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Math Rock

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Primary Stylistic Influences:
Secondary Stylistic Influences:

Math rock is a subgenre of alternative rock that first materialized in the early 90s, characterized by unusual time signatures, atypical rhythms (stopping and starting are common), angular melodies, and dissonance. The genre is influenced by prog rock, hardcore, jazz, and experimental composers such as Steve Reich and John Cage. It usually only features guitar, bass, and drums, with vocals not being a priority.

The genre started in several different places - Chicago had Bastro and Shellac (a Steve Albini project), for example, while Pittsburgh sported Don Caballero, San Diego had Antioch Arrow and Drive Like Jehu, and Washington DC offered Shudder to Think and Jawbox. Other places had groups as well, such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Polvo and Louisville featured math rock/post-rock legends Slint, who released the classic album Spiderland in 1991. New York also sported math rock pioneers Chavez.

Math rock is closely related to post-rock, but starting around the mid-90s and especially prevalent come the new millennium, the two genres diverged; math rock is often more punk-influenced and disjointed, whereas post-rock leans more towards fluid soundscapes.

While uncommon time signatures are often a crucial part of math rock, they're not a required part of the genre. There are bands such as Minus the Bear who make music with standard time signatures, but still keep the irregular rhythms and angular guitar playing and melodies of the genre.

The genre is still alive today, with bands such as Hella, Tera Melos, Giraffes? Giraffes!, Lite, Knot Feeder, Sleeping People, June of 44, Rodan, The For Carnation, and probably a million other bands offering new music.

There is also a subgenre of math rock sometimes labelled as math pop; these bands take a more accessible approach to the genre, keeping its unusual time signatures and rhythms, but fusing them with more melodic songwriting, polished production, and clean vocals. These groups often draw inspiration from the arpeggiating guitar lines of midwest emo, the danceable rhythms of the 2000s Post-Punk revival, and/or the catchy songwriting of Indie Pop. A number of Japanese bands have also come out and fused this sound with J-rock. Bands labeled as math pop include TTNG, Foals, Everything Everything, Minus The Bear, and Tricot, among others.

Bands that are generally considered to be math rock include:

Tropes Common In Math Rock:

  • Epic Rocking: Not uncommon in the genre- "Washer" and "Good Morning Captain" by Slint are good examples (8:50 and 7:40, respectively). Some bands (Rodan, Polvo, A Minor Forest, and Don Caballero to name a few) have songs that go over the ten minute mark.
  • Harsh Vocals: When bands even have vocals at all, it's not uncommon for them to alternate between screaming or shouting and Perishing Alt-Rock Voice and spoken passages.
  • Indecipherable Lyrics: Common.
  • Instrumentals: Many bands have at least a few of these, and some (such as Don Caballero) are basically completely instrumental.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Very short songs or song fragments are common. Sometimes on the same albums as the very long ones. Shorter songs tend to be Hardcore Punk-influenced.
  • Non-Appearing Title: In contrast to the technical nature of the music, math rock bands often give their songs titles that are long, absurd or humorous, or are out-of-context quotes from a television show or movie, and which do not appear anywhere in the lyrics. Don Caballero and Minus the Bear did this regularly, giving their songs titles like Minus the Bear's "Damn Bugs Whacked Him, Johnny" and "Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse" and Don Caballero's "In the Absence of Strong Evidence to the Contrary, One May Step Out of the Way of the Charging Bull" and "Let's Face It Pal, You Didn't Need That Eye Surgery".
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: Common in the genre, but not universal.
  • Post-Hardcore: Often considered to be either a subgenre or a derivative of this, so there's considerable overlap between the two genres.
  • Post-Rock: The other genre it often overlaps with. Slint in particular are a good example of a band who qualify as both, and there several others.
  • Spoken Word in Music: Another common vocal approach. Spiderland by Slint has several good examples, as does Rusty by Rodan, and many other bands have followed suit.
  • Subdued Section: A common dynamic device in the genre. Some songs have more than one!
  • Trope Codifier: Probably Slint, particularly Spiderland. However, Shellac, Crain, Rodan, Polvo, and Chavez did a lot to cement the concept of the genre in the Indie Rock fanbase's minds as well.
  • Uncommon Time: Very common, to the point of being considered a defining characteristic of the genre. This video is a great example of this trope.
  • Ur-Example: NoMeansNo are an obvious antecedent to the genre, but aren't usually considered part of it proper, and predate bands like Slint, Crain, Dazzling Killmen, and Bastro by a number of years.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Frequently.