Some years back, we looked at the genre of ‘math rock’ through a historical lens to try and not find the enigmatic nexus of when ‘math rock’ as it’s colloquially known and understood came into existence. In The History of Math Rock Part 1, we examined the burgeoning post-punk, indie, and no wave music scenes of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and how it laid the groundwork for genre-defying bands that came later in the 80’s such as Slint, Bastro, Bitch Magnet, and others that helped come to define the first wave of the genre that lasted through the 1990’s.
In The History of Math Rock Part 2, the focus was on the history of progressive rock and jazz fusion of the late 1960’s through 1970’s, and how those genres used odd-time signatures and complicated rhythms that paved a route for more experimental forms of music, as well as the influence of ‘prog rock’ in the math rock genre. In the most recent article released in this series, The History of Math Rock Part 3, we went in further back in time to the development of jazz and how different movements like ragtime, swing, bop, cool wave, free jazz, and modern creative have used rhythm and time differently and became influential music in the use of polyrhythms, odd-time signatures, and syncopation in contemporary experimental music.
If you are perplexed by the sonic differences between Don Cab’s For Respect and TTNG’s Animals, two seminal math rock albums, you have every right to be. Play At Action Park next to Fruit Island and you’ll be hit with another stark contrast. Early math rock is noisy, disjunctive and predominantly percussion-driven. Contemporary math rock is light, jazzy and predominantly guitar-driven. What happened here?
It’s now time to jump forward in time to the turn of the millennium, to an important shift in the development of math rock, to explore the evolution of math rock from a genre that was defined by loud, aggressive guitars, thick noisy bass, and punishing drums throughout the 1990’s to where the genre started to experiment and expand in the 2000’s, which still revels in complicated rhythms, odd-time signatures, and intricate song structures, but also expanded the tone palette to incorporate crisp and clean guitar tones, focus on melodies over mood, and proved that “26 is Dancier than 4.”
1985 – 1989
From Maurice to Slint: David Pajo Arrives on the Scene and Shapes His Own Sound
To find the first injection of clean jazz-toned guitar in math rock is to go back to the roots of the genre in the mid-1980’s with David Pajo and Slint. Prior to the formation of Slint in 1986, Slint guitarist David Pajo, as well as Slint drummer Britt Walford played in the Louisville band, Maurice (1983-1986). The band’s only release is a 1985 demo, The First Shall Be Last, that was captured on a boombox at the request of Glenn Danzig. ( Chuter, Jack. Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. Chapter 3: Slint, The For Carnation. Function Books, 2015.)
The music of Maurice was aggressive with a muscle flexed guttural rock sound with a mix of weirdness and uniqueness that caused the band to catch the ear of Glenn Danzig and then tour with Samhain as teenagers. ( Bangs, Lance. (Director). Breadcrumb Trail [Film]. Produced by Lance Bangs. 2014) Ultimately the band’s demise was due to Walford’s and Pajo’s desire to write music that was less inspired by metal or punk bands and drawn toward making music that sounded different and new to them. Walford and Pajo started to compose songs that featured clean toned guitar with no solos as an ant-thesis to the contemporary metal and hardcore punk of the mid-80’s, and was also a more dexterous, rhythmically complex sort of music. (Tennent, Scott. Spiderland. 33 1/3 Series, #75. The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011)
The last song Maurice ever wrote ended up eventually becoming the Slint song “Pat” that was re-worked and released on Slint’s first album Tweez. As for the directional shift towards more clean toned guitar work, David Pajo has offered up his own key sources of influence, “The 3 M’s: Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Mishima soundtrack. That’s what made me realize you could be just as evocative with clean guitar tones as you can with heavily distorted tones, if not more so.” (Chuter, Jack. Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. Chapter 3: Slint, The For Carnation. Function Books, 2015)
The sonic explorations of Pajo and Walford towards a less harsh, clean tone can be heard not just on “Pat,” but on most of Tweez there are strong hints of jazz so unding clean toned guitar, especially on the second song, “Nan Ding.” After its release, the sound and style of Slint changed dramatically by the time of their seminal album Spiderland, which featured music that sounded much more influenced by post-hardcore and heavier music, and songs with howling vocals and screeching guitars like “Nosferatu Man” and “Good Morning, Captain” cemented Slint’s legacy in math rock, post-rock, post-hardcore, slowcore, emo, and I could keep going, but I’ll stop there. Pajo though would continue to expand upon clean toned guitar work on Tweez later in the 90’s with Chicago’s premier pontificators of mathy and jazzy post-rock in Tortoise.
Tortoise and the Experimental Rock Revolution of the American Midwest
Formed in 1990, Tortoise, who was originally going to be called Mosquito, had an initial lineup that was essentially two rhythm sections consisting of John McEntire and John Herndon on drums, and Bundy K. Brown and Doug McCombs both playing bass, while flutters of marimba and vibraphone were also used. (Wilcox, Tyler. Don’t Call It Post-Rock: A Deep Dive Into Tortoise’s Best Live Sets. Pitchfork, 2021) By the time of their first, the band had expanded to a quintet with addition of multi-instrumentalist Dan Bitney. Something that immediately set Tortoise apart from other instrumental rock contemporaries of the time was the instrumentation.
By having two bassists and two drummers, the music just naturally sounded different than the guitar-based music of the time especially considering Tortoise hit the scene during the Grunge hey day of the early 90’s. When listening to Tortoise, especially the early albums, it’s not just that they utilized two bassists, but how they did it. The music was dynamically driven and because of the use of vibraphone and marimba, the music was not distorted or aggressive, but nuanced and contemplative. It’s interesting to note how much of the clean-toned, jazzy sound of Tortoise came from 80’s DIY punk aesthetics.
“I was in punk bands in the ’80s,” says Dan Bitney. “There’s an ethos that goes with being from that era, of kind of ‘doing stuff yourself,’ doing what you want to do.” ( Barrios, Maria. Thirty Years of Tortoise. Bandcamp. 2022) The Augusto Contento-directed documentary Parallax Sounds (Cineparallax, 2012) goes into great detail chronicling the culture and environment of the Chicago experimental music scene of the 1990’s. Bands such as Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol, Storm and Stress, and later Don Caballero rejected the mainstream rock tropes of the grunge era to create a music scene in Chicago that was the epicenter of experimental rock music throughout the 1990’s and was largely defined by how difficult the music was to define. The music community was influenced by a DIY punk attitude that led to an existential experimental exploration of what a rock band is and could be.
Tortoise cemented their signature sound and became a dominant force in the instrumental rock world with their landmark 1996 second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which by now the band also included David Pajo on both bass and electric guitar. The guitar work by Pajo sounds like a matured take on the early guitar work found on Tweez, exploring the clean toned, almost jazz sounding guitar styling. Songs like “The Glass Museum,” “Along the Banks of Rivers,” and the 20-minute long album opening opus “Djed” showcase the possibilities of clean toned guitar and bass work in the context of mathy experimental music that incorporates complex rhythms.
By the time of their second album, and later subsequent releases, Tortoise also began incorporating influences of krautrock, dub, electronica, and even progressive rock into their music. (Allen, Jim. From Tull to Tortoise: Post-Rock’s Proggy Past. CMJ. ) Genre cross-pollination helped garner them being labeled as a ‘post-rock’ band, but for our purposes their use of clean toned guitar and bass along with jazz song structure and feel also influenced a large segment of the math rock community, so we’re not here to debate the difference between post-rock and math rock, and there’s probably a whole series in there comparing the two as both genres histories are very interconnected and weave together a multi-genre patchwork of experimental rock music and Tortoise is just one of many bands that can easily be put in the post-rock and math rock Venn diagram.
After Tortoise started to grow in popularity in the mid to late 90’s, a wave of bands consisting of two bassists with clean tone and jazz sounding compositions with more complicated rhythm patterns started to permeate around the Midwest. A few bands of note to mention that helped develop the warm bass and clean toned Midwest sound are Dianogah, Sweep the Leg Johnny, Volta do Mar, Ativin, The For Carnation, and Seam.
Whether intentionally or not, Tortoise influenced a large segment of the instrumental rock landscape, and this started within their local music scene of Chicago. According to Justin Sinkovich (Thumbnail, The Poison Arrows, Atombombpocketknife,) this influence grew organically – not in some sort of vacuum. Math rock, post rock and noise rock were mere twigs in the tree of Chicago underground music. On any given night at The Fireside Bowl or The Empty Bottle, punters would see math rock bands sharing the stage with post-rock bands like Brise-Glace, Trans Am, and, of course, Tortoise. The band’s approach of jazz tinged clean guitar tones and unorthodox song compositions and arrangements took root and spread, subtly pushing math rock into a trajectory resembling it’s signature elements coming into the 21st century. In short, the harder, abrasive math rock sound was taking a back seat in favour of the more lavish, melodic, guitar-driven post-rock sound, and 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. But Tortoise was, hands down, the most influential in town.
Of those listed above, Dianogah and Volta do Mar specifically shared the trait of Tortoise by featuring two bassists sharing a very warm and clean toned sound that allows for crisp articulation of notes, and the focus on bass also allowed for music being held by riffs and repetitive note patterns over chords, which along with odd-time signatures and ever increasing complicated rhythms will become more influential in math rock as the emo influences soak in to expand the genre throughout the 2000’s. The For Carnation and Seam are notable for their roots to bands related to the formation of math rock.
The For Carnation was created by Brian McMahan following the dissolution of Slint in the early 1990’s. In addition to group mainstay McMahan, The For Carnation has featured fellow Slint members Britt Walford and David Pajo as well as John Herndon and Doug McCombs of Tortoise as contributors on multiple releases. The music of The For Carnation is slow, methodical, quiet and brooding, and though more grounded in conventional rhythms than Slint, there are plenty of odd-time signatures still to go around and quite a lot of experimentation with song structure.
Due to the contributions especially of Pajo, Herndon, and McCombs on the first two EP’s of the band, the music is also teeming with the Tortoise clean-toned jazz sound. Seam formed in Chicago in 1991, and was led by Sooyoung Park, former Bitch Magnet frontman, on guitar and vocals. Seam found a home on Touch and Go Records like many Midwest math rock bands of the 90’s, and they incorporated a lot of jangly 90’s indie rock mixed with slowcore and mathy elements to create a chill, laidback, and generally more somber and introspective songs.
American Football, Owls, and Bring on the Finger-Tappin’ Fretboards
In The History of Math Rock Part 1, we discussed the Kinsella’s, Cap’n Jazz and the rise of ‘Midwest Emo,’ but we can’t talk about the evolution of math rock from the post-hardcore and noise rock adjacent sounding early math rock to the jangly, sometimes jazzy, introspective, and moody side of math rock that’s emerged over the past two decades without mentioning American Football. The overall musical style of American Football has been described as twinkly math rock, a sound that became one of the defining traits of the emo scene throughout the 2000’s.
While so much has already been said about American Football and specifically the 1999 debut self-titled album, what’s also interesting to note are the bands of similar sound that were occurring around them in the late 90’s. Victor Villarreal of Cap’n Jazz, and later Owls, provided some of the first forays into finger-tapping guitar playing in math rock with his band Ghosts and Vodka along with Sam Zurick (Owls, Joan of Arc, Make Believe). The band’s existence was short from 1998 – 2001, but they helped create the template for math rock with upbeat fast-tempo grooves, and melodic finger-tapping riffs. The band still sounds contemporary today with music they were putting out in the late 90’s at the same time American Football was constructing the signature ‘Midwest Emo’ sound that sits firmly in post-rock and math rock territory for it’s use of odd-time signatures, unconventional rock song structures, and inter-woven guitar parts with a compositional focus beyond that of indie rock.
C-Clamp is another slowcore sounding, jazzy at times, and very mathy band from the same Champaign / Urbana area of Illinois that American Football hailed from. C-Clamp’s vocals sounded much more somber and emotive than a lot of math rock bands that came before them and had that tinge of Tortoise like jazz accompanied by precision drumming and interesting use of time signatures and rhythm patterns over a wash of beautiful clean-toned guitars. https://youtu.be/u_jdO0h9rf0 By the early 2000’s, American Football, Ghosts and Vodka, and C-Clamp were all no more, but Mike and Tim Kinsella along with Victor Villarreal and Sam Zurick formed Owls in 2001.
Their first album, which was recorded by Steve Albini, takes the 90’s emo sound of Cap’n Jazz, but combines it with matured songwriting and playing that also sounds like a naturally extension of Ghosts and Vodka and American Football. With Owls, the guitar tapping of Victor Villarreal and emotive vocals of Tim Kinsella are front and center and you start to venture into murky waters of is it an emo band or a math rock band or what exactly is going on here?!
2000’s to Present
Don Caballero Gives Math Rock a Paradigm Shift with American Don
Don Caballero is one of the most important bands in the history of math rock, and if the website hasn’t given that away, we’ve covered Don Cab a lot on this website over the years including a lengthy retrospective of the band. While for the first half of the 90’s, Don Cab flexed a lot of muscle in their sound, and Damon Che’s phenomenal and essentially legendary drumming matched with the guitars of Mike Banfield and Ian Williams helped solidify the genre in the early days of math rock existing. The band took a break between 1995’s Don Caballero 2 and 1998’s What Burns Never Returns, and in between those two albums something really interesting happened: Ian Williams completely turned guitar playing on it’s proverbial head. After a lot of musical experimentation with Storm and Stress on their 1997 self-titled debut album, Williams started to experiment with both a finger-tapping playing style on guitar as well as starting to incorporate loop pedals to loop and layering lush and complex guitar melodies on top of each other to redefine the sound of the band. Around 1998, Williams consulted with Tortoise drummer (and Bastro alumnus) John McEntire about building guitar loops. McEntire recommended the Akai Headrush. The pedals and Williams instantly clicked, as they constructed texture in what Williams, only half-jokingly, called “zero time signature.”
When Don Cab returned on the music scene with What Burns Never Returns, the guitar sound of the band had evolved into something new, different, and exciting. There are flickers throughout the album of guitar finger-tapping and guitar looping, especially on the album opener “Don Caballero 3” and “Slice Where You Live Like Pie,” but it’s on the band’s 2000 magnum opus that Ian Williams took math rock guitar playing to a new unprecedented level.
American Don, the band’s fourth full-length album, kicks into life with several guitar-tapped melodies stacked atop each other with a looping pedal. In fact, tapping is pervasive throughout this album across both guitars and bass lines, and its quite easy to see the legacy of Don Caballero’s style in tracks like ‘You Drink A Lot of Coffee For A Teenager’ and ‘A Lot Of People Tell Me I Have A Fake British Accent’. And this should not discount the extreme experimentation with rhythm, American Don sees guitar phrases constantly drifting in and out of time with the percussion, splitting melody and rhythm into dichotomies and deconstructing the conventional idea and form of music. For many, this is Don Caballero’s landmark album, the one that exemplifies the math rock genre. And that’s hard to argue with.
Minus the Bear, TTNG, and the New Generation of 2000’s Math Rock
In the wake of American Don, finger-tapping guitar playing style, clean guitar tones, and the use of loop pedals became a mainstay of the genre. Minus the Bear was formed in 2001, and they had the same indie rock vibe of Seam, but with the upbeat and dancey rhythms and guitar playing of American Don-esque Don Caballero, and Ghosts and Vodka. The duo Giraffes? Giraffes! also formed in 2001, and they are one of the most important and groundbreaking math rock bands of the last 20 years to incorporate guitar phrase looping through loop pedals as a core component of their signature style and sound. Over in the UK, TTNG (or at the time, This Town Needs Guns) formed in 2002, and Tim Collis’ guitar work infused intricate pop melodies with a touch of jazz and ingenious use of rhythms and time signatures. By the time of TTNG’s third album Animals, in 2008, they had really helped define a certain style of math rock that jumped the hurdle of distortion and existed squarely in the realm of poppy melodies and dancey drum beats within intricate song arrangements and dizziness use of time signatures.
Throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s a new generation of math rock bands came along that were far more firmly planted in the clean-toned, jazz sounding guitar work of Tortoise and American Football, or the finger-tapping virtuosity of Don Caballero and Ghosts and Vodka than the noise rock and post-hardcore influenced bands that grew out of the first wave of math rock in the mid to late 80’s and first half of the 90’s.
Piglet, Alarmist, Enemies, The Redneck Manifesto, Colour, and Clever Girl are some notable bands of this ilk to mention and give recognition to for their contribution to the ever sprawling math rock sound palette expansion of the past 15+ years.
The clean guitar, finger-tapping renaissance also spread will beyond the U.S. and Western Europe, and in East Asia bands like toe., Lite, tricot, and Elephant Gym, are all rooted in the musical styling of the crisp, clean guitars and dazzling speed on the fretboard paired with jazz flourishes, precise drumming, and densely complex compositions that has given rise to a certain style and sound that still nods to the 90’s experimentations of Tortoise and Don Caballero.
For now that’s where our story ends – did we cover every single band that helped diversify the genre, from the noisy, ferocious attack of Breadwinner to the cheetah like speed of finger-tapping melodic math pop of standards… well no, and we’re sorry to Pele, The Mercury Program, Tubelord, and many others who deserve some cred for their contributions to the genre and influence to bands that came after them. Hopefully we were able to explain the overarching groundwork of how the genre evolved and was shaped and re-shaped by different bands, musicians, techniques, musical environment, and experimentation.
At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it and dice it, math rock is much more than a specific guitar tone or whether or not a guitarist taps on the fretboard or uses a gigantic pedalboard. What we covered in this article is just one of the many winding roads that have branched off the tree of Math Rock. The genre is still a constantly expanding and adapting, and math rock can be as heavy as Town Portal, as bombastic as Hella, as jazzy as Strobes and Mouse on the Keys, or as electronic and futuristic sounding as Battles and Three Trapped Tigers. Math Rock is a tool to explore the medium of rock-based music that indulges in rhythmic complexities, unique song structures and melodic phrasing, and yes some odd-time signatures too for good measure (sorry, not sorry for the pun).