Have you ever wanted to explore the ever widening circuit board of madness that is math rock but never quite knew where to start? Perhaps you were overwhelmed by the hoards of bands lumped under this moniker and gave up before you started, unable to filter out the really good stuff. Maybe you were recommended a few cliché bands that didn’t quite resonate with you?
Well, allow this truffle hound of a list to help you out.
With sonic cues recalling the likes of King Crimson and early Rush, and furthered along feverishly by musician and pioneer Steve Albini of Shellac, it is fitting that this essential listening playlist opens up with the most adventurous album of the 80s. Slint‘s Tweez. It is befitting that Albini himself produced this work of art.
This list has been cherry picked and arranged in order of year, from 1989-2020, to provide an in-depth insight into the massive scope this genre has had.
Ironic, rhetoric questions as album titles, Artwork that is colourful and carries with it the innocence of a child-like drawing and absurdly long song titles, peppered with pop culture reference of the time of its writing, are all aesthetically indicative that you’ve got a math rock tune in your hands.
You can trace, sonically, where the genre began to lovingly split itself. With affectations of vocal choice reminiscent of early emo records, some bands bled into post hard core and progressive rock, while other bands took the radical choice of siphoning off into noise art and power violence.
That jettisoning into post rock is obvious when you hear the massive walls of sound built over swathes of notes, swelling with pedal assisted repetitivity.
And some bands chose to master abrupt switches between time signatures, alternating between melody and dissonance, contradicting convention with unnatural chord progression.
That is what makes math rock so unique and such a gorgeous world of textured sound to delve into. Let us begin…
Slint – Ron
Let’s kick off this list in style with this absolute beauty. No words needed, just your lug holes.
Bitch Magnet – Mesentery
As the math rock scene began to develop, it became clear it was very much a midwest US thing. 1990 is a milestone in the math rock history books because this is when the kids attending Oberlin college began making indie rock music with weird time signatures, and later on started getting called, and blessedly now forever known, as math rockers. One such group of kids formed Bitch Magnet and released this monumental sophomore album.
Slint – Breadcrumb Trail
Slint’s Spiderland was released by Touch and Go on March 26, 1991. After receiving rather inconsequential returns from the release, the band broke up soon after. It is only now that we know how truly monumental and ‘game-changing’ this record was in shaping underground rock, and fork in the road for post rock, math rock, and everything in between.
Don Caballero – Lucky Father Brown
Don Caballero must be acknowledged and I thought the earlier the better. The Don almost single handedly re-shaped the entire genre from a brash post-hardcore type sound to a softer, noodly, guitar-driven sound, and the track The Peter Criss Jazz, from a later release entitled American Don, is a gem of a track It marks a pivotal point in math rock’s transition to a more guitar-driven genre. TPCJ track has all the ingredients for what would later become Battles…
Polvo – Lazy Comet
Polvo were comfortably nestled in the 90’s indie rock realm but their music is far from accessible. Their elongated instrumental intros, dissonant song structures and stop-start eccentricities led many to tag them with that wily ‘math rock’ term going around.
Drive Like Jehu – New Math
Drive Like Jehu had a huge impact on the scene, influencing bands the likes of Blood Brothers, Dillinger Escape Plan and The Locust. Artist Cedric Bixler-Zavala cited DLJ as being so important that there would not have been At The Drive-In without them.
US Maple – Aplomado
Whacky, whirling and wonderful, this track has to be heard on full volume to be fully appreciated as the vocals, sparse as they are, are rendered low in the mix.
June of 44 – Arms Over Arteries
We are really starting to hear that tapping, twiddly glissando quality to guitar playing starting to develop in the form of June of 44. Engine Takes To Water is one of the great math rock albums of the 90’s.
The Fucking Champs – Guns In Our Schools
A worthwhile and important choice, The Fucking Champs are an underrated staple of the math rock genre.
Historically speaking however, Dianogah also ought to be acknowledged here. During this year and beyond, Chicago was a hot spot for math rock, but a particular shift in focus towards noodly guitar phrases and tapping driven tunes were in abundance. Dianogah is one of the stand-out bands from this time.
Faraquet – Um Die Ecke
The venerated trio who would later write the cult math rock anthem ‘Cut Self Not’. But their prowess was already underway in 1998.
American Football – Never Meant
The song that, twenty years on, exemplifies the math rock and emo crossover. Like many bands of the time, American Football weren’t pursuing a career, they were just a bunch of Chicago kids having some jams. Little did they know they would garner a cult following, sell out their comeback tours, and even be considered meme material.
Don Caballero – The Peter Criss Jazz
One of the true genre-defining songs, comfortably perched at the transition between percussion-driven math rocks of the 90’s and the guitar-heavy math rock of the 00’s. Clocking in at ten minutes, it is a true math rock epic.
Owls – For Nate’s Brother Whose Name I Never Knew Or Don’t Remember
I feel somewhere in a gateway-esque moment, lip service is due to the Kinsella dynasty (Capn Jazz etc). Victor Villareal’s guitar work was extremely influential for TTNG‘s Tim Collis and many others…
Hella – Biblical Violence
Crunchy, noodly madness and a blisteringly good track for those new to the math rock genre. A great one for throwing yourself around your room (as mosh pits aren’t going to be a thing for a while are they?) with wild abandon.
The Fall of Troy – Whacko Jacko Steals The Elephant Man’s Bones
Must be included. Child prodigies and each member growing into virtuosos of their respected instrument, this band shortly deviated into the post hard core sound, having mutated from original emo, this track hints at the upcoming masterpiece that soon followed. Unforgettable.
65daysofstatic – This Cat is a Landmine
Another dividing group, but important nonetheless. Another possibility to include here but which was nowhere to be found on Spotify sadly, is The Edmund Fitzgerald track ‘Horses’, a pre-Foals band that is a brilliant precursor to the British math rock wave. This track is from the aptly named album The Fall of Math, as some would argue 65days don’t quite fit the math paradigm any longer.
Piglet – Bugstomp
Such a gorgeous track, with such an ephemeral lift and skip in the percussion, which forever and always has complemented the repetitive sliding motif often found within this genre.
Battles – Tras
One of the best Battles songs ever, ‘Tras’ is a dazzling math rock track and integral to the palate. Battles were a great influence on LITE and many other Japanese math rock bands in the scene.
Tera Melos – 40 Roads To Hogs Head
This track is unreal, blindingly fun and contains what I believe to be indicators of a truly good math song. It’s the absolute joy it brings to your soul when hearing it. First timers might even get a magical glow. At least I did the first time I heard this track.
Some banging anthems were being written at this point of time too. A classic example would be ASIWYFA’s ‘Set Guitars To Kill’, and Meet Me in St Louis’ ‘We Need to Act Like We Don’t Need This Shit, Then They Give Us Shit For Free’. Congruently, The British math rock scene was in full swing during this period.
TTNG – 26 is Dancier than 4
Another essential math rock song of the 2000’s, ticking all the twiddly boxes, and featuring Stuart Smith’s trademark emo vocals.
Girlfriends – Yeah? What’s It Tuba?
Now we start to see the emergence of The Bedroom Musician, which was establishing itself as a principle factor of math rock, paving the way for artists such as Floral, Standards and many others.
Simultaneously, Japanese math rock was starting to kick off in the late 2000’s, with bands such as LITE, Ling Toshite Shigure and Toe. In this same year, Toe released For Long Tomorrow and is worth your perusal, with the first track having another of those absurdly long titles, for a very short track, and which ya girl has translated as meaning everything is here and nothing is.
Maps & Atlases – Pigeon
When curating a playlist, it is both awesome and irritating that a couple of quintessential math rock albums came out in this same year. Native’s Wrestling Moves, Clever Girl ‘s No Drum And Bass In The Jazz Room, and Maps And Atlases ‘ Perch Patchwork. It was around this time that publishing pioneers Sargent House were investing heavily in math rock bands which contributed enormously in the distribution of the math rock sound more widely to a bigger and increasingly eager audience.
Giraffes? Giraffes! – Scorpion Bowls At The Hong Kong
G?G! are exemplars of guitar looping, which has become part and parcel of the math rock genre. A steady proliferation of loopers entered the scene through the late 00’s, of which G?G! remain the creme de la creme.
LITE – Bond
One of the greatest math rock guitar riffs of all time. LITE is one of the exemplars of what was once a wily and elusive Japanese math rock scene. Today the scene enjoys remarkable international reach thanks to labels like Friend of Mine, Stiff Slack, and Topshelf Records. Might even give ourselves a nudge here too…
CHON – Bubble Dream
Some seasoned math rocké connoisseurs may roll their eyes, but it is hard to deny the influence of CHON, who did a stellar job in widening the math rock audience. Their album Newborn Sun was integral to expanding national and international reach.
Alpha Male Tea Party – Happy As Larry, Larry is Dead
A beautiful example of the blossoming math UK scene. At this time, bands such as AMTP, Cleft and Delta Sleep were starting to make waves, throwing a deft nod to a new generation of riffers.
Tricot – E
Japanese math rock was not limited to the complex guitar styling of toe and LITE; a fresh new jangly math rock sound had emerged in Japan in the mid 10’s. tricot eschew the guitar noodles in favor of meter-bending pop rock that is catchy as hell. By 2015, their legacy was well underway.
Feed Me Jack – Move Your Still
2016 was a year of exciting indie-leaning math rock bands but also of seeing a rise in a technique which is of a highly percussive, syncopated persuasion. Feed Me Jack, now sadly defunct, brought a style that strayed from the twinkly-winkly guitar sports and focused on creating memorable melodies.
And So I Watch You From Afar – Terrors of Pleasure
By this point pedals had become so integral to math rock, and ASIWYFA were not afraid to use them! Case in point with this track.
Delta Sleep – Sultans of Ping
Delta Sleep are one of the top tier math rock bands right now. Less of the twinkly stuff, more ambience and feel.
Standards – Pineapple
A prime spot for such a track. Standards (and Floral below) are the end result of bedroom musicians becoming household names, the foundations of which were started by Girlfriends way back when. Standards went from throwing up stuff online to making viral videos to commandeering the ‘wall of life’ at ArcTanGent festival last year. They are a sign of the times in present day math rock.
Floral – A Trucker’s Wife
Math rock is very much an internet genre now and bands like guitar-tapping heroes Floral, Jyocho and Standards reach new fans across the world quicker than Don Cab ever could 30 years ago. I saw Floral at ArcTanGent last year and they blew me away.
So there you have it. I hope you have managed to find your way in and back out again, unscathed but pleasantly charged to go forth and lap up what this magical genre has to offer.
Sometimes it’s these kinds of lists that inspires future math rock musicians to pick up a guitar in the first place, so if this reaches just one kid in their bedroom and encourages them to start nerding away, then the genre is all the better for it.