The History Of Math Rock Pt 2: “You’ve Got To Learn How To Prog Before You Can Math”

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In The History of Math Rock Part 1, we documented the inception and growth of math rock music in the 1980’s, and how this peculiar genre was gradually carved out by a string of pioneers and innovators into the 90’s and 00’s. As is often the case, there is no specific moment when math rock was conceived, and varying musical influences that inspired the essence and spirit of math rock can be traced much farther back in rock music history. For this reason, it is vital that we explore the musical history of progressive rock, or ‘prog’. This exciting 1970’s movement provided an arena for musicians to combine virtuosic instrumentation, metrical complexity and sophisticated structure with the stripped back nature of modern rock music, the tenets that would play a key role in math rock’s later inception. The prog story is as expansive as the pomp and fantastical imagery conceived by its makers, and as a result we have to streamline the story to a handful of key bands so as not to derail the story (however, you can find an ever expanding list of prog rock greats in our Spotify playlist above). Of course, we’ll never please everyone and there’s surely going to be prog pundits armed with opinions and self-righteousness, ready to start internet wars over the horror of not mentioning Gentle Giant’s seminal debut. But fuck em’, and let’s delve straight in…


King Crimson, Frank Zappa and… Miles Davis

in_the_courtThe best place to start the prog rock story is January 13, 1969. Five Englishmen with a shared goal to charter into unknown musical territory gathered in a London basement for their first rehearsal as a band. A few months later in July, King Crimson opened for The Rolling Stones at a free show at Hyde Park, London, in front of 500,000 people.

King Crimson’s elaborate display of instrumentation and complexity would be essential to igniting the prog rock boom. “We had an ethos in Crimson… we just refused to play anything that sounded anything like a Tin Pan Alley record,” said original member Peter Sinfield, “if it sounded at all popular, it was out. So it had to be complicated, it had to be more expansive chords, it had to have strange influences. If it sounded, like, too simple, we’d make it more complicated, we’d play it in 7/8 or 5/8[1]. An interesting quote, considering that this is often what genres like math rock are criticised for.

King Crimson’s debut In The Court Of The Crimson King was released at the end of 1969, andd catapulted the band into immediate international popularity. A dark and brooding record, In The Court was laden with dissonant song structures and wildly odd time signatures, simply unheard of for a rock band at the time. The band had the ability to go from somber quiet passages to flex their musical muscle and transition into proto-metal. At the time, reviews spanned from “a surreal work of force and originality[2] to, quite simply, “ersatz shit[3]. Today, fans and critics alike consider it the first proper progressive rock album from start to finish.

Of course the alternate view, perhaps even a counter-argument to this, is that the earliest roots of prog can be traced to the psychedelic rock movement that started in the mid-60’s with bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, and The Moody Blues. However, what set King Crimson apart from psych rock was that their musical style largely removed the blues-based foundations of rock ‘n’ roll, which hitherto had formed the backbone of all rock music. Bands from The Beatles to Black Sabbath all claimed an American blues influence, but Crimson actively avoided these motifs, their influences instead being derived from European classical composers and improvisational jazz. Robert Fripp, founder and only consistent member of King Crimson, has remarked to his classical music influence as being important part of his cultural identity, “You might be playing a piece where the guitars are mainly working in 5, which is an entirely natural time signature for a Bulgarian folk singer, but not for an American folk singer who attempts to be working in rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m European, so I have rather considerable interest in using the musical culture of Europe.” [4] Where many English bands of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were looking west to America for influence, King Crimson was looking east to the likes of Stravinsky and Bartok.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there was a mix of American musicians equally laying ground for the prog rock and subsequent math rock movement to come. An album of particular significance here came out in 1969: Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. Zappa’s career is so diverse that elements of his musical influence can be picked from every genre of rock music of the later 20th Century. However, Hot Rats was Zappa’s first solo album and largely comprised instrumental rock music. Moreover, it’s one of the first albums ever to be recorded on 16 track recording equipment, which helped propel Hot Rats onto the Billboard album charts and brought instrumental rock music into the mainstream. Hot Rats was right on the heels of King Crimson’s emergence as a musical wrecking ball with strong instrumental prowess.

Contemporaneous with the release of Hot Rats, another important chain of events were unfolding in NYC. Miles Davis had already established himself as one of the most important figures in American jazz in the post-World War II era. Davis starting moved away from cool jazz with 1969’s In A Silent Way, and he furthered his musical experimentation focusing on unique rhythm patterns and polyrhythmic structure with his wildly unconventional Bitches Brew, released in 1970. The album featured a multitude of bassists and drummers, with a mix of musicians from the worlds of jazz and rock that created patterns that were not quite rock, but also not jazz, the significance of this being the platform that created jazz-rock fusion. Sure, incorporating Miles Davis into the prog rock movement is somewhat of a stretch, but his indirect contribution to the movement was yet to come.


The Prog Movement: Fantasy, Instrumentals And Finger Tapping

mahavish_mountflameJohn McLaughlin’s musical career started as a guitarist for Miles Davis in the late 60’s, and his guitar playing stood out through Bitches Brew. While playing with Davis, McLaughlin first met Billy Cobham, who would be one of the most influential drummers of the next 40 years. Cobham played liked a machine, never ending and constantly beating drums into submission. Cobham incorporated double bass drum patterns throughout his career, and his bombast style of playing odd-time signatures and polyrhythmic drum patterns very much laid the groundwork for the drumming style of contemporary math rock. Cobham and McLaughlin would eventually form their own band: Mahavishnu Orchestra. Their debut album, 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame, is a landmark instrumental album, blurring the lines of rock and jazz, whilst also incorporating influences of proto-metal, traditional gaelic music, and complex rhythmic patterns borrowed from traditional Indian music.

A cavalcade of other exciting prog rock albums were continually released throughout in the 1970’s. In 1971, London trio Egg released their bold sophomore The Polite Force. In the same year, Genesis released Nursery Cryme. Incidentally, guitarist Steve Hackett is credited as being one of the first guitarists to employ finger tapping in rock music, a staple for contemporary math rock enthusiasts. His reason for doing so was practical: in order to harmonize with Tony Banks’ complex keyboard parts, Hackett needed to use both hands to play notes. His finger work is best heard in the opening of ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed’, but also in sections of ‘Dancing with the Moonlit Knight’ in their 1973 epic Selling England By The Pound.

ELP_-_Brain_Salad_SurgeryKing Crimson’s original bassist and vocalist Greg Lake had left the band in 1970 after two albums and subsequently formed Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP) who followed Crimson’s path in classical influenced rock music. Their 1973 cornerstone album Brain Salad Surgery, continued the trend, with experimental compositions focused on odd-time signature rhythms as well as some shorter pieces influenced by jazz and featured brand new technology of the time. Carl Palmer played one of the first electronic drum kits and sequencers, while Keith Emerson was one of the first musicians to play a Moog synthesizer live. It is hard not to draw parallels between ELP and more contemporary electronic-based math rock acts like Three Trapped Tigers, Monobody, or even Battles.

Despite their inception as a psychedelic act, Yes started to adopt more classical influences and explore more technical territory after seeing the technical prowess of rising locals King Crimson. This is perhaps most obvious in their 1971 album Fragile. Drummer Bill Bruford is credited with helping introduce the use of odd time signatures in Yes. Tales of the Topographic Oceans, possibly Yes’ magnum opus, was a double album comprising four 20+ minute pieces of music. Depending on who you were, this overblown, complex and melodramatic music was the zenith or nadir of prog and would lead to the departure of one of Yes’ most distinctive voices – that of keyboardist Rick Wakeman. However, this would not stop Yes, who subsequently released Relayer a year later with yet another 20+ minute epic titled ‘The Gates of Delirium’.

Finally, it is worth noting the swathe of music coming out of the Kent region in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The ‘Canterbury scene‘, as it became known by, was a haven for progressive and avant garde music. Many of the Canterbury bands were associated with prog rock, but had more in common musically with American jazz fusion. Dave Stewart, previously of Egg, went on to form the groups Hatfield And The North and National Health, two bands who helped derive the clean tone guitar styling that became prominent in 2000’s math rock. Steve Hillage was one of the most popular and important guitarists to emerge from the Canterbury scene, along with Allan Holdsworth (Hillage is an influence on Ian Williams of Don Caballero and Battles). Allan Holdsworth started his career in the prog rock group Soft Machine, and later went on to play in the fusion group Tony Williams Lifetime and Gong. Things where alive and well, at least until the late 70’s.


When Prog Rock Died

brufordThe weight of progressive rock eventually caused it to collapse in on itself, as newer generations of music fans wanted faster, shorter, and simpler sounds by the time the mid-70’s rolled around. The public were perceiving elitism and pomposity in bands like ELP and Yes, who were seemingly droning on for thirty minutes about some fantastical world that the average person couldn’t relate to. As audiences flocked to exciting new movements like punk rock, prog steadily reverted to a niche genre. Many of the existing prog bands went in one of three directions: (i) they broke up; (ii) they went commercial to shed their prog rock roots (Genesis is the most noteworthy example here); or (iii) they kept their head and kept on progging.

Bill Bruford had left an undeniable mark on both progressive rock, jazz fusion, and math rock drumming. He was the only musician to have been a member of King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis, and he’s considered by many different musicians, critics, and academics to be one of the best drummers of the 20th Century. After King Crimson’s first break up in 1974, Bruford eventually formed his own band, simply called Bruford. The band was almost entirely instrumental with a penchant for musically complex and rhythm disorientating rock music. Their 1979 album One Of A Kind, featuring Allan Holdsworth on guitar, bears uncanny resemblance to many math rock groups 30+ years on, and many owe a debt to the jazz influenced, clean toned guitar, complex instrumental rock music Bruford was creating around this time. The album opener ‘Hells Bells‘ is predominantly in a 22/16 time signature, but with lush synth and guitar counterpoint melodies that smooth out the complexity of the rhythm and that is typically of many of the songs found throughout the album.

Bill Bruford’s counterpart in King Crimson, Robert Fripp, was creating a different kind of sound in the late 70’s that would be essential to the later math rock conception. Disillusioned by what prog rock became, Robert Fripp moved to New York City in the late 1970’s during the gold rush of the punk, post-punk, and no wave movements. Fripp, in an effort to distance himself from the prog rock world, collaborated with a lot of punk and no wave bands in the late 70’s, including The Dead Boys, Blondie, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and The Damned. Fripp’s first solo album Exposure consisted of a rotating backing band of his friends, which were punk and prog musicians really playing together for the first time. The result was music that was complex like prog, but more aggressive and far more angular in feel.

In 1981, both Bruford and Fripp collaborated in a freshly reformed King Crimson, in the model of a rock band that had post-punk tendencies, but still not totally shaking away the influence from jazz and some prog as well. In their albums Discipline (1981) and Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984), new vocalist and guitarist Adrian Belew (who previously had played with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Talking Heads) added a melodicism that was rarely heard in the chaotic dissonance of mid-70s Crimson. Tony Levin was on the Chapman Stick, a bass-like instrument that is exclusively tapped, and similarly brought a melodic, musical voice to the table. A piece like ‘Frame By Frame‘ showcases this lineup’s technical prowess alongside the newly found melodicism. If anything, it is this era of the band that links closest to math rock bands like Faraquet, as the songs took on a more coherent structure but retained complexity and a rejection of convention.

Tying The Math Rock Link

So finally, we are back where we began in Part 1. It was around the release of King Crimson’s Discipline that Black Flag, as we have seen, were starting to embed the prog rock motifs into their own albums, considered by many to be the earliest roots of math rock. And of course, the prog influence on math rock extends much further in time: bands like Don Caballero, Slint, U.S. Maple, and The Jesus Lizard, as well as contemporary acts like Battles, Marnie Stern, That Fucking Tank, Giraffes? Giraffes!, and Tera Melos have all cited King Crimson as an influence on their music.

As we have previously commented, what sets math rock apart from other contemporary genres is that it has the metrical complexity of progressive rock, but also the underlining attitude and DIY ethics of punk. Indeed, Crimson deliberately embellished their music with technicality, as a means to break free of the common rock tropes in their era. Today, what is evident in math rock is the inheritance of this ideology, where artists turn to sophistication in order to break free of the familiarity in music. Sure, the impetus to break free of familiarity didn’t start in the prog rock era, and many of the musicians of that time were influenced by earlier artists. So it seems we will need to dig even further if we want to understand the full story of mathematical music…

In Part 3 of The History Of Math Rock, we are going back even further to the world of jazz and ties some of its links with progressive rock, and math rock in turn.



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.

Macan, E (1997) Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, Oxford University Press: London

Martin, B (1998) Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock 1968-1978, Open Court Publishing: United States

Stump, P (1998) The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock, Quartet Books: United Kingdom

Sharp, C.M. (2008), Improvisation, Identity and Tradition: Experimental Music Communities in Los Angeles University of California