It’s probably happened to many of us – you’re sitting at the dining room table, surrounded by family for the holidays, following a steadfast inner-monologue when somebody has the nerve to ask, “Hey, squirt, so what’s this I hear about math rock?”
While something along the lines of ‘baby Jesus, how the hell is this even remotely possible’ is likely the reaction you’re bound to have internally, dribbling out of your face hole comes a tepid, even embarrassed response, like “oh, it’s just some weird music that I’m into,” or “it’s kind of like jazz, but faster and whiter.”
Obviously, math rock is more than the sum of its parts. The thing is, math rock is just inherently hard to talk about with people who aren’t terribly analytical. Not everyone has a fellow musician in their family, but if you do, the odds are much lower that social stigmas one might associate with math rock would never really take foot.
Luckily for us, the mom we’re working with has a masters degree in musical performance from USC, and nearly thirty years of experience teaching music to kids of various ages. Recently it hit me that despite all she might know peripherally about Fecking Bahamas, she might not have ever sat down and really listened to it. What would it sound like to someone so rigorously trained all those years? What would she think of this bizarre corner of musical history?
Well, just after Thanksgiving this year, we recorded a couple of classic math rock listening sessions to find out.
While at the end of the day the choice to make and/or enjoy complex music is not a terribly uncommon one, as people who are into genres like classical, jazz, death metal, IDM, and more all desire to push various envelopes in their own way, math rock is more like prog, where it’s all in the title. Their very namesake implies at least some notion of complexity, which most people who study music can appreciate even if they don’t necessarily enjoy it.
We had a decent mix of both – see for yourselves below.
“What I notice about a lot of math rock is the consistent pulse, the stretches of time you can snap your fingers and keep the beat but within that is constantly changing meter. Which is really fun to listen to. The thing that really strikes me about these guys is they have really paid attention to balance, I can pick out every single thing. I could drive to this, I think I’d have a lot to discover in terms of their creativity… I love when they remove things and then jump back in.”
“I like it. It’s one of those rare groups in what I’ve heard in math rock where the melody is preimente and it’s just beautiful, the jazz chords and colors they put in with those odd, crunchy sounds… I’m sure there’s improvising, but you don’t always hear a clear melody which I find frustrating in a lot of math rock. You hear fragments a lot, part of an idea that’s there and then gone, someone picks it up and multiplies it, and whoever’s working with it, but it seems not to last very long. But I could hear this guitar sing out for a long time, a little bit like a true, long jazz melody. I love it.”
“I think that would be my least favorite to listen to, mostly because it’s like going to a drum circle. The pitch, I find kind of annoying because it wasn’t going anywhere… it’s the same thing over and over with no function to it, or context. I was wanting to pull out those notes and hear what the percussion was doing.”
“This is a piece where you really hear form, and you don’t always hear that in math rock. That return to the guitar theme, followed by the… I don’t even know what that sound is. That definitely big, low sound, then back to the guitar. The structure is something I appreciate. I’d need to hear this many times to understand how it’s pieced together but I do really like the guitar sound, there are some really subtle little touches in the background. I think this would go great with Meow Wolf, just purely seeing shapes and colors, the synesthesia really kicks in with this piece. But the form stands out, and all the little fine touches, the light versus heavy.”
“I love this. It’s like infused math rock with traditional Spanish music… it’s almost like Rodrigo Y Gabriela in a way. The other one has a Chicago jazz feel to it with the horns. It’s really interesting. We’ve heard other genres being changed and math-ified, which I’ve not even bothered to listen to before, I didn’t realize people could do this melodic jazz and classical stuff with the horns too, it really reminds me of 70’s style Chicago jazz… it’s retro to me. It reminds me to all the songs that I’d listen to in high school, but obviously they’re bringing in other elements.”
“Um… I don’t know in what context I could listen to that very long. Like a rave party or something? I don’t know, it’s just accessing a part of my brain that says, ‘angry!’ and there are times for that but I don’t think I could take a whole lot of that.”
“I like it, I appreciate the flow of the voice, the line is a really lovely descant above the stuff that’s math-y in the guitar. It’s a very singable line, that could be put to a different accompaniment and still stand. A descant is what goes above all the harmonies you sing in a four-part harmony in a church, the contrasting part on top of everything is called a descant. I noticed in the first song a little bit more, both of them do it really nicely though and I really appreciate that I can hear the words. Thank you for the diction.”
“I love the way they put things together. There’s like… a James Bond color to it. This makes me wonder about the process, ir reminds me of when I’m trying to learn a song or teaching a student how to sing how to speak the words as a way of understanding why the song sounds the way that it does. It comes from the poetry and I wish I knew the process behind this, like was he writing the words and felt the meter and changes, or did they come up with a musical lick or theme and fit the words together? I really admire that about people who do math rock, the intricacy in communication. How do you even talk about that? With the vocals and the poetic meter, it must be a really interesting layer to deal with, the language of that, the speech rhythms, the song… how do you do that with moving meters? They did great, but that has to be a great challenge.”
Tiny Moving Parts
“Who does this remind me of… Blink 182? I think that might be it. Well, it’s always going to hurt my linear, old brain singing so rough. That growl will always be a struggle for me to listen to for very long, because I can feel it, and it’s just not how I was trained, so I have to claim some prejudice, coming from a completely different kind of culture. It wouldn’t be something I’d listen to, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great in its own world.”
“Whoa… it’s like Tosin Abasi almost. I like this, the vocals were a surprise when they came in but they fit really well. Of all the tracks so far, that’s the most accessible for me, someone who is trying to take a gentle walk into math rock. I would listen to that voluntarily, and I was thinking about them playing live. Yeah, I really like it. They didn’t go crazy, I mean maybe they do, but so far… two thumbs up!
“The voice functions in this more as an instrument than ‘oh, those are cool words,’ like it’s balanced in a way he could say any words and it would function the same. I can’t understand them. I probably could if I was there but this piece doesn’t seem to matter as much as it is another part of the band, it’s repetitive in a way that’s not worried about the poetry or finesse, it’s functioning as another guitar. I’m not saying they’re doing a bad job, it’s just another style and function.”
“I don’t know how long I can stand this… it’s crazy. I feel like I’m not in on the joke!”
And there you have it, friends and family. Try talking to your loved ones about math rock this holiday weekend, why don’t’cha. Tell them we sent you. Oh, and buy us a coffee here while you’re at it. Coming up we’ve got one of our most anticipated articles of the year – you guessed it, it’s the Top 50 Math Rock Releases of 2022. It’s just about full, but we try to leave a little room for surprises. You’ve got one week, 2022, make it count! Thanks for reading!