, Faraquet, C-Clamp, Sharks Keep Moving, Sweep The Leg Johnny, 31Knots, Turing Machine, Ativin; and the far noisier Craw, Keelhaul, Colassamite and Dazzling Killmen. Things were moving slowly. But they were moving.
Tera Melos – Spoonful of Slurry from Drugs To The Dear Youth (2007)
1999 – 2007
The Diversity of Rising Math Rock
In more contemporary times, math rock as a whole was starting to show itself in many forms. In Chicago, the four original members of Cap’n Jazz (Tim & Mike Kinsella, Zurick, and Villarreal) got back together under the name Owls. They recorded one album with Steve Albini in 2001, and as quickly as they reformed they broke up. Villareal’s elaborate guitar tapped phrases were at an all-time high in Owls. The band espoused a math rock sensibility that was clean, light but nonetheless frenetic. The clean-toned intricate guitar melodies, usually tapped, would slowly take off, with later bands like Piglet, Them Roaring Twenties, Monster Machismo also employing.
On the more noisier, distorted side of the spectrum, there was (and is) Tera Melos. They never really understood the term ‘math rock’ , but their music has always been attributed to it. Tera Melos had formed in 2004 and took the majority of their influence from noisy punk bands , but began to skew the 4/4 guitar riffs to make them a bit weirder.
Around the late nineties, many noisy math rock two-pieces were also forming. Although the two-piece setup had already been alive and well in the underground music scene, with particular thanks to noise rock act Lightning Bolt, math rock two-pieces took fast and jangly guitar riffs, and combined them with intense polyrhythmic percussion and jarring shifts in mood. Things appeared to have kicked off in France with Cheval De Frise and Chevreuil both forming in 1998. Hella formed in California in 2001, and would go on to become a significant influence in the sub-genre.
A fresh burst of energy had erupted up in the UK and Ireland around the early to mid 2000’s, a scene that combined post-hardcore, instrumental post rock and math rock bands together. Although Dublin’s The Redneck Manifesto had been playing since 1998, their releases started reaching new audiences around 2001 with the release of the critically lauded Thirtysixstrings. Another notable band further north from Dublin was Bangor’s Tracer AMC, predominantly a post-rock but nonetheless an influence to other bands in the scene. Youthmovie Soundtrack Strategies had formed in 2002, who, at first, brought a noisier post-hardcore sound but then slowly moved to more complex territory. The Edmund Fitzgerald, a young group from Oxford, had made a split with YMSS around this time; they played long and repetitive, yet deliciously disjointed math rock before going on to enjoy more mainstream success in the math/pop band Foals. The Edmund Fitzgerald had taken influence from math rock bands like Sweep The Leg Johnny and Hella , which presented itself subtly in their sound. Tired Irie formed in Leicester in 2004; their music contained interesting time signatures and intricate guitar phrases, and are likely to have influenced a new generation of local musicians. This Town Needs Guns (TTNG) had also formed around this time in Oxford. There were a horde of other math and non-math players that had a hand in propping up the scene: Cats and Cats and Cats, Reuben, The Jesus Years, You Slut!, The Little Explorer, Spy Versus Spy, Stapleton and Forward Russia. Like TTNG, a few of these bands had taken influence from the Kinsella/Villareal/Zurick projects  and their consistent use of vibrant, angular guitar melodies bears interesting parallels. The importance here was that these bands helped spawn a vibrant across the small surface area of the UK, ripe for touring circuits. And by the mid-2000’s math rock, in part, was well and alive again in the UK, as bands like And So I Watch You From Afar, Colour, Adebisi Shank, and the wild interludes of Tubelord gained wide popularity.
The Story From Here
And so we inevitably arrive some time near the present, where math rock is understandably a lot different. The discourse we have presented here ostensibly wedges a contemporary math rock band like Enemies uncomfortably between the noisy, abrasive ferocity of Breadwinner; and the ambient, No Wave cacophony of Massacre. While at first this looks a bit perplexing, the consistent motif amongst these musicians is their active departure from music that has structural and compositional familiarity. The desire to carve out an unconventional and unfamiliar style of music may be intended polemically, aesthetically or passively. Theo Cateforis places the ‘math’ of math rock not in the minds of the musician but of the listener . The word ‘math’ is not used as a description of the music’s complexity, for it can usually be analysed and discerned quite easily. Rather, ‘math’ describes the approach the listener must take to parse the complexities of the music, to use problem-solving skills to unravel the sound and unlock its secrets, much like a mathematician uses logic to unravel the puzzle. Math rock musicians, and their predecessors, make music that presents itself as delectable puzzles for mathematical listeners.
Our story might be wrong. The history of a genre is hard to summarize. But it is likely that this is how ‘math rock’ came to be. And, however pretentious or pejorative the term is, it now describes how musicians transcend standard rock music, rooted predominantly in punk, by changing keys, moods and time. In our minds, this is something to be applauded.
Cateforis, T (2002) ‘How Alternative Turned Progressive: The Strange Case of Math Rock’. in Kevin Holm-Hudson (ed.), Progressive Rock Reconsidered, New York: Routledge, p243-260.
Dale, P (2012) Anyone Can Do It: Empowerment, Tradition and the Punk Underground, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Masters, M No Wave
In Part 2 of The History Of Math Rock, we explore progressive rock of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and trace the birth and proliferation of ‘mathematical’ rock music.
Nikk Hunter has a Ph.D in geoscience and is the founder of Fecking Bahamas.
William Covert has a Bachelor’s degree in music history, whose dissertation focussed on Bill Bruford’s technique and influence on experimental music percussion. He played drums in the math rock band Space Bloods and An Aesthetuc Anaesthetic, and continues to play as a solo artist.
Complementary to the references provided, material for this feature was also taken from present and previous interviews the writers conducted with Mark Shippy (U.S. Maple) and Ian Williams (Don Caballero, Battles). We would like to acknowledge their involvement in bringing this story together.