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#WYNTK: Math Rock

Figuring out this complex indie subgenre


Published: 6 Jan 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Cover image: Filipino math rock band tide/edit performing at Baybeats 2022. Photo by Cliff Yeo.

Perceptually, no other subgenre of indie rock is as inaccessible or incomprehensible to the casual listener as math rock. From its irregular rhythmic structures and peculiar time signatures, to its angular melodies and dissonant chords—it’s no wonder that newbies seem to have a harder time wrapping their heads around its dense and fluctuating style than math rock’s more definable sibling, post rock.

Don’t worry though, you won’t need to memorise formulas or pull out a calculator to appreciate this misunderstood member of the rock family, because we’ll be giving out a free tuition lesson.

The variables of math to come

In the 1970s, the realm of progressive rock pioneered a curious blend of formalism and eclecticism, breaking the boundaries of rock music convention with its classical and jazz influences. Whether it’s the ambitious time signatures of krautrock legends like Can and NEU, or the technical and intricate guitar work of acts like King Crimson, prog’s new variables helped pave the unconventional road that would lead to math rock. 

On the other side of the equation, the evolution of hardcore punk into post-hardcore proved to be another crucial aspect to math rock’s development. One only needs to listen to Black Flag’s unorthodox 1984 album My War to hear it—the idiosyncratic time signatures (3/8, 5/4, 7/4), the abrupt tempo changes, the dissonant riffs, and the atonal solos. Songs like Swinging Man, Three Nights and Scream could be pointed to as proto-math.

Likewise, Steve Albini was an early catalyst for the genre’s development—making his label Touch and Go Records, and his recording studio Electrical Audio, a home for bands that were keen to deconstruct the norms of rock music by adding angular riffs, polyrhythms, and odd meters. Notably, he produced and released Slint’s earliest albums—a band often cited by critics as a foundational figure in the math rock movement.

New theory put into practice

The late ’80s and the early ’90s saw math rock emerge from the shadows of its influences to become its own thing. Bands like Don Caballero and Polvo were among the first to expand upon these complex rhythmic patterns and varying chord progressions to shape the genre into something distinct from prog or post-hardcore. The former’s debut album For Respect, which featured guitarist Ian Williams’ (who later formed Battles) guitar tapping mastery, helped define math rock’s multifarious sound. 

Meanwhile, Polvo released a string of albums engineered by Brian Paulson (who produced Slint’s seminal Spiderland) which solidified math rock’s tendency toward weirdly structured melodies, seemingly spontaneous stop/start interludes, and whammy bar experimentation. A multitude of other bands like A Minor Forest, Shorty, Joan of Arc, and The Jesus Lizard blossomed around the same period to propel the style to new heights. Even Steve Albini stepped away from his behind-the-scenes role to form his own math rock band, Shellac.

Intro to elementary math

Usually played by small and technically-skilled guitar-led bands, math rock is dense and complex, filled with difficult time signatures and intertwining phrases. Characterised by tight precision and changes in style, the genre’s distinctive element is the way in which the tone and meter of a piece often changes throughout a song.

To illustrate, the time signature for most mainstream rock is 4/4: one, two, three, four; one, two, three, four. But the beat in math rock may be 5/8, 6/8 or 7/8. It may seem asymmetrical or irregular, but it isn’t. Within a math rock composition, stops and starts, changes in rhythm, and accelerations or decelerations in tempo are made to feel internally cohesive.

Sometimes, even more uncommon time signatures are used, such as 3/2 or 11/8. These are technically complex meters for a musician to play, and provide discordant rhythms within a song. This cerebral type of structure, often viewed as mathematical, is what inspired the genre’s name. Of course, some math rock songs may never stray from 4/4, but they will frequently feature syncopation to keep listeners on their toes.

What’s the difference between math rock, prog rock and post-rock?

Considering the genre’s shared lineage, math shares a lot with prog and post-rock in terms of ambitious songwriting, containing multiple parts and long instrumental passages. The key differentiating factor is math rock’s much starker sound. While prog and post-rock tend to feel expansive or epic, math rock is typically tighter, snappier and more interior.

Unlike the songwriting, math rock production actually skews minimalist—eschewing large orchestrations, overdubs, reverbs or compression. Furthermore, bands usually keep to just guitar, bass, and drums. Vocals and lyrics aren’t a prominent feature in math rock tracks, and if vocals are needed, one of the instrumentalists will simply pull double duty.

Sonic multiplications and international additions

As the genre matured in the late ’90s to the 2000s, math rock diversified considerably. From the softer Midwest emo palate of American Football, to the artful electronic influences of Battles, to the violent virtuosity of Tera Melos—math rock became less homogenous and more varied than ever. Despite those aforementioned bands possessing wildly different tones and aesthetics, structurally, they retain the complex arrangements and rhythmic eccentricity of math rock.

While the genre did successfully spread across the pond to Europe, math rock primarily took off in the UK with bands such as TTNG (formerly known as This Town Need Guns), Delta Sleep, The Redneck Manifesto, Adebisi Shank, and Tubelord leading the charge. That being said, the math rock boom in the British Isles pales in comparison to how the genre blew up in Asia.

Asians are great at math (rock)

Math rock may have been born and raised in America, but Asia is where the genre went to study, grow, thrive and find itself. In particular, dexterous and ingenious Japanese musicians have taken to math rock, helping to shape, recontextualise and elevate it to the next level. These are just five of the many notable Asian bands on the vanguard of math rock’s modern renaissance. Of these, toe and tfvsjs have performed in Singapore at the Mosaic and Baybeats festivals respectively, while Elephant Gym returns in Feb 2023 with a gig at Huayi festival.

1. toe

Predictably, the preeminent math rock group of the 21st century hails from Japan. Made up of guitarists Mino Takaaki and Yamazaki Hirokazu, drummer Kashikura Takashi, and bassist Yamane Satoshi, toe is a band whose genius within the genre is without equal (though many imitators have tried). Whilst acclaimed for their extreme skill and virtuoso songwriting, their sound is more emotional than cerebral. toe stands apart from their contemporaries because even amidst their complexity, their music is able to exude elegance, beauty and poignance.

2. Elephant Gym

Formed in Kaohsiung by the classically-trained, brother-sister duo of Tell on guitar and Tif on bass, alongside Chia-Chin on drums, Elephant Gym has been on the forefront of the Asian math rock scene for a decade now. The band instantly stands out due to their agile, bass-driven melodies (the “elephant” in their name refers to the bass guitar), and their music’s incorporation of R&B groove and jazz-inflected solos. This Taiwanese three-piece is one of the few that are still revising the dimensions of what math rock can be.

3. tfvsjs 

tfvsjs (pronounced as “TF versus JS”) may have first begun as post-hardcore / screamo outfit, but this quintet from Hong Kong have since evolved into one of the premiere instrumental math rock bands in the region. Renowned for their “Canton twist” on the genre, their tendency to imbue distinctive Chinese melodies into their songwriting has become just as much a calling card as the band’s incredible technical wizardry or their penchant for complex rhythms.

4. Tricot 

The biggest barrier to entry to math rock fandom is because the genre is often perceived as too intellectual and intricate. No such barrier exists with Japanese quartet Tricot, who are about as fun and unpretentious as math rock can get. Combined with a colourful J-pop aesthetic and an extensive focus on lead singer Ikkyu Nakajima’s vocals (a rarity in the genre), Tricot have proven to be the ideal introduction to math rock for the masses. Don’t get it twisted though—just because they’re accessible does not mean that Tricot’s music is any less sophisticated or technical.

5. tide/edit

You’d be hard pressed to find a finer representative of Southeast Asian math rock than Manila-based tide/edit. Known for their dynamically complex and unconventional rhythms, this Filipino four-piece presents a brand of math rock that is upbeat, energetic and melodic. Though the group has recently disbanded, tide/edit leaves behind a treasure trove of phenomenal studio albums, including Foreign Languages (2014), Lightfoot (2015), and All My Friends (2018).

Elephant Gym performs as part of Huayi’s in::music at the Esplanade Annexe Studio on 4 Feb 2023.     

Contributed by:

Hidzir Junaini

Hidzir Junaini is a freelance journalist in Singapore, currently covering film & television for publications such as NME Asia and Popwire. He has previously served as a writer and editor for various pop culture magazines such as inSing, JUICE Singapore, Bandwagon, MTV Asia, Straatosphere, and VICE, among others.

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