MATH ROCK RETROSPECTIVE // Breadwinner (1990-1992)

For this new installment of Math Rock Retrospective, we are going to be exploring a trio out of Richmond VA, and one of the most influential bands in math rock, Breadwinner. It’s impossible to talk about Breadwinner without incorporating the history of guitarist Penn Rollings, who was essentially the brains behind this project.

Some of Penn’s earliest material was with post-punk band Honor Role formed in 1983. The band put out a string of releases through the 80’s including Purgatory and Judgement Day EPs in 1985, and The Pretty Song in 1986. The band’s sound fell nothing short of loose and morose, featuring slack guitars and bleak lyrics delivered in the raw, abrasive vocal style of Bob Schick.


It’s not hard to hear what would be the distinct sound of Breadwinner in Honor Role tracks like ‘Early Grave’, ‘Salty Tears’ and ‘Skippy’. Pen Rollings was writing guitar riffs that were much more discordant than what one might expect from a post-punk band, and he was using the full extent of his fretboard. But despite leaning towards a mathy sound, Honor Role was by and large a post-punk band, one with a well-established following in Richmond.

As Honor Role was recording their album Rictus in 1989, Rollings was putting another band together called Butterglove. This was undoubtedly a heavier shift for Rollings, featuring plenty of palm-muted, abrasive guitar riffs and bass lines. Most importantly, this is where the early components of math rock can really be heard: discordant riffs, unusual time signatures and unconventional song structures. Butterglove would never follow a continuous melody, Rollings would innovate on the melody, disfiguring it as the song progressed. The music, almost entirely instrumental save for the intermittent found-footage-style dialogues, was unpredictable and impossible to bop your head along to.

Butterglove dropped only one release, The Lunchbox Drama, in 1989, and a live rehearsal, released posthumously as ‘The John Morand Session’ in 1997. It was only a short-lived stint, and by this stage, Honor Role was also coming apart. Rollings is quoted as saying ‘Honor Role wasn’t quite seeing eye to eye anymore. I don’t think it was anything personal. Honor Role just wasn’t breathing anymore’.

A year later, Rollings got together with bassist Bobby Donne, and drummer Chris Farmer to form the trio that would be Breadwinner, and quickly released three demo tracks in that year. In Breadwinner, as with Butterglove, hardcore and metal sensibilities pervade: thrashy, low-frequency guitar tones, plenty of heavy breakdowns and an all-round aggressive demeanour. The band would release two 7” singles, 232 South Laurel St in 1990 and Side A in 1991. In 1994, Merge Records released all their singles and EP as the renowned posthumous collection Burner, which has become the go-to release for this band.

In 1992, Chris Farmer was leaving for Germany. The band just couldn’t make things work without him and eventually disbanded. Bobby Donne joined local Richmond act Labradford and would go on to become a film composer. Rollings eventually formed the band Loincloth, a searing blaze of math-metal riffery and their 2017 release ‘Psalm of the Morbid Whore’ comes highly recommended.

For many, it was Breadwinner that shone out from the other projects. Their off-kilter and unpredictable form of heavy music would later become a typical example of the evolving term: ‘math’ to describe music bearing rhythmic complexity. This is not to say Breadwinner was founding fathers of ‘math metal’ as we know it, as it was around this time that bands like Cynic, Atheist and, of course, Meshuggah were all pushing metal to new dizzying heights of complexity, dissonance and virtuosity. With Breadwinner, however, Pen Rollings and company were deconstructing and rewiring the bare bones of the music. It was not a sound of excess and lavishness; it was a sound of deformity and mutation. And this is what made them unique.

On the math spectrum, Breadwinner forged a more aggressive and distortion-heavy style of math rock, borrowing from hardcore and metal motifs. It’s a style that appears throughout early math rock and mathcore history with notable acts like Craw, Keelhaul, Colossamite, Knut, and Dazzling Killmen; but also contemporary acts like Body Hound, Marateck, Roland and Town Portal. What Breadwinner did was essentially kick-start the process of scrambling and disfiguring the routine and repetitive nature of rock music, a sound that Pen himself was making in Honor Role. And its for this reason that Breadwinner hold a place in the math rock history books.

If you like what you hear, be sure to purchase Burner from Merge Records via their Bandcamp page. We would like to thank Pen Rollings and the guys in Loincloth for being super cool in helping us get this article and the featured audio out there.