Charles Peterson

FOCUS // Was Soundgarden a math rock band?

I understand if you’re puzzled, if you’re scoffing or ‘laugh reacting’ in disbelief. I can’t blame you. Soundgarden doesn’t sound a thing like Floral or Standards or TTNG. Guitarist Kim Thayil never tapped out a squiddly-diddly guitar phrase. But this doesn’t mean that the question is illegitimate. It simply means that there are some things that need to be unpacked. Before we explore the contention of whether or not Soundgarden was a math rock band, we need to first ask a much broader question…

What is math rock?

Many people approach this question in a more pragmatic way: how would you describe math rock to your friend? Some of the shorthand answers that people often use to describe math rock are ‘emo jazz’, ‘progressive punk’ and ‘punk jazz’. These are quite helpful for defining math rock in a descriptive context, but not a historical context. In fact, in a historical sense, the terms are quite misleading.

A ‘historical’ math rock definition might go something like this: in 1976, guitarist Greg Ginn (a) started Black Flag; and (b) founded SST records. Both the band and label were integral to influencing a creative surge in the punk scene, not only in popularizing the concepts of DIY, but also promoting creative musical freedom. Black Flag and SST Records showed the American underground music community not only that you didn’t have to pander to the standards set out by the major labels, but that you could experiment with and deconstruct the notions of rock music by adding angular riffs, polyrhythms, and odd-meters. One only needs to listen to Black Flag’s My War (1984), The Process of Weeding Out (1985), and Family Man (1984) to see how unfettered the band’s creativity really was. This blossoming of musical imagination proliferated through the punk scene and from here a raw but more accessible type of rock music started to emerge. Some key players of the time were Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid, Fugazi and The Replacements. The music had the qualities of traditional rock music, but it was working outside the grips of major labels. Critics called it ‘indie rock’ and referred to the scene as the ‘indie underground’. The indie boom of the 1980‘s unsurprisingly lead to a variety of subsidiary musical styles that the press today have categorized into genres like noise rock, post rock, love rock, slacker rock, and math rock.

Math rock stood out in the indie umbrella due to its dissonant structural style, often containing odd time signatures, counterpoint, stop/start rhythms and general discordance. Early math rock bands like Bitch Magnet, Bastro, Slint and Don Caballero shared more in common with this movement than, say, prog rock or jazz. For Bitch Magnet, playing in odd meters was simply the next step in twisting the punk-laden indie sound into something new and exciting. In Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine’s book Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution, he writes: ‘it’s always kind of gross to have to characterize your own band, but: we started out playing loud, noisy punk rock, then soon started stretching out song lengths and playing in odd time signatures’.

Thus, to bring together a good definition of math rock that incorporates historical and descriptive elements, we can say something like this: math rock is a genre that emerged out of the indie rock boom of the 1980’s, characterised by raw punk-leaning textures, and complex rhythmic structures.

Now we are well on our way to figuring out if Soundgarden is math rock. But there’s still an issue that’s probably bugging the genre pundits. Early math rock sounds nothing like its contemporary counterpart. While the historical context of math rock will always be true, the descriptive elements have changed over time. It is therefore worthwhile exploring a second question…

Why is today’s math rock so different?

One needs only to play Don Caballero’s For Respect (1993) next to TTNG’s Disappointment Island (2016) to hear the stark contrast. One needs only to play Don Caballero’s For Respect next to King Crimsons’s Discipline (1981) or Yes’ Fragile (1971) or Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound (1973) to see how far removed the early math rock sound is from prog rock, which is often called in as the parent genre of math rock. However, play For Respect next to Big Black’s Atomiser (1986) or The Jesus Lizard’s Head (1990), and you will hear much stronger parallels.

So what is going on here? Where did things change to the noodly, clean toned, guitar-driven math rock sound we hear in TTNG’s Disappointment Island? To answer this, we need to travel to Chicago at the turn of the millennium. In the late 90’s, Chicago was the place to be for an underground musician. Living was cheap, and the independent music scene was extremely healthy. Moreover, the key scene players were here: Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, popular venues like The Fireside Bowl and The Empty Bottle, the coolest indie label of the time Touch and Go Records and, of course, a stack of exciting bands.

The Chicago math rock scene at this time had blended in with the equally vibrant post-rock scene. The top Chicago venues would be regularly putting up post-rock bands like Brise-Glace, Trans Am, Gastr De Sol, and, perhaps the most influential band of the time, Tortoise. It became obvious with time that the harder, abrasive math rock sound was taking a back seat in favour of the more lavish, melodic, guitar-driven post-rock sound. This shift in motifs makes perfect sense. In a rich local music community, you are bound to interact with a diverse array of musicians. You are bound to be inspired by a diverse array of musicians.

Suddenly, the brash and jangly guitars of Chicago bands like Lustre King and U.S. Maple were assuaged for sustained, lavish melodies. Some Chicago math rock associated with this new melodic math rock sound are Ativin, Dianogah, Ghosts and Vodka, Sweep The Leg Johnny and later Piglet. Perhaps the most notable exemplary figure of this shift were the math rock juggernauts themselves: Don Caballero. The band were living in Chicago around this time, and their transition from a noisy, distortion-heavy band to a softer, jazzy, melodic project is distinct across the albums Don Caballero 2 (1995), What Burns Never Returns (1998) and American Don (2000). This new polish on the math rock sound, replete with the new and exciting ‘tapping’ motif modelled by guitarist Ian Williams, cast tremendous influence on bands across the country, and has since become characteristic guitar-driven style we now identify as contemporary math rock. It is a style that is descriptively similar sounding to King Crimsons’s Discipline, but historically not as well connected.

We now have some reasonably sound ideas on the table. Math rock formed as sub-genre of the larger indie rock boom in the late 80’s. The early sound is characterised by distortion-heavy guitar and complex rhythmic experimentation. The shift towards a soft and melodic, albeit fast and complex, guitar-driven sound likely happened in Chicago in the late 90’s. Right, back to the original question…

Was Soundgarden a math rock band?

Soundgarden was undoubtedly one of the most successful bands of the indie rock diaspora. Like the early math rock bands, Soundgarden took influence from bands like Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets; but also from Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult and many older hard rock bands. Using these bands as inspiration, the band forged a sound that was catchy like radio music but rough around the edges like punk and metal. Soundgarden, like Nirvana, was picked up by a major label early on.

In a historical sense, Soundgarden fit quite neatly in the indie rock timeline, much like the early math rock bands (incidentally, at the time they were also on Greg Ginn’s SST Records). They are very much a product of the indie explosion that was contemporaneous with the origin of math rock. But what about in the descriptive sense? Did they make ‘math rock’ music? Well, one needs only to look across their catalogue to find an abundance of odd time signatures and dissonant song structures.

Ultramega OK (1988) – ‘Beyond The Wheel’, ‘He Didn’t’, ‘Circle of Power’
Louder Than Love (1989) – ‘Get On The Snake’, ‘I Awake’, ‘Gun’
Badmotorfinger (1991) – ‘Outshined’, ‘Black Rain’, ‘New Damage’, ‘Face Pollution’, ‘Rusty Cage’
Superunknown (1994) – ‘Spoonman’, ‘Limo Wreck’, ‘My Wave’, ‘The Day I Tried To Live’, ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Half’
Down On The Upside (1996) – ‘Never The Machine Forever’, ‘Zero Chance’, ‘Dusty’

Critics picked up on Soundgarden’s tendency to mess with rhythms early on, and continue to do so. Guitarist Kim Thayil was also well aware of his band’s math rock elements. He commented that his tendency to write in odd time signatures was an example of the band’s anti-commercial stance (a staple of the indie ethos), saying that if Soundgarden “were in the business of hit singles, we’d at least write songs in 4/4 so you could dance to them“.

In all, there are reasonable grounds here to consider Soundgarden within the math rock canon. However, there are also a couple of reasons why Soundgarden is not widely regarded a math rock band. Firstly, as well as the odd-time signatures, Soundgarden’s style is rich in heavy rock textures, not least Chris Cornell’s trademark wailing. This is more likely to have been prioritised by press over their mathy song structures. Secondly, Soundgarden were hoisted onto a much larger and lucrative bandwagon by the press: ‘grunge’. The band were from Seattle, outside the locus of the math rock epicentre, the Midwest. This meant that critics would more likely group them in with locals like Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Alice In Chains. Sure enough, ‘grunge’ was the buzz-word that became closely associated with all these bands. Again, this reaffirms the role of history in defining a genre, not just the sound itself.

I am not here to argue whether Soundgarden is or isn’t math rock. The key point here is that, when both the historical and descriptive contexts of ‘math rock’ are considered, the possibility of considering Soundgarden as a math rock band is suddenly not so outlandish. Indeed, if Soundgarden are considered a math rock band, this would essentially make the Seattle quartet the most successful to date, with three Platinum albums, two Grammy awards, and 12.5 million albums sold in the US. The decision is yours.

UPDATE: A good soul on Spotify has put together a playlist full of Soundgarden’s mathiest cuts. Check it out here.

NOTE: Some passages in this article were taken from our article The History of Math Rock Part 1.