We originally asked math rock masters Land Wars to do a playlist for us… we suggested influences as a theme. They’ve gone way beyond that and given us “A Low Intensity Listening Guide That’ll Help You Start To Understand Some Things About Math Rock”
Check out the band here, and over to them…
Math Rock is the worst named genre in the world of music. As John Stanier of Battles once said, it’s
‘‘grotesque’’ and ‘’unsexy’, and he was dead right. The label exists and isn’t going anywhere though, and
as much as I hate telling people that I play in a ‘math rock band’ (as you say it, you can actually see the
light die in their eyes as they glaze over into a I-regret-asking look) I’ve made it a rule to always try and
explain a bit about it every time.
The issue is that math rock is actually a really, really broad genre that is linked to indie rock, mid-west
emo, post-rock, noise rock and metal (to name just a few). A ‘math rock’ band can actually come from
any one of those backgrounds, and so they can sound radically different.
I’ve put this little guide together to help walk you through a bit of the musical journey I went through to
end up where I am today, because while a lot of this isn’t ‘math rock’, I could actually guarantee you that
almost everyone you meet at a festival like Portals or Arctangent this summer will also be extremely
familiar if most if not all of these bands/songs. It’s like a musical language and background we share. If
you read through and listen, you should be a little closer to understanding something of it yourself. It’ll
also be maybe a familiar journey to a lot of people who already listen to any kind of ‘mathy’ music, in fact
this is probably going to appear on some kind of math-rock based blog, but what the hell, can you give me 5 mins of your time? Great! Let’s dive into it;
Pinback – AFK
From 15 onwards I was taking in a steady diet of American indie rock, and especially Mid-West Indie
would have this first-wave emo influence that was my first brush with anything ‘’mathy’’. Bands like
Modest Mouse and Pinback especially had this edge to them, and it was Pinback’s Rob Crowe (an
absolute hero of the genre) who first got me hooked onto a sound that my ears slowly but surely
developed a taste for. Crowe has a lot of amazing projects (Heavy Vegetable, his teenage band, are
absolutely jaw-dropping) and ‘Summer In Abadon’ is a fantastic record all around, but I can only pick out
one for the list and ‘AFK’ just stands out for it’s pure energy and the release of the chorus. Let’s say this
song and Pinback are a good ‘START HERE’ point for any fans of indie rock interested in easing
themselves into the genre.
Do Make Say Think – In Mind
When I was 18, Do Make Say Think immediately caught my attention in a way that no other band had, as
they were almost entirely instrumental. The sheer craft of the songs and the patience they exercised in
building to and from sections was a revelation for me, and without realizing it I’d started listening to music that had no lyrics for the first time.
You, You’re A History In Rust is still one of those records from my youth that I’ll revisit at least once a
year, and it holds up like few others do. ‘In Mind’ is a great example of the kind of heavily atmospheric,
somewhat sentimental-tone that defines their best songs – a sense that this is a group of friends making
music and expressing their creativity in a very pure, joyous way. At their best, Do Make Say Think feel like a celebration of all these things, and that’s on full show in this track.
Tortoise – TNT
I spent the next few years working backwards, into the bands that influenced the likes of Do Make Say
Think, and immediately came across and fell in love with Tortoise. A lot of people credit the creation of
post-rock to bands like Tortoise in the Chicago scene of the 90‘s. but what you’ll hear from them isn’t the
crescendocore associated with the label with today. Instead, they combine everything from rock, jazz,
ambient, world and noise into a blender, dominated by a sense of fun and adventure. They’ve got two
drummers and two bassists at (almost) all times, and the best part is that they all switch between
instruments when playing live, which adds a sense of what-will-happen-next? into their shows. TNT is
not their most celebrated album (maybe a little unfairly, in my opinion) but the title track is everything I
love about the band. It also makes me pine for playing in a band with two drummers someday (the logistics are a nightmare, but I swear I will do it at some point)!
Slint – Good Morning Captain
I became a more bitter person in my early-twenties, can’t tell you why really. Maybe I wanted to be more
edgy and the nativity of my almost twee-ish teens had been worn down by years of working and paying
rent in London while absolutely not being the musician I arrogantly thought I would become. So Do Make
Say Think’s hopeful glimmer started to fade for me, and this is when I naturally started listening to Slint.
A dark, mysterious band with angular guitar riffs and rhythms that (along with early Polvo albums) would
characterize the darker, more dissonant math rock sound heard today in bands like Toe or Chiyoda Ku.
The blood-curdling ‘‘I miss you!’’ that Brian McMahon screams at the end of ‘‘Good Morning, Captain’’
after the creepy whispering build up is a release like no other, one of those rare moments caught on a
recording that just has your hair standing on edge (as potent as the end of the documentary The Jinx, for
example) and it feels as vivid with every listen. You should absolutely check out Slint, but my personal
advice is not to become a more bitter person in your early-twenties. There’s other ways of being edgy and it was not a hit with the ladies…
FUN FACT – In Pinback’s ‘‘AFK’’, the first song on this list, Rob Crowe sings what you’d absolutely
mistake for ‘‘I miss you, not in a sad way, but I miss you’’, but as Colin Skeehan (that’s a name that might
ring a name for some…) pointed out to me at Arctangent last year, he’s actually saying ‘‘I miss you, not
in a Slint way, but I miss you’’. It’s true! Go back and listen! Right? MIND BLOWER! (Thanks again, Colin!)
Don Cabellero – Don Cabellero III
Aged 22 I was listening to a lot of post-rock like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black
Emperor, but was immediately over it as a concept the second I heard Damon Che’s balls-to-the-wall
opening drum beat on this record. Che’s deep, loose grooves and Iain Williams scatterbrained guitar
parts will always be the one of the defining sounds of the genre, often attempted but never fully
reproduced by any contemporaries, past or present. To borrow the American expression, they can
absolutely turn on a dime too, and often their best songs feel like anywhere between two and four songs
shoved together. Don Cabellero III is an absolutely definite example of this, and even though it takes a
while to get going (almost having the gall to challenge you to keep listening) the payoff is immense.
Sidenote; ”The Last Dark Days of Don Cabellero” by their tour mate Fred Weaver is one of my personal
favorite pieces of music journalism and you can read the scans in several places online, including
Don’t kid yourself, if you’re reading my shitty article right now, you’ve got the time to check out something truly great. Check it out!
Battles – Atlas
I was a late comer to this song, but when I was 24 it changed the way I think about music, and it’s a
monolith of a tune, like no other song in the world. Essentially, it’s a nursery-rhyme melody played over a
pounding shuffle, and though the noises abrasive and strange at first (Tyondai Braxton is modulating his
voice by rocking back and forth on a whammy pedal connected to the mic, for one) the repetition of them
creates a kind of false image of pop music. This song was a surprise hit in the charts, believe it or not!
Yes, it’s not the sounds we’re used to hearing at all, but about halfway through the song you’re over it
and find yourself nodding along, almost against your will. It’s weird and infectiously catchy, and the
product of the kind of genius that both delights and makes you vaguely angry at just how good some people are at this music thing.
Former-Don Cab guitarist Iain Williams is both taking a step back from his frantic guitar work you’ll hear
on ‘‘Don Cabellero III’’, but also diving deeper into the concept of shaping against-the-grain sounds that
can actually work in a poppy way (he also unleashed his now kind of signature move of playing guitar
and keyboard at the same time on this song). Tyondai brings a playful and shameless experimental
energy with his vocals, and Dave Konopka is redefining what a band member can be by not only playing
bass, but also a ‘pedal amp’ where he samples, reshapes and loops sounds from not only himself but the
other band members. Superimposed over John Stanier’s no-nonsense drumming (you can line two two
million drummers up, have them play the same beat and I’d absolutely bet my life I could pick Stanier out by his sound – he’s that good) you have what still remains my all-time favorite song.
Giraffes? Giraffes! – Hug of Death
I’ll end this list, now that hopefully you’ve listened through and gotten an idea of how broad the genre is and some of the history and background, with something undeniably ‘math rock’.
There was a period last year where, despite playing in a math rock duo, I wasn’t really listening to much
of anything in the genre for a while. Giraffes? Giraffes! latest release ‘Memory Lame’ changed that and
served as a much reminder of why I love this kind of music so much. Hug of Death is a rollercoaster of a
song that just straps you in and takes off at full-speed before you have time to think about what you
signed up for. It’s frantic, fun, thoughtful and groovy in different parts. Seeing them live at Arctangent last
year (their first, and so far only, ever European show) was an experience that’s helped reignite a passion
for writing this kind of weird stuff on a personal level for both me and my bandmate Cristiano from Land
Wars. Don’t be afraid to be weird, neither in what you listen to or what music you make (G?G! certainly
aren’t), and if there’s place for some of this music in your own diet after reading all this – all the better!
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